History & Memory 17.1/2 (2005) 269-295
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The Vanishing Point of German History
An Essay on Perspective
Helmut Walser Smith
The purpose of a historian depends on his point of view.
When it comes to history, every student seems to understand that at the end of the day it is who has the Gatling gun and who has not that determines who tells the subsequent story and how. There is, nevertheless, a richer way of looking at historical perspective; it derives from perspective in painting, and more precisely from the intersection between modern historical thinking and the discovery of linear projection.
In his dedication of The Prince to Lorenzo de Medici, Niccolò Machiavelli hinted at this intersection. "Just as men who are sketching the landscape put themselves down in the plain to study the nature of the mountains and the highlands, and to study the low-lying land they put themselves high on the mountains, so," Machiavelli wrote in 1513, "to comprehend fully the nature of the people one must be a prince, and to comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen."1 The perspective of an observer outside the thing being observed, Machiavelli implies, is the precondition for comprehension. For Machiavelli, perspective had a particular, painterly resonance. Roughly a century earlier, Filippo Brunelleschi had conducted his famous experiments leading [End Page 269] to the discovery of linear perspective, which Leon Battista Alberti then systematized for the use of his fellow artists in his famous treatise, On Painting, published in 1436. The essential discovery is that from the perspective of a viewing eye, the lines of a three dimensional image on a flat plane converge in what Alberti called the "centric point."2 In English, in the course of the eighteenth century, this "sign," as Alberti also called it, became known as a "vanishing point."3 In mathematically precise fashion, it determined the relative size of all other objects on the canvas.
The vanishing point is good to think with—even if Alberti's rigid construction is not the only way that painters render perspective. Nevertheless, the vanishing point suggests that perspective generates as well as limits knowledge. It asks what point on the canvas is decisive for structuring the whole, and it suggests that this point structures in a strong sense. And it considers this point, and the composition of the canvas, "as arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God."4 Not the sanctity of every epoch, but the constant struggle between the material and the attempt of the historian to get a lock on it, rendering it visible, comprehensible and stable, is the crux of the problem.
Linear perspective is of course a metaphor, the use of one kind of thing to better understand another. As love is not a red, red rose, so history is not a Renaissance canvas with a vanishing point. But for the writing of history, the painterly metaphor is an old one, and if not merely a cliché it tells us something. When Voltaire, for example, compared his chapters of the Age of Louis XIV to "frescoes of the great events of the time," he added, revealingly: "the principal figures are in the foreground; the crowd is in the background. Woe to details!"5 Conversely, when the social historians of the 1960s and 1970s talked about widening the canvas, foregrounding the crowd and empathetically rendering the details of the everyday, old-school critics wondered where the center was now to be. They were not wrong to ask. When taken seriously, the painterly metaphor helps us consider the place of significant facts in a larger image; it allows us to see what is in the foreground and what placed out of view. It also enjoins us to consider these things from an analytical position that does not necessarily privilege our present perspective, or reduce perspective to a putative political ideology. Instead, the metaphor suggests that...