- The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe
Samuel Edgerton’s latest book refines and extends his argument about the importance of linear perspective for nothing less than the rise of modern science, the discovery of the New World, and the successful mission to the moon in 1969. He first emphasized the importance of linear perspective for the development of modern science more than thirty years ago in his The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective (Basic Books, 1975), echoing a thesis that had been articulated by other art historians, including Erwin Panofsky and William Ivins. Although Edgerton himself has refined his thesis in books and articles over the past three decades, his most recent book was motivated by a “concern that the subject of perspective in the arts has fallen victim to a new wave of art criticism that no longer considers it a positive idea” (p. xiv).
Edgerton argues that Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated linear perspective within the deeply religious context of early fifteenth-century Florence. Brunelleschi’s early paintings had a profound impact on his contemporaries, most notably Leon Battista Alberti, who codified Brunelleschi’s innovations. Through his use of the window metaphor, Alberti began to shift the meaning of perspective from its religious and spiritual context into a secular and moral one. Finally, Edgerton claims that linear perspective encouraged a secularized understanding of space that laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution. This new understanding of space was most evident in Galileo Galilei’s use of the telescope to observe the moon and depict its topography.
Looking again at Giotto de Bondone’s Assisi and his Arena Chapel frescoes, Edgerton argues that these need to be understood not as precursors to later perspective paintings or attempts to represent real life but as devotional tools. These frescoes were efforts to memorialize and extend the impact of the Christian miracle plays. Giotto’s frescoes were objects for reflection and meditation. Rather than find an artistic connection between Giotto and fifteenth-century Florentine artists, Edgerton argues for an intellectual source in medieval thinkers, especially Roger Bacon and Peter of Limoges, who understood both geometry and the medieval science of optics as important tools in the Christian hopes of recovering the Holy Land and converting infidels. Bacon’s work, especially De multiplicatione specierum, was widely discussed in early fifteenth-century Florence. The most influential religious leader, [End Page 383] the Dominican priest Antonino Pierozzi, was deeply influenced by Bacon’s arguments about the applicability of perspective for encouraging proper worship. His sermons on the nature of sin and salvation are replete with optical metaphors and analogies.
According to Edgerton, Brunelleschi’s efforts to develop linear perspective only make sense within this religious context and the moralized theories of vision that were pervasive in Florence at the time. Brunelleschi drilled a hole through the center of his first perspective painting and instructed his audience to look through it at the painting’s reflection in a mirror to provide a visual confirmation of Paul the Apostle’s claim about spiritual vision in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Edgerton analyzes works by Masaccio, Donatello, and Fra Angelico to show how Brunelleschi’s rules of perspective quickly spread through the Florentine artists.
In 1435 Alberti codified Brunelleschi’s rules in his own De pictura. Alberti simplified the mathematics by replacing Brunelleschi’s mirror with a gridded window. The artist looked through the window and copied the contents of each square of the grid onto his canvas. Edgerton argues that this shift away from the mirror began the process of secularizing perspective. No longer did the artist or the viewer of the final painting look at a mirror image of the world but viewed the real world disciplined by the rules of geometry and perspective. Alberti’s window had not...