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Filippo Brunelleschi, Renaissance Man and Father of 3-d Perspective

Updated on June 26, 2011

Filippo Brunelleschi, Renaissance Man and Father of 3-d Perspective

One day in the early 15th century, Filippo Brunelleschi could be seen walking the streets of Florence carrying a hand mirror and a painted panel he had recently completed. A painted panel was not unusual; the hand mirror was. No one seems to know the exact year of this strange outing but it was probably no later than 1420, and Brunelleschi thus no more than 43 years of age. The subject of the painting was the Florentine Baptistery and the open square on which it fronts. They were painted as though seen from a point just inside the door of the uncompleted Cathedral of the Santa Maria del Fiore, situated on the opposite side of the square and at that time still without its now-famous dome. On the face of his painting, at a carefully selected spot, the artist had placed a hole, a very tiny one, but opening wide enough at the back for a viewer to place an eye.At some point, which may or may not have been near the Baptistery, he invited passersby to peer through the back of the painting which was to be held with one hand, and to see the reflection of it in the mirror that was to be held with the other.

Who was Filippo Brunelleschi, and exactly what was he up to?

He was a Renaissance man, born at the beginning of that creative episode and a personification of it. It was a time when Italy was alive with burgeoning individuality, a commodity that he fairly radiated. From his monument in the Florence Cathedral, his countenance seems to reflect both a steely-eyed determination and audacity; the piercing gaze,a defensiveness and irascibility, all of which impressions are confirmed by the story of his1life.

As a youth, on his own insistence, he was trained as a goldsmith. A contemporary biographer reports that he later took care of business matters for soldiers, but offers few details. It was well documented, however, that he was engaged at times to recruit mercenaries from lands north of the Alps, his contribution to Florence's numerous wars against her sister city-states of Italy. This could have been a thankless and frustrating task at times, as these soldier-businessmen were often known to change sides in mid-war when the price was right.

He is best known for the construction and placement of the majestic dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral from which he had earlier painted his panel. Its prominence is such that it is often referred to in this city of cathedrals, as the Florence Cathedral, or just as often, simply as "the Cathedral." Its towering dome, for almost six hundred years now, has dominated the entire city and seems as permanent as the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside.The sacred structure it adorns is Brunelleschi's final resting place, but there are additional monuments to him remaining, namely, no less than six other of his architectural works.

They include some of the most famed landmarks on the city's fabled skyline, their names resounding with the aura of Renaissance Florence: the Pazzi Chapel at Santa Croce with its sculpted tomb of Michelangelo and those of a bevy of other renowned artists and scientists; the Santo Spirito; the Palazzo Pitti, the famed "Pitti Palace," one of the two finest art museums in a city exploding with them; the Foundling Hospital; the rotunda of the Santa Maria degli Angeli; and the Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo district. To his credit also are at least four other once-historic structures that no longer exist, and a number of fine sculptures executed in silver, bronze or wood. As artist, sculptor, engineer, or architect, his prodigious output in every creative field to which he turned bore the mark of his genius.

Not all of his projects ended well, however. In1421,during a conflict with the City of Lucca, he persuaded his fellow townsmen to change the course of a small river in the vicinity on the promise that it would flood the enemy camp. The scheme backfired and inundated only the Florentines. Even Renaissance men cannot be masters of all trades. Nonetheless, he seems to have tried.

From all accounts, he was also a precursor of the prima donna, with an ego and a craving for praise and recognition more often associated with some opera singers of later centuries. He is not known to have exhibited an excess of modesty, nor was he above feigning illness or perpetrating other chicanery to achieve his purpose.By his contemporary biographers he seems to have been much admired, but vanity, arrogance and a callous disdain, if not contempt, for his competitors all simmer between the lines of their accounts,and often in his own utterances. At the ripe age of 57 he was sentenced to prison for hisrefusal to pay taxes to the Guild of Stonemasons and Woodcutters, and was freed only through the intervention of officials of the cathedral.

So much for his temperament. Whatwas he doing on a public street carrying a painting with a hole and a hand-held mirror?

He was exhibiting in dramatic fashion to anyone who would look, a new way of painting, a new way of representing a three dimensional world on a flat surface, a new conception of space; and he wanted his fellow citizens to understand just how amazing his discovery was. But even he may have grossly underestimated the magnitude of his accomplishment. According to contemporary accounts, those who first saw it did indeed marvel at how precisely the painting resembled the scene in life that it represented. Those who have written about it in later years have marveled even more at the revolutionary nature of this new style of representation and the dramatic impact it has had on thehistory of art in the Western world. But they too may have underrated it.

There was an earlier painting by Brunelleschi, also in rigorous three dimensional perspective. This was the front of the Palazzo della Signoria, with one of its defining sides receding at obtuse angles into the distance. Sadly, both of these three dimensional panels have been lost.

The impact of three dimensional perspective has extended far beyond art. It made possible the genre known as landscape painting as we know it today, painting that has as its purpose the reflection of nature's beauty entirely for its own sake rather than as background for human activities or human thoughts or spiritual beliefs. It heralded a new mentality, an all-encompassing perception of beauty,and a different conception of nature than had ever existed. Some few artists were perhaps the first to see this beauty in the entirety of a broad vista and, through the windows of their canvases, to reveal it to countless others who had never before experienced it. And it was only when nature was so revealed that humanity began in earnest to investigate its mysteries. But in the early 15th century,true landscape was still a hundred years or so in thefuture, and fully developed scientific inquiry, and the harnessing o fnature's resources, over three hundred years away.

This portrayal of depth in art was the first occurrence of its kind since classical Roman times, but also its first appearance in its fully developed, geometrically controlled form. It quickly became known as three dimensional perspective or, more often, simply as perspective, the term being understood to apply only to the illusion of depth. In the Western world it soon became,at least until the 20th century, the universal method of scenic portrayal.

But what is so remarkable about three dimensional paintings? They are dashed out today by every street-corner artist and amateur. Why· should they not be? Have not humans always seen the world in three dimensions? And if so, why have they not always represented this depth in art?

Yes, we have always seen the world in three dimensions. From the time that humans first walked the earth, our vision has been three dimensional, an inheritance from our more primitive ancestors. We have been able, that is, to judge depth; to see which objects were closer to or further away from ourselves than others. Not only humans; but all primates, most other mammals, all birds and lizards, and many other reptiles and insects and other creatures have this innate ability to judge distance. The human ocular apparatus has, in all probability, changed very little if at all in the several million years of various specimens of human life. The earliest humans and other species were, to a near certainty, able to see and to rely, even without conscious thought, on the same clues as do we to judge depth.

The most important clue is the convergence of sightlines in the distance. The sides of a path or road seem to gradually come together as we gaze down its faraway reaches, though we realize they do not. Objects in the distance look smaller than objects of similar size that are closer, though we likewise know better. Objects further away, even if on the same flat plain or on the open sea, seem higher in our visual field than those that are nearby, though, again, we know otherwise. The same illusion causes birds or clouds in the distant sky to appear lower in our field of vision than do those less far, even though we may know they are at' the same height above ground. It is this phenomenon that causes the sky to seem to meet the earth along that illusionary line we call the horizon. Objects in the distance, even large ones, may be largely obscured by very small ones that are near to us. We will know, however, that the hidden part is there, and will often be able to envision it. The world as we see it is largely illusionary, and,consciously or otherwise, we are aware of the fact.·

Humans, though probably no other creatures, derive aesthetic pleasure from these relationships. The smallness of the house on the distant hillside, the diminishing size of trees and rocks on the high reaches of tall mountains, the pond showing a mere sliver of an inviting shore from behind the lush greenery of a dense forest, all arrest our attention. For until we are, for compelling reason, focused on a single feature, upon encounter with a new environment we are drawn most often to the entire vista,not to the single object. What gives us aesthetic pleasure is not so much the single hill, the isolated grove of trees, nor the lone house in the distance, but the relationship between them and their surroundings. We find beauty in the.illusions.


Much of this essay is taken, with some changes, from the first chapter of the author's book “Vanishing Points: Three Dimensional Perspective in Art and history.” The subject is also covered in his other two related volumes, “Faces: The Changing Look of Humankind,” and “Evolution and Empathy: The Genetic Factor in the Rise of Humanism” The latter is also available on Kindle.

Why is 3-d perspective in art such a relatively recent thing? An abbreviated version of his opinion is contained in his essays in Hub Pages under the headings of “3-d Perspective and the Right Cerebral Hemisphere,” and “The Remarkable Researches of Hans-Joachim Hufschmidt.” Anyone interested is invited to look at those essays.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      he was born around 1377-1446


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