It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Saturday, December 31, 2011

John White: Uccello and Leonardo

(this is chapter 14 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Paolo Uccello, Leonardo da Vinci:, and the
Development of Synthetic Perspective

The triumphal progress of artificial perspective in fifteenth century Italian art is of such absorbing interest, and the conquest is seemingly so complete, that attention is often completely distracted from the quiet continuation of that stream of development which is so fundamental to the fourteenth century. The current of ideas which unites Cavallini and Giotto, Maso and Ambrogio Lorenzetti; the slowly developing conception of pictorial truth to nature which Brunelleschi wished to respect in his perspective panels; all this does not die. It is no longer the main stream. None the less, it still flows on beside the swift current of the new ideas, and again becomes a torrent itself from the seventeenth century onwards. It is therefore essential, both for the study of renaissance art itself and for the understanding of subsequent history, that this continuing development be given its due emphasis.

This is a curious paragraph because it has to reconcile the "triumphant progress of artificial perspective" with the fact that it was diverted from the main stream.

Can we really equate whatever "current of ideas which unites Cavallini and Giotto etc" with "the slowly developing conception of pictorial truth to nature which Brunelleschi wished to respect in his perspective panels" ?

N.K. Smith doubted that Brunelleschi ever had any such conception beyond the specific relationship about church and state that he wanted to suggest, and doubts would be even greater regarding the surviving paintings by other artists, where truth to nature is always getting trumped by other concerns.

And as White demonstrated in the previous chapter, illusionism is not the same as representational accuracy.

The surviving power of the old ideas is to be seen in the continued popularity of the oblique setting of architecture with artists, such as Lorenzo Monaco, who cover the turn of the century. The setting was seen in Masaccio’s early work; Ghiberti’s first doors are dominated by it. In Fra Angelico’s painting the peak is reached in the predella panels of the Linaiuoli Madonna of 1433, and the setting continues to be important throughout his life. It is, however, in the work of Paolo Uccello that the most interesting developments take place.

‘Oh what a sweet thing this perspective is,’ cries out the aged artist, working through the night.’ Ever since Vasari fixed Uccello’s character with an easy flow of similar anecdotes and reputed sayings, his name has been almost a synonym for the new science. In spite of this, the nature of Uccello’s interest in perspective still remains surprisingly obscure; an obtrusively precise question to which many vaguely unsatisfactory answers have been given.

(Norris K. Smith discusses Uccello here )

The complexity of the task of discovering Uccello’s own approach to artificial perspective is admirably illustrated by the simple seeming predella of ‘The Profanation of the Host’. This work, which he seems to have painted towards the end of his life, consists of six scenes of which the most interesting is possibly that of ‘The Attempt to Destroy the Host’

The composition of this scene, as it now is, appears to be, not the first, but probably at least the third design considered by the artist.This is shown by a complex series of still partially visible incisions... The finished composition, like that of ‘The Redemption of the Cloak’, contains a fully elaborated system of proportion reminiscent of that in Piero della Francesca’s small panel of ‘The Flagellation’.

The opening of the room itself is square, its width being equal to the total height of the panel. The width of the remainder of the scene, measured along the horizontal centre line, is half the side of this main square. The width of the visible section of the back wall, and that of the right side wall, are both equal to the vertical distance covered by the floor, and just exceed that taken up by the ceiling. This same unit marks the distance between the front of the left wall and the right-hand edge of the communicating door, and between the ceiling and the horizontal band of the chimney, whilst it just exceeds the interval between the band and the floor. The chimney itself also divides the back wall in a two to one ratio, repeating in reverse direction the ratio between the room square and the scene as a whole.

Apart from this system of proportion, a very complete series of linear coincidences creates a network which is essentially an architectural variant of the web which governs the relationships between the figures in the Arena Chapel. The rear, inner corner of the room lies on the diagonal which runs from the forward, lower righthand corner, through the distance point, exactly to the forward, upper left-hand corner. This line is emphasized in the construction by the clear, incised diagonal on the floor.

The above sentence has me puzzled.

The distance point is way off to the right, half-way up at the the edge of ornamental frame.

But I can see the rest of it.

Similarly, the other diagonal on the surface, which joins the lower left- and upper righthand corners of the forward opening of the room, passes exactly through the corner which is the meeting point of the ceiling and the back and left walls. This line too is marked by the remnants of an incision visible between the head of the man and that of the elder child. A similar incision points to the existence of a straight line running from the forward left-hand lower corner of the room through the point at which the panel’s indented, horizontal centre line runs into the chimney piece, and on to the further of the upper corners of the door on the right.

I sure can't find this line either.

This little composition therefore seems to be an almost unique case in which incisions, sometimes fragmentary, and sometimes more complete, actually mark out compositional correspondences, as opposed to indicating merely the structural guiding lines of the architecture.

Unfortunately, these incisions cannot be seen in the reproductions.

But what does this, or any of White's comments about this piece, have to do with the history of pictorial space?

The problem of Uccello’s approach to perspective design is matched by the problem of his attitude towards perspective realism. In this connection the fresco of ‘The Flood’ , which is one of Uccello’s most majestic compositions, is of particular importance. It is a singular fact that in this scene, which has been shown to be connected with Alberti’s descriptions of ideal pictures, the Albertian perspective is not used. The two great wooden structures vanish to two separate points. The focus of the ark upon the right lies well inside the boundaries of the long, foreshortened, wooden wall upon the left. The ladder, and most of the other objects, recede towards the vanishing point belonging to the left-hand ark and lying in the distant, 1ight coloured line of hills. The ladder is particularly interesting, since it does not merely recede into the background. Its rungs converge as well, running towards a vanishing point that lies out to the left, beyond the confines of the scene, and on a level just above that of the waterline of the ark. But this lateral convergence is not confined to the small detail of the ladder’s rungs. It is an obvious feature of both arks themselves. The horizontal timbers at the waterline run visibly up and outwards; those above them, out and down.

The latter feature is less noticeable at first, because the timbers are cut off much sooner by the curve of the lunette, and there is no straight, level base-line for comparison. In either case the convergence, which is not accurately carried out towards unified focal points, is into a general area that lies a good deal higher than the vanishing point of the rungs of the ladder, which lies nearer to the centre of the scene. The resulting pattern closely resembles that shown diagrammatically in figure 2-C, and discussed in relation to the works of Maso di Banco and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

This fresco, which Uccello painted long after he had mastered the principles of artificial perspective, is no mere exercise in the Albertian method. Instead, it incorporates certain features of the system, notably the use of vanishing points, in a composition which carefully acknowledges the phenomena that accompany the turning of the head and eyes of artist and of onlooker alike. Uccello is returning to the visual truth which Giotto recognized, and is trying to develop it compositionally. It must, moreover, be remembered that these experiments, still visible in the present ghost-like ruin, must have leapt to the acutely critical eye of the Florentine connoisseur when the fresco was first unveiled in all its freshness.

Was the use of separate vanishing points a "return to visual truth" -- or was it used to create a disturbing effect appropriate for the cataclysm being depicted ?

In the fresco of ‘The Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds’ Uccello tries a different solution to the problem of uniting artificial perspective with those observations of the detailed appearances of reality that are made by the ranging eye of the observer. Here a single series of transversals runs from one side of the composition to the other, whilst the orthogonals of the pavement recede, not to a central vanishing point, but outwards from the centre towards two separate focuses on the wings. It is as if the adjacent balves of two entire Albertian constructions lying side by side had been incorporated in a single composition.

In addition to the complexity of the ground plan, it is noticeable that the cross-bars of the stable roof, the vanishing point of which lies on the right, slope down towards the left. The continuous horizontals of the floor have been combined with an obliquely set, if not an actually bifocal building. The stable is in fact no typical artificial perspective construction. Finally, the whole design is drawn together by the figures of the Virgin and Child. The central lacing of the main subject interest counterbalances the centrifugal flight of all the structural receding lines, and also masks the point at which the orthogonals of the two systems would otherwise meet in irreconcilable conflict.
The effect of this ingenious complexity is to express the continuous shifting of the ‘vanishing points’ that occurs as the eyes are turned to look at nature. There is the central focus of the figure of the Virgin. Then, if attention is diverted to the left or right, the eye flows with the converging orthogonals to a new focus. Where one looks, there is the centre of the visual world. The mathematical logic of measurement, characteristic of the new artificial perspective construction, is combined with a vision which essentially develops that of the wedgeshaped buildings of ‘The Legend of St. Francis’ at Assisi, past which the eye slides out to left and right into the distance. Here, however, the new sense of space expressed in the perspective revolution of the fifteenth century has dissolved the solid central core.

White's book does not include an image of this painting, and I can't find anything like it on Wikimedia or Google.

Hopefully, someday, someone will send me an image.

Ideas similar to those expressed in the fresco of ‘The Nativity, and Annunciation to the Shepherds’ are set forth with immeasurably greater subtlety in the late panel painting of ‘The Hunt’ which is so close in figure style to the predella at Urbino. The mathematical division of the composition, present in the latter, as well as in the fresco which has just been discussed, is here presented with new softness.’ The unity of the scene is magisterially expressed by the myriad figures spiralling in unending chase towards the distant centre of a moonlit galaxy. The mathematical expression of this unity in the orthogonals of the fallen tree trunks seems hardly to be necessary. Once again new centres form as the attention shifts. In each of the two main outer compartments formed by the nearer trees, the placing of the more distant trunks is carefully calculated so that, instead of leading the eye across to the centre of the panel, they form a new focus of their own within the confines of the smaller unit. This tendency is accentuated by the opening out of the foreground figures to allow the eye to be attracted towards these secondary centres by small, distant forms. In the compartment on the left the effect is nothing less than startling in its intensity. Similarly on the extreme wings of the design the relation of the foreground trees to those beyond encourages the eye to venture outwards. In this composition, where no architecture intervenes with its rectangular bulk, the harmony between perspective unity and the natural roaming of the eye becomes complete.

If White thinks this painting was divided mathematically, he should tell us what numbers were used. Otherwise, we can assume the proportions were done visually.

Regarding centres of attention, I realize that this has been a customary concern of art historians.

But my attention goes wherever I put it -- and as the above details suggest,
it is rewarded just about everywhere in this painting.

Seen in this light, Uccello’s passion for perspective becomes a much more interesting and understandable thing. He was not merely elaborating ever more complex applications of the theory of artificial perspective, like some old and fuddled schoolmaster muttering theorems to himself long after the class has run away. He was inquiring into the nature and validity of the new method, and weighing it against his experience of the natural world. Brunelleschi himself apparently felt the contradiction of the evidence of his eyes which seemed to be entailed in his new system. Uccello was trying to eradicate this flaw, this apparent element of convention and, as many must at first have seen it, of untruth. Vasari, in his supreme self confidence, had no longer any inkling of the existence of such problems. But to thoughtful men schooled in the vision of the fourteenth century, proud of the acuteness of their eye and of their faithfulness to it, acceptance of the new idea must often have come gradually, and sometimes with misgivings. Uccello’s over-preoccupation with perspective, and his minutely calculated constructions become compatible with his real artistic stature when it is seen that he was fighting with a genuine and fundamental problem. In certain compositions he was busily increasing his knowledge of the powers of artificial perspective; in others he was shaking its foundations.

It is one thing to note that Uccello was not applying a one-point perspective. For that, there is ample evidence. But it is quite another thing to say that "he was fighting with a genuine and fundamental problem". For that, there is no evidence whatsoever.

White's discussion of Uccello resembles a term paper in Art History 101, i.e. no specific insights are being offered, only the application of current, standard academic language to assert that an iconic artist deserves his "artistic stature".

And perhaps it still is important to assert that Uccello deserves credit as an artist, as well as an amateur mathematician.

These conclusions are strongly supported by Vasari’s description of a lost decorative scheme in Sta. Maria Maggiore. This contained, amongst other things, some columns which ran’ upwards into the curved area of the vault, but which were so designed that they appeared to be straight throughout their length, and therefore to break through, or to abolish, the actual curve of the vault"

No comment will be made concerning works which no longer exist.


Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo’s contributions to the theory of artificial perspective itself are relatively small. His principal interests seem on the one hand to have been the philosophical implications of the system as a reflection of the universal harmony, with marked emphasis upon its consequent usefulness in helping the painter up the social ladder, and on the other the investigation of its technical weaknesses. This probing led him to evolve the complete perspective theory towards which Uccello and his fourteenth-century forerunners had been making the first groping movements. This is his real, and outstanding contribution to the evolution of perspective theory, and it is only through a long series of misfortunes that his achievement has been obscured.

....Leonardo’s method entailed foreshortening not only into the picture plane, but horizontally and vertically across it, and this is only possible in a system based on curves instead of on the straight lines used in artificial perspective and its forerunners. Such a system represents an attempt to translate the natural perspective of the Renaissance or the optics of antiquity, which were quite unconcerned with representational problems, into the field of art. It entails the transference of the subjective appearances of the real world, conditioned partly by physical, and partly by psychological limitations, on to a plane surface. This is done by the projection on to it of proportions obtained on an intersection of the visual cone by a spherical surface concave to the eye

The four main characteristics of such a perspective are: (a) All straight lines not passing through the point on the plane surface nearest to the eye are given a curvilinear distortion. (b) There is foreshortening and increasing distortion of objects in all directions from this point, vertically, horizontally, or longitudinally, with no tendency to stress the plane surface. (c) This point coincides with the main vanishing point, towards which all orthogonals converge in straight lines. (d) The size of objects is dependent on the visual angle and does
not diminish in direct proportion to the distance, the discrepancy being greatest for wide angles. The result is a spherical space which is homogeneous, but by no means simple, and which possesses some of the qualities of Einstein’s finite infinity.

This ‘perspectiva naturalis in usum artificum’, which will be referred to as synthetic perspective, was, as has been seen, the goal of many earlier Italian artists. None of them had, however, been prepared to take the final step of bending straight lines into the curves implied by their compositions as a whole, and so achieving a homogeneous system of construction similar in that respect to artificial perspective itself. Only in the curvilinear designs of Jean Fouquet is the essential element of a synthetic system consistently foreshadowed, although there is, as yet, no evidence that Leonardo was influenced by such empirical developments in the north. He seems to have evolved the general theory out of his preoccupation with a particular problem. The one definite point of contact with his predecessors seems, not unexpectedly, to have been through Paolo Uccello, who was still alive when Leonardo had reached his early twenties.

Not only does White's discussion involve no paintings - but it also involves no actual historic text, since Leonardo's book and his preparatory notes no longer exist.

So this is mostly a speculative tribute to the prototype of the artist/scientist befitting the union of art and science within the modern university -- leading to White's predictable conclusion that : "Leonardo's researches into perspective theory were more revolutionary than is usually realized"

With the creation of a theory of synthetic perspective that part of the historical drama of the Italian renaissance which is the subject of this study draws to a close. It has been seen as a continuing tension between the artist’s desire to portray the world of space in which he lives and his feeling for the individuality, and essential flatness, of the surface upon which he works.

Yes, that has been White's theme, achieved by ignoring all the narrative dimension of these pieces.

Sometimes the one, sometimes the other, seemed to be the more important. Sometimes the destruction of the surface was attempted. Sometimes the demands of realism were ignored. Often, out of the shifting materials of imagination, experience, and tradition, balance was achieved; always a new balance, and a new beauty. Out of this living pattern not one, but two main systems were evolved, which found their full expression in the theories of artificial, and of synthetic perspective.

As White has applied these terms, the only difference that I can find between these two "main systems" is that artificial perspective uses one point, while the various kinds of synthetic perspective use more.

We might also note that White tells us that the "full expression" of these systems is found in the theories, rather than the paintings.

The stream of development surged first in the one direction, then in the other; sometimes stagnated; sometimes separated; and, as often, flowed together once again.
The issues raised and the attitudes revealed seem fundamental to an understanding of Italian renaissance art. In forms altered by the historical and geographical circumstances, they also appear to have close parallels in other countries and at other times. The example which is nearest, both in time and space, is that of French art in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There, in miniature, shorn of all extraneous detail, the story is retold with a Gallic clarity of contour that at once intensifies the meaning, and extends the scope, of the Italian narrative.

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