Pietro Perugino's use of perspective in this fresco at the Sistine Chapel (1481–82) helped bring the Renaissance to Rome

Do Your Eyes Fool You? Ancient Vision and a New Reality — How to See and Draw Like the Ancients

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From the beginning of time, those among us we now call artists have tried to capture in two dimensions what they saw of the real, three-dimensional world in which they lived. Almost from the very beginning, space, the immaterial stuff that envelops us, became the object of their fascination; how could they represent it? 

The creativity of the early Homo sapiens , allowed them, for the first time, to paint animals on irregular walls, using, for example, a depression to represent the prominent belly of a bison. The overlapping images of animals on a cavern wall allowed them to reproduce the top down vision, which a hunter might have seen from the top of a promontory, as they watched the plain below them.

Sahara, Tassilin’Ajjer, Jabarun. Shepherds and hunters.(-10 000 ?) Photo by Dominique Lajoux

Sahara, Tassilin’Ajjer, Jabarun. Shepherds and hunters.(-10 000 ?) Photo by Dominique Lajoux

Homo sapiens was not only a sculptor but was also able to sketch on a flat surface. For this they created special tools, anticipating the efforts needed to execute such designs.

Sahara. Iheren. (Between -3000 and -300). Photo by Gabriel Camps.

Sahara. Iheren. (Between -3000 and -300). Photo by Gabriel Camps.

So our ancestors manipulated abstract concepts such as space with great skill. Our view of the way they might have lived is in part shaped by the fact that they carried this baggage of such abstract and relational concepts.

It seems that this natural skill was several times lost to humanity. If, for example, we move forward on the timeline to the first “mother” cities of Mesopotamia around 5000 years ago, one finds they made no effort at all to represent physical space— at least, not that we have found thus far. For this we have to wait until the Hellenistic period when documented works begin to appear in the Mediterranean basin and also further east in China. It must be noted that social organization played a fundamental role in the aspirations of artists. The complexity of life developed together with appropriate techniques for the representation of space. In short, we can distinguish three main types of perspective: the Curvilinear, the Rectilinear and the Real. These three techniques coexisted over time.

The mosaic of Alexandria was probably a reproduction of Greek fresco (-400).

The mosaic of Alexandria was probably a reproduction of Greek fresco (-400). ( Public Domain )

Astronomy and Trigonomitry: The Curvilinear Perspective

This technique consists in using curves emanating from a single vanishing point. We first notice the Greeks used curves to construct temples whose columns curve outward towards their midpoint or zenith and are narrower or concave near ground level. We see this principle at work in some existing monuments such as Trajan’s Column, built in Rome in AD 107, that followed hidden rules of trigonometry.

The Column of Trajan, in Trajan's Forum, Rome

The Column of Trajan, in Trajan's Forum, Rome (Alvesgaspar/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

These principles of trigonometry were collected in AD 150 by Ptolemy in Alexandria, in the form of a "table of circular arcs" originally as used by astronomers.

The Column of Trajan; an observer sees the bottom and the top of the frieze under the same angle. (Diagram by Xavier Bolot

The Column of Trajan; an observer sees the bottom and the top of the frieze under the same angle. (Diagram by Xavier Bolot)

During the Renaissance, artists did not concern themselves with the principles of trigonometry, it was not really part of their training. Thus they were hampered by the fact that they could not define the fugitive curves which they observed when they viewed a landscape through a window. Artistic masters such as Brunelleschi and Alberti opted instead for an approximation known as rectilinear perspective, limiting their works to a narrow observational window.

15th century illustration from the Old French translation of William of Tyre's Histoire d'Outremer.

15th century illustration from the Old French translation of William of Tyre's Histoire d'Outremer. ( Public Domain )

However, many famous painters, from Fouquet (1420 - 14781) to Matisse (1869-1954), intuitively use a magnifying glass effect or a curvilinear perspective, without dwelling too much on any underlying theory.

The Young Sailor I, Oil on canvas. 99 x 77.5 cm. Private collection. Henri Matisse, 1906.

The Young Sailor I, Oil on canvas. 99 x 77.5 cm. Private collection. Henri Matisse, 1906. ( Public Domain )

 

By Royal Edict: The Rectilinear Perspective

Alberti, by representing here, in the same drawing, a view facing a grid on the left and profile view on the right, gives a method of constructing of the enlargement of squares when they are closer to the observer. (Diagram by Xavier Bolot)

Alberti, by representing here, in the same drawing, a view facing a grid on the left and profile view on the right, gives a method of constructing of the enlargement of squares when they are closer to the observer. (Diagram by Xavier Bolot)

The principle consists in saying that in a landscape everything converges to infinity towards a vanishing point from which start receding straight lines. The lines of equal magnification of the objects are also straight . This technique had the advantage of simplicity. It also avoided the magnifying glass effect that was too close to the raw reality.

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Myths & Legends

A vase-scene from about 410 BC. Nimrod/Herakles, wearing his fearsome lion skin headdress, spins Noah/Nereus around and looks him straight in the eye. Noah gets the message and grimaces, grasping his scepter, a symbol of his rule - soon to be displaced in the post-Flood world by Nimrod/Herakles, whose visage reveals a stern smirk.
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