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08 March 2011


Drawing in Perspective

Ghiberti, Detail from the East Doors of the Florentine Baptistery
Arguably, the single greatest invention of the Renaissance in art was linear perspective. In place of the naïve, if fascinating, medieval approximation of perspectival space, Brunelleschi (scholarship has repeatedly pointed back to him for this) discovered a method—which the ancients themselves did not possess—of documenting the three-dimensional world accurately on a two-dimensional surface. His great rival Ghiberti learned the inventor’s lesson and applied it to his eastern doors to the Baptistry: the famous Gates of Paradise, seen from precisely the same vantage point as the renowned (if lost) painting of the Baptistery with which Brunelleschi displayed his discovery, present a series of scenes that apply the technique to the complex world of relief. From Alberti’s treatise On Painting—two of the three books of which are primarily concerned with delineating form and space in perspective—perspective, along with basic anatomy, defined the grounding upon which all Old Masters would construct their fictive worlds.

Piranesi's Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta
If there was any skill once so essential that is now almost lost again, it is this. Virtually no architect trained in the last decade or so has any command of perspective drawing, owed largely to the computer’s insidious overtaking of the entire design process. For all of the wonders the computer can do in perspective—not unlike the calculations on the calculator it would be tedious to do by hand—the architect who relies on the software’s ability to generate perspective surrenders his or her own capacity to invent—not document, but create—perspectival space. Make no mistake, Sketch-Up does not sketch, and Piranesi™ is no designer: software only processes data fed into it, and the data perforce is only parameters, not Space.

Lost in the translation to software is also the architect’s capacity to learn on site by drawing; when perspective is a struggle, and therefore an impediment to drawing, a fruitful loop (yes, a pun) of exchange between invention-study-invention is closed.

Sadly a lost art with architects, perspective has performed only a marginal role with the burgeoning revival of training in realist painting. Since realists only document what they see, they do not need the skills of documenting imaginary space (nor imaginary, idealized figures), and require just enough grounding in perspective to accurately locate horizon lines and vanishing points. In fact, most realist figurative art today involves only notional space, just enough credible context to ground a figure or a still life. But just as Pietro Bellori’s critique of Caravaggio was that he was a slave to the model, so too an artist without command of perspective is slave to the phenomenal world, especially today a rather banal one (thanks to the architects).

Perspective construction is tedious, and remains so even after mastery. What makes an artist or architect facile with it is enough experience with the tedium to have fully absorbed its basics, its fundamental logic, so that fluency of perspective thinking is possible. It might be fun to fly around in a virtual space generated by software, but it is no substitute for the release of the imagination afforded by Brunelleschi’s gift.

Sketch for a capriccio