Linear Perspective’s position as a ‘tool’ for mapping spatial relationships on to a two-dimensional surface is very well established. Alberti’s codification of perspective sets it out clearly as a system of projection that defines the relationship between the eye, the picture plane and the external world. And despite more recent commentary regarding its broader cultural significance and veracity, what perspective is – its role and purpose for the artist – appears irrefutable.
Yet the very 15C paintings that are held by art historians to embody the new-found ‘rational’ knowledge of perspective also exhibit unique spatial/compositional qualities that cannot be readily accounted for. Yes – most of the elements within these paintings appear to be in correct ‘measurable’ relation to each other throughout the depth of the paintings – so much so that we can reconstruct the ‘real’ space depicted in, for instance, Piero’s Flagellation.
But it appears that along with Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, Leonardo, Piero was also controlling how those elements that are in the depth of the painting relate to each other on the surface of the painting. Why should this be, and the awkward question for art historians is, how could this be? It is not something that could be easily or readily achieved using the geometric methods described by Alberti. It would seem to indicate a method, a visual concern or approach amongst these artists that transcends the assumed intended purpose of linear perspective – the convincing illusion of three dimensions on the picture plane.
The key to unravelling this problem may lay in the fact that we habitually think of the trappings of linear perspective, particularly its geometry, solely as means to an end. We overlook the fact that flat geometric diagrams, including patterns and those diagrams used in perspective constructions, can themselves be suggestive of depth, can suggest imagery, can be inherently ambiguous, and can therefore, be visually and conceptually exciting for the artist. I would suggest, therefore, that in these depictions of architectural spaces we are, in fact, seeing the traces of a creative interplay between depth and flatness.
Harvard Citation Guide: Talbot, R. (2010) Perspective and Alberti, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 08 June 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].