Leon Battista Alberti's text, On Painting, is a key primary source for understanding the development of one-point perspective in Renaissance Italy. Alberti wrote it in Latin as De Pictura in 1435 and translated it to Italian as Della Pittura in 1436. The assigned reading selection (pages 54–58) is admittedly technical, but it demonstrates how artists learned to structure their compositions to create a convincing three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. Use this assignment in the art history survey course when you discuss early 15th-century art in Italy.
- Students will be able to understand and apply Alberti's methods to Italian Renaissance art.
- Students will recognize deviations from these methods later in the semester.
Activities and Instruction
Assign the excerpt from Alberti, and have students come to class ready to discuss and apply it. Begin this lesson with a review of earlier attempts to create logical space. Although examples survive from antiquity, it might work best to begin with the Byzantine world. The mosaic of Theodora and Her Attendants, from the church of San Vitale in Ravenna circa 547, is a good starting point (Stokstad 1999, 7–32). Ask students to analyze the composition of this mosaic. They should recognize that the frieze of figures stand in a limited setting across the foreground plane. The overlapping feet, indicating that Theodora stands slightly forward of the rest, are the only real attempt at representing space.
From here you can show Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, circa 1310 (Stokstad 16–78). Students should note that Giotto uses a hierarchical scale. The Madonna is painted larger than the other figures because she's the most important figure in the painting. Call students' attention to the fact that in addition to the hierarchical scale, Giotto uses an intuitive perspective. He approximates the appearance of figures standing in front of other figures and those becoming smaller in the distance, although any sense of background is blocked by the flat gold ground. Giotto's contemporaries were content with these techniques. Developing the space further to render a more convincing three-dimensional reality wasn't necessary.
But artists and patrons in the 15th century had a greater interest in depicting the world around them in a recognizable and convincing fashion; hierarchical and intuitive systems were no longer appropriate. The Renaissance advocated an interest in learning and the arts and focused on the rise of the individual. Because this human-centered interest was so dominant, and because a new appreciation of the scientific study of the natural world was emerging, artists needed to portray their figures inside believable space.
Filippo Brunelleschi was the first to explore and develop a one-point perspective system. By showing students various works of art produced during the 1420s, you can demonstrate how many artists tried out his ideas. Yet it is important to point out that these ideas were not codified until 1435, when Brunelleschi's friend Alberti wrote On Painting. Remember, however, that the printing press was not invented until the 1450s by the German goldsmith Gutenberg. There wasn't a press in Florence until even later in the 15th century. Circulation of this theory had to be done on a limited scale through handwritten copies or word of mouth. The fact that these ideas spread so rapidly is an indication of the close-knit artist community in Florence during this time.
An excellent example of the main ideas behind Alberti's text is Figure 8 on page 55 of On Painting (another can be found in Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins, History of Italian Renaissance). Alberti wanted artists to create a window through which the viewer would see the actual world rendered in careful and believable perspective. To do this, artists pick a vanishing point, preferably in the center of the composition. Then they mark off units equivalent to one-third the height of a human figure if that figure were standing in the foreground. In the diagrams, the figure in the corner represents that foreground figure. Lines called orthogonals are then drawn from these marks to the vanishing point. Another space is sketched to the side, off the painting or relief, using the same measurements. Horizontal lines are then extended across to the original window. This allows artists to figure out how tall things should be when they are placed behind the foreground plane. In other words, if an object is three units high in the front, it's still three units high in the back, although the units have become proportionally smaller because that part of the scene is further away. This system let artists devise convincing compositions with accurately rendered spatial relationships.
Several artists who knew Brunelleschi and Alberti made paintings and sculptures in the 1420s and 1430s using this perspective system. This proves that the ideas were circulating in Florence before they were codified in Alberti's text. Use Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise (1425–1452), particularly the Isaac panel (Stokstad 17–39), or Masaccio's Trinity fresco (circa 1425, Stokstad 17–48), to demonstrate these ideas to students once they understand the basic concepts. Explain to students how the artist used the central point of the composition or the receding orthogonals to highlight important details of the iconography.
One-point perspective as a means to structure two-dimensional paintings and sculptural reliefs had a lasting impact on Western art. Indeed, until the late 19th century, this was the method employed by almost every artist: it is key that students understand this concept and can apply it at this point in the course.
Display slides of different works of art to drive these points home. Ask students to analyze their compositions according to Alberti's tenets. Give students a choice of presenting their analysis verbally or visually. The most representative paintings are Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano, additional panels from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, Donatello's Feast of Herod (Stokstad 17–40), Masaccio's Tribute Money (Stokstad 17–50), the anonymous Ideal City View, and Raphael's School of Athens (Stokstad 18–16). Make photocopies of these paintings and reliefs. Get students to use highlighters to diagram each one, label the parts as necessary, and analyze the resulting composition with these features in mind.
Later in the year, as you get to the late 19th century, be sure to point out the alternative perspective systems employed by new artists. Ask students to talk about these new systems and to analyze the reasons behind the change in composition that these systems represent.
Alberti, Leon Battista. 1991. On Painting, 54–58. Trans. Cecil Grayson. London: Penguin Books. (Or any edition, Book I, chapters 19–21.)
Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. 2003. History of Italian Renaissance Art. 5th ed., 275. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.
Stokstad, Marilyn, et al. 1999. Art History. Revised ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.