Experimenting with Perspective …

Experimenting with Perspective. Particular Relationships between the Image and the Mind

by Andrea Casale

38° Convegno Internazionale dei Docenti delle Discipline della Rappresentazione – XIII Congresso Unione Italiana per il Disegno – The reasons of drawing – Focus 1 – The reasons of drawing an instrument of study and approach to knowledge – 2016, Sept.


In his treatise De ProspectivaPingendi (1470–80), Piero della Francesca demonstrates the geometrical relationship between object, image, and observer. This is the definitive treatise on an intellectual process that, starting at the beginning of the 1400s, gave a sensible form to Renaissance philosophy (Cusano and Ficino). In the Prospectiva, three principles can be distinguished that show how perspective is the manifestation of a wholly unique experience in the history of thought.Firstly, perspective is demonstrated as a thought practice. Secondly, it demonstrates the possibility of representing reality on a surface. Thirdly, it confirms that what is represented should be accepted as real in virtue of the first two principles.

However, the third principle leads to a debate on the motives of art themselves. Is its job to create an illusion or to represent an allusion, to create a trick or a metaphor, to represent reality or truth?

During the Renaissance, the dichotomy between representing reality as a faithful reproduction of an event and representing truth as the result of an intellectual process assumed an absolutely particular meaning, inviting a distinction and attitude that would characterise the history of Western art. This duality was clearly expressed by one of the fathers of aesthetics, the German historian J. J. Winckelmann (1717–1768): “The imitation of beauty in nature is either directed at a single model or involves the collection of observations from various models and unifies them. The former means making a close copy, a portrait…The latter is the way to discover what is generally beautiful and to make ideal images of it, and is the path that the Greeks took”[1].

We cannot agree with E. Gombrich when he writes, “One cannot insist enough that the art of perspective aims at a correct equation. It wants the image to appearlike the object and the object like the image”[2]. At the same time, N. Goodman is convincing when he states, “a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it; and that no degree of resemblance is sufficient to establish the requisite relationship of reference…A picture that represents…an object refers to,and more particularly, denotes it”[3].

The representation of reality or truth therefore proposes two very distinct paths. The representation of reality aims to satisfy the requirements of perception, while the representation of truth refers to the intellectual operation that, from the reality of an event through to abstraction, identifies the elements, concepts, and artistic expression. It therefore refers to the experimental demonstration of what was formulated theoretically.

Referring to what J. J. Gibson wrote in Dallo scarabocchio al cinema[4], perception is the process through which the individual comes to know something. Perception can be direct, when we are aware of something, or indirect, when we are informed about something. Among indirect perceptions that inform us, we have words, images, and, in general, models that replace the object or the event.

It follows that the substitute model is a stimulus generated by an individual in order to inform another individual. It is specific, and exists in a one-to-one relationship between the substitute model and the object or event it refers to. It is artificial; the stimulus produced by the substitute model influences the sense organs differently from the actual object or event.The stimulated individual reacts to the substitute model, not to the object or event.

According to the value of abstraction of the substitute model, the model itself is more or less conventional.The word tree is a substitute model. Its degree of abstraction has a high level of conventionality. In fact, it is understood only by people who know English. A photograph of a tree has a low degree of abstraction corresponding to a low level of conventionality. Its degree of understanding is high; practically everyone understands it.

The higher the degree of conventionality, the more the model requires syntactic and semantic rules that determine the correct system of understanding and use. It should therefore be learned. The lower the degree of conventionality, the more the model is similar to the object or event, and less needs to be learned because the perception is more similar to the recognisable characteristics of the object or event.

From this we see that when the model refers to reality, it aims to realise a low degree of conventionality. On the contrary, referring to the truth means referring to a high degree of conventionality.The models of reality and truth therefore run along two different parallel paths that demand different analyses because their scope is different.


The Representation of Reality

From what we have said, in order to create the illusion, the systems of information acquisition should be satisfied in a way that is most similar to the natural conditions of perception. We can distinguish five levels of perception active in acquiring visual information: 1) the optical apparatus; 2) the eye’s orientation due to the orbital muscles; 3) the two eyes together,which generate binocular acquisition; 4) the head’s orientation; and 5) the movement of the body on which the head rests.

If we follow the history of perspective drawing to investigate this desire for illusion, we discover that the aim of artists over time was to increasingly satisfy these five perceptual levels.

If Piero’s perspective stops at the first two levels, the optical apparatus and orientation of the eye are active and we can already see from the quadratura show the representational technique also tries to satisfy the fourth point. A perspective drawing, made continuously on every wall of an environment, leads to the orientation of the head, but still does not satisfy either binocular vision or the observer’s movement. The Corridor of Sant’Ignazio painted by Andrea Pozzo (1681–86; Fig. 1) is a prime example of ability and rigor in managing quadratura.



Here, the artist alters the volume of the environment in an absolutely surprising way. Where there is a segmental barrel vault, he painted a coffered ceiling supported by large shelves resting on pilasters that alter the flat surface of the walls. An apse preceded by a vault supported by double pairs of Corinthian columns alters the perception of the back oblique wall by virtue of the different lengths of the two lateral walls. The photograph, precisely in that it is the monocular mechanical product of the projection process, perfectly registers the representative event, cancelling out all the interference our mental model creates when moving within the environment.

Some years before, Agostino Tassi had painted absolutely convincingly a double loggia that extends the walls of the Sala dei Palafrenieri in Palazzo Lancellotti (1621–23) towards the Roman countryside (Fig. 2).



Even Alida Mazzoni, in a reconstruction of the geometries underlying the work, highlighted how a single vanishing point for the lines perpendicular to the canvas—required by the rules of perspective—is not absolutely respected[5]. The vanishing points lie on a horizontal line near the height of the observer, but are distributedat thirds along the length of the room (Fig. 3).


Tassi’s choice can be interpreted as a desire to follow the possible positions of the observer, trusting the regularity and perceptual recognizability of the overall configuration along with the reduced area of attention due to the different positions assumed by the observer when moving. From a state in which the observer is blocked with one eye closed, we move to an observer who is allowed some movement.

If scenography, which was developing at the same time, fragmentedthe perspective drawing to favour the partial acquisition of indications of depth, the next step could only give body to the volumes, transforming the perspective drawing from a plane to a solid. This was Borromini’s guiding aim when he designed the Gallery of Palazzo Spada (Fig. 4).


The gallery is adorned with Doric columns that support coffered vaults, with a courtyard containing a statue of Hercules in the background. It is no longer than 8 m in reality, but standing at the end, we have the impression that it is at least four times longer. If at the entrance we are no more than half as tall as the columns supporting the vault, by the time we reach the end of the gallery, the columns are only slightly taller than us. We also discover that the great statue of Hercules is really no taller than half a metre.

The search for illusion leads to the complete correspondence between the model and the object, the copy, the duplicate, but because it is an illusion, there is a manifest need for something that identifies it as an illusion. There needs to be conceptual or physical means that makes the illusion surprise us, therefore requiring our intelligence to gatherthe sense.


The Representation of Truth

So thattruthcan be realized, on the one hand it must be free from the limits of the specific perceptual event in order to be elevated to the expression of idea. On the other hand, it should remain connectedto the everyday, so that communication can follow the logical structure of thought. It is thus that perspective can be a means to concretely demonstrate truth. But in order to do so, it should be expressed as a dialectic, rational experiment. The scope is therefore to manage the two-dimensional space of the canvas, with its tested geometries, developing it into three-dimensional space. These two different spaces, united in the depiction,act as a semantic, syntactic vehicle for a shared communication.

In order for the idea to be represented, however, the rule must be completely detached from arbitrariness and subjectivity. The observer should serve as an impartial judge and be required to objectively analyze the event.

The coincidence between the observer and the centre of projection leads to subjectivity, a perceptual coincidence that substantially modifies the rational relationship with the idea. It is for this reason that the centre of projection should not coincide with thepossible positions that the observer can take with respect to the work. In The Flagellation of Christ(Fig. 5), Piero della Francesca puts the observer in an absolutely unusual position, very low with respect to the painting.


In Leonardo’s Last Supper (Fig. 6), the centre of projection is about four metres from the floor of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in a position that cannot be reached by any visitor.


In Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 7), an organizing grid that restricts the positions, the rotundity, and fullness of his painted sculptures obeys a fragmentation that foresees many centres of projection, one for each space between the lunettes.


Later, Caravaggio, the painter criticized by the Roman curia for his excessive realism, would completely abandon perspective in The Entombment of Christ (Fig. 8).


The feet of Saint John and the shroud of Christ rest flat on the sepulchral stone seen from the front. There is no point on which the gaze converges,leaving itfree to follow the drama. The two-dimensional geometry of the surface acts as a vehicle to anchor the clear, pallid horizontalness of the body of Christ, which is echoed in the bust of Saint John, and to dynamically oppose the diagonal along which the figures are situated. The look is free to linger, following other hierarchies, until it discovers the pain expressed in the faces hidden in the deepest shadows.

This is not the first time Caravaggio used the absence of perspective to testify the cold, cruel truth. In Basket of Fruit, the work painted for Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1599, the basket is viewedfrontally, resting on a brown strip that hints at the horizontal plane of the table (Fig. 9).


The lack of perspective highlights the symbolism. If the fruit refers to the offering of the passion of Christ, the dried or fungal leaves and the bruised apple challenge the exuberance of nature, testifying to the fragility and transience of life.

Caravaggio’s compositional choices still relate to perspective: an abstract, objective witness to a drama expressed with the evidence of certain, documented information. The eye of the spectator analyzes the phenomenon from which symbolic, conventional, factually objective reality can be extrapolated; the observer coincides with infinity.



Precisely for its particular nature of comparing two identities–theI of the artist with the I of the user- the perspective drawing holds a double meaning. One the one hand, there is the means used to create the image, the copy of reality capable of recreating the illusion of a phenomenal vision. On the other hand, it serves as witness to an intellectual process that sees depiction as the application of thought.

If the first sees perspective as a tool to demonstrate the objective certainty of a fact, the second sees it as the demonstration of a mathematical processtightly anchored to abstractness. The first sees it as testimony that from the phenomenon one can arrive at thought; the second as a way to explain the thought through the phenomenon.



[1]Winckelmann Johann Joachim, 2001. Pensieri sull’imitazione, a cura di Michele Cometa, Palermo: Aesthetica, 2001, pp152, ISBN 8877260513

[2]Gombrich Ernst H., Arte e illusione, Einaudi editore, Torino, 1965, p 235, ISBN 978-0-7148-9892-6

[3]Goodman Nelson, I linguaggi dell’arte. Il Saggiatore, Milano 2013, prima ed. it. 1976, pp. 11-13 ISBN 978-885650347-0

[4]Gibson James J., Dallo scarabocchio al cinema, a cura di Mautarelli Cristiano, Campanotto Editore Pasian di Prato (UD), 2011, pp. 48-62, ISBN 978-88-456-1204-6

[5]Docci M., Migliari R., Mazzoni A., L’architettura dipinta da Agostino Tassi a Palazzo Lancellotti in Roma, Disegnare Idee e Immagini, N. 5. Gangemi Editore, 1992, pp. 57-70, ISBN 88-7448-462-3