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Linear Perspective: Brunelleschi's Experiment

An introduction to Filippo Brunelleschi's experiment regarding linear perspective, c. 1420, in front of the Baptistry in Florence . Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: According to Filippo Brunelleschi's biographer, he stood just inside the main doors of the Cathedral of Florence when he conducted his first perspectile experiment. And that's where we're standing right now. DR. BETH HARRIS: We're very close to it. Brunelleschi's experiment demonstrated that linear perspective could produce an incredibly realistic illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this notion that we can actually develop a system that would be relatively easy to follow, but highly accurate, that could translate the volumetric world that we move through, through time, onto a frozen two-dimensional surface is really an extraordinary achievement. There is some discussion among scholars as to whether or not there was linear perspective in the Ancient World. But if there was, it was lost. And linear perspective was created, at least for us in the Modern World, by Brunelleschi in the 15th century, around 1420. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. And so some people would say that Brunelleschi rediscovered linear perspective in case the Ancient Greeks and Romans had had it before him. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Brunelleschi had gone to Rome and had studied antiquity. And some have hypothesized that he developed the basis for linear perspective in an attempt to be able to accurately portray the buildings that he was looking at, that he was sketching, that he was drawing. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's certainly something that artists, beginning, really, in the 1300s, were creating forums. They were creating human figures that were three-dimensional by using modeling and making the figures bulky and monumental. Then you have the challenge of putting those figures within a believable space. Giotto and Duccio had approximated that space and began to create a kind of earthly setting for their figures, but had not achieved a perfect illusion of space for their figures to inhabit. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: As the culture becomes increasingly analytical, mathematical-- it's a trade-based culture-- this is a culture that, in some ways, may have demanded of its artists a kind of precision, a kind of mathematical accuracy, in its representation. And Brunelleschi delivers that. So what does he do? DR. BETH HARRIS: Brunelleschi creates a perspectively accurate image of the baptistery and its surround. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. So Brunelleschi develops a system with just a few essential elements and, through these elements, is able to construct accurate, scientific, one-point perspective. They include a vanishing point, which is at the viewer's horizon line, as well as a series of orthogonals, or illusionistically receding diagonals. What Brunelleschi then does is he paints or draws an image of the baptistery with linear perspective and puts a small hole in the center of it. He takes that small drawing or painting, puts a handle on it, and holds it in front of his face-- but facing away from him. He then takes a mirror and holds it in back of that. Now remember, his painting has a small hole in it. So he can see through it straight to the vanishing point. DR. BETH HARRIS: So he's holding the mirror at arm's length and the actual painting with the hole in it right in front of him for his eye to look through. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. So he can see the painting's reflection in the mirror. And if he pulls the mirror away, he can see the actual baptistery. And he can bring the mirror back to see the painting, move the mirror away to see the actual baptistery, and see if, in fact, those lines are well coordinated. And it was a very convincing experiment. DR. BETH HARRIS: What Brunelleschi saw in the reflection of the painting looked exactly like the reality that was in front of him. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This would have the most profound effect on the history of Western art. Virtually every painting in the Western tradition, after the 15th century, is responding to linear perspective-- either adopting it or very consciously rejecting it for some reason. DR. BETH HARRIS: And within a couple of decades after Brunelleschi's discovery, Alberti, the brilliant architect and theoretician, writes a book called "On Painting," in which he codifies Brunelleschi's discovery and creates a manual for artists of how to use linear perspective and how to make great paintings. [MUSIC PLAYING]