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In an age when images from photography and television are ubiquitous, we can easily forget that perspective views are not the only way that artists can represent the world around us.  Various cultures in different places and at different times have in fact used a wide range of techniques to represent the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface.  The perspective images that we take for granted would have seemed very alien to these cultures.  Indeed, some research suggests that perspective images are not natural at all and that we have to learn to read them.

Images that survive from ancient Egypt consistently show views that combine a series of different projections sythesised together in order to create a whole.  Faces are for instance generally shown in profile, but the eye is shown frontally.  In the example below, the pool is shown in plan, whereas the trees, animals and other smaller items are 'folded down' and shown in elevation.

Ancient Egyptian painting of a pond in a garden, from the tomb of Nebamun, c.1400 BC (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The representation of architecture in traditional Japanese art makes use of parallel projections, such as oblique projection or isometric (as seen in the example below). The size of elements does not diminish towards the background as it would in perspective projection.

18th Century Japanese print (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Juan Gris - The Guitar, 1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Early Perspective

"And though dimensions of a colonnade are the same throughout, and it is standing supported from one end to the other by equal columns, yet when we look down at its entire length from the top portion, it gradually shrinks down to the tip of a tapering cone, joining roof and floor and all things on the right and on the left, until it brings everything together at the apex of the cone and disappears."

Lucretius (c.55BC) - 'De Rerum Natura'

Roman wall painting - House of the Vettii, Pompeii, 1st century AD (image copyright © Russell Light)

Manuscript illustration from the Vatican Virgil, made in Rome about 400 AD (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Annunciation, 1344 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Considered the earliest painting to show a floor drawn to central vanishing point.

Renaissance Perspective Theory

Brunelleschi's significance in the development of a scientific basis for perspective is outlined by his biographer, Manetti (c.1482-89) :

"During the same period (c.1413-25) he propounded and realized what painters today call perspective, since it forms part of that science which, in effect, consists of setting down properly and rationally the reductions and enlargements of near and distant objects as perceived by the eye of man: buildings, plains, mountains, places of every sort and location, with figures and objects in correct proportion to the distance in which they are shown."

Manetti goes on to describe Brunelleschi's perspective demonstration in some detail:

"He first demonstrated his system of perspective on a small panel about half a braccio square. He made a representation of the exterior of San Giovanni in Florence, encompassing as much of that temple as can be seen at a glance from the outside. In order to paint it it seems that he stationed himself some three braccia inside the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiore. He painted it with such care and delicacy and with such great precision in the black and white colours of the marble that no miniaturist could have done it better. In the foreground he painted that part of the piazza encompassed by the eye, that is to say, from the side facing the Misericordia up to the arch and corner of the sheep [market], and from the side with the column of the miracle of St. Zenobius up to the corner of the straw [market], and all that is seen in that area for some distance. And he placed burnished silver where the sky had to be represented, that is to say, where the buildings of the painting were free in the air, so that the real air and atmosphere were reflected in it, and thus the clouds seen in the silver are carried along by the wind as it blows. Since in such a painting it is necessary that the painter postulate beforehand a single point from which his painting must be viewed, taking into account the length and width of the sides as well as the distance, in order that no error would be made in looking at it (since any point outside of that single point would change the shapes to the eye), he made a hole in the painted panel at that point in the temple of San Giovanni which is directly opposite the eye of anyone stationed inside the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiore, for the purpose of painting it. The hole was as tiny as a lentil bean on the painted side and it widened conically like a woman’s straw hat to about the circumference of a ducat, or a bit more, on the reverse side. He required that whoever wanted to look at it place his eye on the reverse side where the hole was large, and while bringing the hole up to his eye with one hand, to hold a flat mirror with the other hand in such a way that the painting would be reflected in it. The mirror was extended by the other hand a distance that more or less approximated in small braccia the distance in regular braccia from the place he appears to have been when he painted it up to the church of San Giovanni. With the aforementioned elements of the burnished silver, the piazza, the viewpoint, etc., the spectator felt he saw the actual scene when he looked at the painting. I have had it in my hands and seen it many times in my days and can testify to it."

Vasari, writing in 1550, clearly summarises the importance of Brunelleschi's contribution:

"He gave much attention to perspective, which was then in a very evil plight by reason of many errors that were made therein; and in this he spent much time, until he found by himself a method whereby it might become true and perfect—namely, that of tracing it with the ground-plan and profile and by means of intersecting lines, which was something truly most ingenious and useful to the art of design."

Masaccio - Holy Trinity, c.1427 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The earliest surviving painting based on Brunelleschi's experiments.

"The belief that one could represent a man in a real setting and calculate his position and arrange figures in a demonstrably harmonious order, expressed symbolically a new idea about man's place in the scheme of things and man's control over his own destiny."

Kenneth Clarke (1969) - 'Civilisation', p98

Perugino - Delivery of the Keys, 1481-82 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Vredeman de Vries - Illustration from 'Perspective', c.1604-05

Later Developments

Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena - Illustration from 'L'Architettura Civile', 1711
Bibiena popularised the 'veduta per angolo', or diagonal perspective, creating more dynamic views that were in tune with the aims of the Baroque.

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux - Saltworks at Chaux, 1775-79 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
It was only in the late eighteenth century that bird's eye or aerial perspective views became widespread.

J N Niépce - View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Generally considered to be the first photographic image. A technical advance based on the optical principles of devices like the camera obscura and camera lucida, a perspectival image could now be recorded chemically.

In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot, the English pioneer of photography described the technique as:

"The process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil."

Sant'elia - La Città Nuova, 1914 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Perspective Illusion and Distortion

Hogarth - Satire on False Perspective, 1753 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
'Whoever makes a Design without the knowledge of Perspective will be liable to such absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece.'

Laurante - Anamorphosis, 1630 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Andrea Pozzo - Church of St Ignazio, 1685-94 (image copyright © Russell Light)