29 August 2007

A matter of perspective

Learning and culture in human evolution, and the transmission of that learning/culture, can be mystifying. At one moment we have nothing; in the next, it’s a whole new life. There have been specific instances in human history at (or, more correctly, right after) which our learning and culture has literally grown in leaps and bounds.

For early man, discovering fire by rubbing two stones together was one such instance. Everything changed after that. More recently, another such discovery has changed our world forever. This discovery, though scientific in nature, has been in the field of art, as well as geometry, and has influenced our thinking and culture immensely.

This discovery is the concept of ‘perspective’ – that, to the human eye, things/images in the distance look smaller than things/images which are closer (i.e. in the foreground). Although this is common knowledge today, and a child can draw it, there was no concept of perspective – at least, as far as its representation goes – in our culture as late as 1400 AD.

The concept of perspective (or, more accurately, linear perspective) was ‘introduced’ in art during the Renaissance, some 600 years ago. The person credited with this introduction, or invention as some define it, was painter, sculptor, architect and artisan-engineer Filippo Di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446) – better known as Brunelleschi.

Until the early 1400s, every element/object in a drawing or painting was represented in equal proportion to another (i.e. equal in size) irrespective of whether the element/object was in the foreground or at a distance in the picture or the model. In other words, the art was created without depth… without a linear perspective.

It was Brunelleschi, noted for building the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore at Florence and the Sagrestia Vecchia of San Lorenzo, among other famous works of architecture, who first painted the Baptistery of Florence (stated to be in 1415) in linear perspective. Thus, introducing an illusion of depth in his painting which changed art, and geometry, forever.

Soon, other Italian painters of the Renaissance period began using linear perspective in their art. And, thereafter, the rest of the world followed. The idea caught on like wildfire; its application made visible in everything people painted or designed. At one moment we had nothing; in the next, it was a whole new life. Today, a life without perspective is unthinkable.

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