Perspective and Alberti, by Richard Talbot

Linear Perspective’s position as a ‘tool’ for mapping spatial relationships on to a two-dimensional surface is very well established. Alberti’s codification of perspective sets it out clearly as a system of projection that defines the relationship between the eye, the picture plane and the external world. And despite more recent commentary regarding its broader cultural significance and veracity, what perspective is – its role and purpose for the artist – appears irrefutable.

Yet the very 15C paintings that are held by art historians to embody the new-found ‘rational’ knowledge of perspective also exhibit unique spatial/compositional qualities that cannot be readily accounted for. Yes – most of the elements within these paintings appear to be in correct ‘measurable’ relation to each other throughout the depth of the paintings – so much so that we can reconstruct the ‘real’ space depicted in, for instance, Piero’s Flagellation.

But it appears that along with Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, Leonardo, Piero was also controlling how those elements that are in the depth of the painting relate to each other on the surface of the painting.  Why should this be, and the awkward question for art historians is, how could this be?  It is not something that could be easily or readily achieved using the geometric methods described by Alberti.  It would seem to indicate a method, a visual concern or approach amongst these artists that transcends the assumed intended purpose of linear perspective – the convincing illusion of three dimensions on the picture plane.

The key to unravelling this problem may lay in the fact that we habitually think of the trappings of linear perspective, particularly its geometry, solely as means to an end.  We overlook the fact that flat geometric diagrams, including patterns and those diagrams used in perspective constructions, can themselves be suggestive of depth, can suggest imagery, can be inherently ambiguous, and can therefore, be visually and conceptually exciting for the artist. I would suggest, therefore, that in these depictions of architectural spaces we are, in fact, seeing the traces of a creative interplay between depth and flatness.

Harvard Citation Guide: Talbot, R. (2010) Perspective and Alberti, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 08 June 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

2 thoughts on “Perspective and Alberti, by Richard Talbot

  1. This subject interests me also.

    I have been one of the first pioneers of the “Hyper-Cubist” art movement.

    Perhaps it could be valuable to place “Hyper-Objects” within an interior design environment. However, the interrelation to real-scale architecture and design becomes perplexing, particularly in the potential distortion of the floor plane.

    Another perspective is that hyper-objects are instead a “data-contingent” suggestive of “secret manuals” users could use to find electronic games or dynamic visual designs to entertain them. Like what you propose, it seems on the brink of madness from a certain point of view, while on another it seems very inevitable.

    Buildings could provide information services in a local fashion through customization, in a way similar to socialist architecture, perhaps this is the wave of the future, as soon as someone defines that buildings are in some way interfaces with the virtual — e.g. data-objects may become like food, or define that the definition of an object—or building—is in some way informational.

    Hyper-Cubism from my standpoint is just a small step in that direction. Artistically it is almost classical to my vision, albeit with little integrational capacity except as decoration or perhaps, an expansion on the video game, rather than architecture.

    The “video game problem” is perplexing, in this definition, we must be great idealists, when in some sense architecture supposes that it is not a culture. Maybe the solution, as has been proposed with technologies recently, is to give consumers “more of what they want”; even as an experiment.

  2. I currently have a student writing a paper on Piranesi’s etchings of Rome. P.’s etchings often offer points of view that are impossible; there is no one place one could stand and see what P. depicts in the etching. My student has tracked down some articles (I can add the references later, once I actually get her final paper, if you’re interested) that argue convincingly that P. was constructing his compositions by combining elements from several different points of view–in one case as many as 11 different points of view.

    The first order observation is of course that the artist may portray things that are not visible to the eye–and not just ideas (as in Duchamp’s Large Glass), but real objects as they cannot appear to us. The second order observation, which I haven’t really worked out yet, is that there’s something expressed in the image (my student has taken to referring to P.’s subject as an “idealized” Rome) that speaks more directly to the human power of imagination, to our capacity for projecting ourselves into spaces. We can “see” what it’s like to be in Paris merely by looking a photos; or we can imagine meeting a person merely by hearing their voice over the phone; or we can see what an urban infill project will do to a streetscape before ground is broken; etc.

    What do you think that Renaissance painters were interested in that could not be expressed using Brunelleschi and Alberti’s perspective?

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