Kim H. Veltman
Leonardo da Vinci and Perspective
Linear perspective evolved in the 15th century as a branch of optics, as a practical science of representation as opposed to theoretical optics and vision. Brunelleschi, Alberti, Piero della Francesca, Filarete and Francesco di Giorgio Martini were early pioneers and authors in this field. Even so their work tended to be either theoretical or practical. Leonardo da Vinci’s studies on perspective marked a milestone in offering an approach that was both theoretical and practical. Where his predecessors had been content with isolated demonstrations, Leonardo introduced a more systematic approach that revealed underlying laws of perspective.
One initial motivation for these studies came from his studies of astronomy and optics, fueled by a desire to write a treatise on cosmology, entitled The Earth and its Waters, which was to show the correlations between man as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm. Another motivation came through a tradition that linked cosmology with the regular solids. Depicting the regularity of the solids thus seemed a key to understanding the underlying harmonies of nature and the universe as a whole.
Leonardo was probably introduced to perspective while he was a student of Verrocchio in Florence. We have evidence of careful perspectival studies for the Adoration of the Magi in 1481, about the time he was moving to the court of Ludovico Sforza, il Moro in Milan. Even so, it is eleven years before he writes a first mini-treatise on perspective in the Ms A. As he studied the details of linear perspective he soon realized that it was of limited use for painterly goals. Although he used it masterfully in his Last Supper, most of his painterly attentions turned to the potentials of aerial and colour perspective, which played a central role in his later paintings and became an important part in his perspective treatise that history has remembered as his Treatise on Painting.
Meanwhile, Leonardo, who had begun his studies of perspective in connection with practical optics and painting. gradually discovered its deeper dimensions. The pyramidal forms connecting the eye with objects and intersected by transparent planes, which demonstrated the transformations of 3-D shapes in a 2-D form on the picture plane, were also connected with his studies of the geometrical game (De ludo geometrico). Indeed, they applied also to percussion, force, motion and weight. Leonardo called these the four powers of nature. Thus perspective, which seemed to many as little more than a visual trick in representation, became for Leonardo an underlying key to the laws of Nature. Ironically, the consequences of this insight were that a method, which served to visualize spatial aspects of the visible world in art also became a key to understanding the underlying proportions and laws of the invisible world of nature that we now call science.
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