Kim H. Veltman
Heavenly and Earthly Perspective: Piero della Francesca and the World Egg
Conferenze su "Urbino e la prospettiva", Urbino, 27 October 2005.


Linear perspective is typically associated with naturalistic representation in space of three-dimensional objects in the physical world. This fascination with the potentials of perspective for visualization of objects on earth has led scholars to emphasize its role in the rise of early modern science as a technique for anatomy, botany and biology; as a tool in architecture and other disciplines. Some scholars have also linked this concern for visualization on earth with new approaches to geography. This naturalistic, visual dimension is an important chapter of perspective, but has more to do with its modern applications than its origins and early uses. Some scholars have gone further to describe perspective as part of a new rationalistic, secular approach to the world, that was opposed to and eventually replaced the earlier religious approach to the world. This overlooks religious sources and motivations that were at the heart of early efforts in perspective.

The early history of perspective was concerned less with copying physical objects in the natural world and more with idealized representations of objects in the man-made world. For the purposes of this paper some examples are offered in passing. Our main concern is to draw attention to the potentials of perspective and other techniques with respect to the heavens. Here the challenge lay less is copying phenomena that were visible directly and more in rendering visible dimensions that were otherwise invisible. This heavenly application of perspective thus explains links between the rise of perspective, and planisphere projection. It also helps explain why authors on perspective were so active in writings on mathematical proportions (in the abbaco school); regular solids, a topic which had strong cosmological implications during the Renaissance.  

A study of the background of the world egg and the first born (Protogonos) as described in the Orphic tradition brings to light unexpected connections between geometrical and numerical symbolism. It is suggested that these connections allow us to look afresh at a variety of well known historical images including the trigrams of the I Ching, the Indian calendar, Ionic columns and not least, an ulterior motive for the egg, which Piero depicted in his Brera Altarpiece and also described in his perspectival treatise, De prospectiva pingendi. In terms of Urbino all this has a particular fascination and significance because it helps us to understand how and why perspective shifted from an artistic activity to a mathematical discipline closely connected with the rise of the proportional compass, the sector, instrumentation and subsequently descriptive geometry. Scientific practitioners in Urbino played a significant role in this shift.

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