Kim H. Veltman
Panofsky's Perspective: a Half Century Later
Written by invitation for a special issue of Daedalus in 1975 and then rejected because it was too complicated. Published in: Atti del convegno internazionale di studi: la prospettiva rinascimentale, Milan 1977, ed. Marisa Dalai-Emiliani, Florence: Centro Di, 1980, pp. 565-584.
Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) is a figure of interest not only because he was one of the greatest art historians of our century, but particularly because he was one of those rare beings whose commitment to detailed facts never obscured an ongoing concern for fundamental questions. He was constantly asking how the history of artistic styles related to changing world views, ever seeking to establish underlying bonds linking philosophy, art, science, mathematics, indeed all realms of human experience. He was "Pan" in more senses than one.
While some might reasonably insist that his pioneering contributions to the study of iconography constitute his chief claim to enduring recognition, the present author finds in Panofsky's contribution to the history of perspective the clearest example of how wide ranging his detailed interests could be. There are at least two other reasons for concentrating on what might at first appear a peripheral aspect of the great man's achievement: 1) it will help suggest how far beyond the narrow bonds of art history Panofsky's influence has been felt; 2) it may offer a salutary reminder to an age of specialists that art history can involve more than looking at pictures.
Panofsky's interest in (linear) perspective can be traced back to his doctoral dissertation on Dürer's aesthetics (1914) in which he suggested that Renaissance art theory involved two central problems, namely, accuracy (Richtigkeit) and beauty. Accuracy, he claimed, entailed a "geometrical-perspectival and empirical-scientific knowledge", but he did not elaborate. In his thesis Panofsky concentrated on exploring the problem of beauty.
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