• Perspective

Perspective

01.12.1991

Kim H. Veltman

Review: Martin Kemp, The Science of Art

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), Kunstchronik, Munich, Jg. 44, Heft 5, (May 1991), pp.285-290.

This is an important, beautiful and complex book. Professor Kemp is concerned with affinities between science and art in the period 1400-1880 which "centred upon the belief that the direct study of nature through the faculty of vision was essential if the rules underlying the structure of the world were to be understood" (p.1). Each of the book's three parts is devoted to a specific theme: perspective (7-162), mechanical devices (165-257) and colour (261-331). A coda discusses philosophical problems. There are appendices on principles of perspectival construction and Brunelleschi's demonstration panels, copious notes, a select bibliography and an index which tends to omit authors of secondary literature. At a later date he plans to write a companion volume which will "embrace the organic sciences of anatomy and natural history" (p.2).

Professor Kemp's lasting merit lies in making accessible the results of specialized scholarship in both science and art, presenting these as a whole that is greater than its parts. He establishes that perspective was much more than a Renaissance phenomenon: that it developed gradually in the 16th and 17th centuries and continued to do so in the 18th and 19th centuries. He shows that the camera can be seen as an outgrowth of perspectival instruments (cf. 219) and that "all the major elements in Seurat's 'peinture optique' can be found either in earlier theory or previous pictorial practice" (315). The cumulative picture that emerges is a real contribution. Earlier literature on perspective focussed on specific individuals or problems. For instance, artists were seen as forerunners of descriptive geometry (e.g. Gerhardt 1877) or early modern science (e.g. Panofsky 1927, Cassirer 1927, Kline 1953, Randall 1957 and Santillana 1959) leading to undue attention on origins for which Brunelleschi emerged as a symbol (cf. Edgerton, 1975). The only real exceptions were Poudra (1864), Panofsky (1927), and Vagnetti (1979) addressed to specialists, and Wright (1983) who emphasized architectural aspects. By contrast, Professor Kemp's approach is both more balanced and accessible to non specialists. To provide a big picture omissions are necessary. Even so some of the omissions in this book are disturbing. No mention is made, for instance, of standard editions of Leonardo such as Dr. Keele's Corpus of Anatomical Studies or Marinoni's Codex Atlanticus or Sinisgalli's new edition of Guidobaldo del Monte (1985). In discussing Fabritius' View of Delft an interpretation is given (213) without reference to debates between two authorities on the matter, Liedtke and Wheelock. In discussing the famous Baltimore, Berlin and Urbino panels (347 n.85, 348 n.38) no reference is made either to Conti's (1976) bibliography nor a stance taken to Damisch (1987) although this is cited elsewhere (363). Omissions of primary literature are sometimes misleading. We are told, for instance, that "the main body of written evidence" in the 15th century has been examined (35) while Alberti's Ludi geometrici, the treatises of Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Luca Pacioli have been omitted. Much is made of a manuscript by Galileo's friend Cigoli (177-180), while no mention is made of Giorgio Vasari Jr's manuscript (Florence, Riccardiana Ms. 2138, c.1600) of all the instruments for measuring with sight in the collection of the Medici, nor of Pfintzing's published compendium of instruments (1599, 1617). Rieger's (1756) work on military perspective is called a pioneer work (223) without mention of Dubreuil's work (1663). Porta's work on natural magic is emphasized although, as Battisti has made clear in his edition, this goes back to Fontana (cf. 347 n.81). There are more serious omissions. Almost nothing is said of the archaeological tradition of Roman ruins which began seriously with Brunelleschi and Donatello and led via Francesco di Giorgio, Peruzzi, Scamozzi, and Cock to Piranesi. Whence he can suggest that the "veduta may not unreasonably be regarded as a fusion of the Northern genre of perspective townscapes...with the native Italian tradition of perspective architecture" (144).


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