Art History in Perspective
Renaissance artists forever changed the way we depict the world around us
Study the diagram showing one-point perspective. Then look for additional converging lines in School of Athens. (Raphael, The School of Athens; Scala / Art Resource, NY)
During the Renaissance (1400-1600), the air in Europe seemed charged with ideas. Artists, writers, musicians, architects, scientists, and mathematicians clamored for knowledge and new ways of looking at the world. It was one of the most exciting times in history.
Before the Renaissance, most art in Europe centered around Christianity. The most important figures were placed centrally and painted larger than the others. It wasn’t important for them to be in realistic-looking settings.
At the start of the Renaissance, artists became interested in painting more of the world around them. However, they did not have the visual tools to create depth on a two-dimensional picture plane. In Giovanni di Paolo’s (joh-VAHN-ni DEE-pow-loh) 1445 Paradise, the figures look flat and appear to be floating in space. They’re all the same size and are stacked on top of one another in rows. The horizon line (the line dividing the earth from the sky) is placed near the top rather than at eye level, as we see Earth’s horizon in real life.
ART MEETS MATH
Renaissance artists experimented with ways to create the illusion of deep space on a flat surface. They figured out that in real life, parallel lines (for example, a road) appear to converge, or meet, as they recede into the horizon. Additionally, objects that are close appear to be larger and in better focus than those farther away. By applying these concepts to their canvases, artists could mimic the way we see the world. This mathematical system of using lines to create realistic-looking depth is called linear perspective.
SCHOOL OF GREATS
By the 1500s, many artists had mastered the new system of using perspective. When a young artist named Raphael was hired to paint a fresco on a wall of the library at St. Peter’s Church in Rome, he was excited to show off this technique.
From our point of view, when we look at School of Athens (above, right) it is hard to tell where the real architecture ends and the painted arches begin. It is as if we are looking through the wall it is painted on and into the next room. In that room are some of the great thinkers of history who inspired Raphael, including the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle in the center.
Raphael used one-point perspective to compose this work. The lines on the floor tiles and the pillars converge at a single vanishing point on the horizon line. It is between Plato’s and Aristotle’s heads (see diagram). The converging lines also draw our attention to the two figures. Even though they are painted smaller and with less detail than the figures in the foreground (the closest area to the viewer), we can still tell they are the most important.
School of Athens is considered one of the best examples of linear perspective. For more than 500 years, artists have continued to use the techniques developed during the Renaissance. Today artists like Richard Estes play with these techniques to create even more realistic scenes than thought possible in Raphael’s time.