Avicenna and Ghiberti’s role in the invention of perspective during the Renaissance
By Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.
Same article in FR, même article en FR.
No visitor to Florence can miss the gilded bronze reliefs decorating the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise), the main gate of the Baptistery of Florence right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore surmounted by Filippo Brunelleschi’s splendid cupola.
In this article, Karel Vereycken sheds new light on the contribution of Arab science and Ghiberti’s crucial role in giving birth to the Renaissance.
The Baptistery, erected on what most Florentines thought to be the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman God of Mars, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery.
During the Renaissance, in Florence, corporations and guilds competed for the leading role in design and construction of great projects with illustrious artistic creations.
While the Arte dei Lana (corporation of wool producers) financed the Works (Opera) of the Duomo and the construction of its cupola, the Arte dei Mercantoni di Calimala (the guild of merchants dealing in buying foreign cloth for finishing and export), took care of the Baptistery and financed the embellishment of its doors.
The Gates of Paradise
The Baptistry, an octagonal building, has four entrances (East, West, North and South) of which only three (South, North and East) have sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. Three dates are key : 1329, 1401 and 1424.
- In 1329, the Calimala Guild, on Giotto‘s recommendation, ordered Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) to decorate a first set of doors (initialy installed as the East doors, i.e. seen when one leaves the Cathedral, but today South). These consist of 28 quatrefoil (clover-shaped) panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (the patron of the edifice). The 8 lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, praised by Plato in his Republic and represented during the XVIth century by the Flemish humanist painter and reader of Petrarch, Peter Brueghel the Elder. Construction took 8 years, from 1330 till 1338.
- In 1401, after having narrowly won the competition with Brunelleschi, the 23 year old and inexperienced young goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), is commissioned by the Calima Guild to decorate the doors which are today the North Gate. Ghiberti cast the bronze high reliefs using a method known as lost-wax casting, a technique that he had to reinvent entirely since it was lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons Ghiberti won the contest, was that his technique was so advanced that it required 20 % less (7 kg per panel) bronze than that of his competitors, bronze being a dense material far more costly than marble. His technique, applied to the entire decoration of the North Gate, as compared to his competitors, would save some estimated 100 kg of bronze. And since in 1401, with the plague regularly hitting Florence, economic conditions were poor, even the wealthy Calimala took into account the total costs of the program.
The bronze doors are comprised of 28 panels, with 20 panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The 8 lower panels show the four Evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. The construction took 24 years.
- In 1424, Ghiberti, at age 46, was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East Gate. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, then seventy-four years old, install the last bronze panels, since construction lasted this time 27 years! According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) later judged them « so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise ».
Over two generations, a bevy of well paid assistants and pupils were trained by Ghiberti, including exceptional artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso. And over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of the Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.
In 1880, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by it for his own Gates of Hell on which he worked for 38 year
Of utmost interest for our discussion here is the dramatic shift in conception and design of the bronze relief sculptures that occurred between the North and the East Gates, because it reflects how bot the artist as well as his patrons used the occasion to share with the broader public their newest ideas, inventions and exciting discoveries.
The themes of the North Gate of 1401 were inspired by scenes from the New Testament, except for the panel made by Ghiberti, « The Sacrifice of Isaac », which had won him the selection competition the same year. To complete the ensemble, it was therefore only logical that the East Gate of 1424 would take up the themes of the Old Testament.
Originally, it was the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who planned an iconography quite similar to the two previous doors. But, after heated discussions, his proposal was rejected for something radically new. Instead of realizing 28 panels, it was decided, for aesthetic reasons, to reduce the number of panels to only 10 much larger square reliefs, between borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.
Hence, since each of the 10 chapters of the Old Testament contains several events, the total number of scenes illustrated, within the 10 panels has risen to 37 and all appear in perspective :
- Adam and Eve (The Creation of Man)
- Cain and Abel (Jalousie is the origin of Sin)
- Noah (God’s punishment)
- Abraham and Isaac (God is just)
- Jacob and Esau
- David (Good commandor)
- Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition. Very shocking for the time, Ghiberti places in the center of the first panel the creation of Eve, that of Adam appearing at the bottom left.
After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God the Savior and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. Subsequent panels are easier to understand. One example is the panel with Isaac, Jacob and Esau where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.
Many of the sources for these scenes were written in ancient Greek, and since knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common, it appears that Ghiberti’s “theological advisor” was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), with whom he had many exchanges.
Traversari was a close friend of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a protector of Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) and a key organizer of the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1438-1439, which attempted to put an end to the schism separating the Church of the East from that of the West.
The bronze reliefs, known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, are one of the revolutionary events that epitomize the Renaissance. In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding thereby exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique later brought to its high point by Donatello. Using this form of “inbetweenness”, they integrate in one single image, what appears both as a painting, a low relief as well as a high relief. Or maybe one has to look at it another way: these are flat images traveling gradually from a surface into the full three dimensions of life, just as Ghiberti, in one of the first self-portraits of art history, reaches his head out of a bronze medal to look down on the viewers. The artist desired much more than perspective, he wanted breathing space!
This new approach will influence Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1517). As art historian Daniel Arasse points out :
At the beginning of the 15th century, several theoretical approaches existed and eventuall contradicted each other. Around 1423-1427, the talentful sculptor Donatello, a young collaborator of Ghiberti, created his Herod’s Banquet, a bas-relief in the stiacciato technique for the baptismal font of the Siena Baptistery.
In this work, the sculptor deploys a harmonious perspective with a single central vanishing point. Around the same time, in Florence, the painter Massacchio (1401-1428) used a similar construction in his fresco The Trinity.
As we will see, Ghiberti, starting from the anatomy of the eye, opposed such an abstract approach in his works as well as in his writings and explored, as early as 1401, other geometrical models, called « binocular ». (see below).
Then, as far as our knowledge reaches, in 1407, Brunelleschi had conducted several experiments on this question, most likely based on the ideas presented by another friend of Cusa, the Italian astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), in the latter’s now lost treaty Della Prospettiva. What we do know is that Brunelleschi sought above all to demonstrate that all perspective is an optical illusion.
Finally, it was in 1435, that the humanist architect Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), in his treatise Della Pictura, attempted, on the basis of Donatello’s approach, to theorize single vanishing point perspective as a representation of a harmonious and unified three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Noteworthy but frustrating for us today is the fact that Alberti’s treatise doesn’t contain any illustrations.
However, Leonardo, who read and studied Ghiberti’s writings on, would use the latter’s arguments to indicate the limits and even demonstrate the dysfunctionality of Alberti’s “perfect” perspective construction especially when one goes beyond a 30 degres angle.
In the Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. da Vinci realizes that « as such, the perspective offered by a rectilinear wall is false unless it is corrected (…) ».
Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis
Alberti’s “perspectiva artificialis” is nothing but an abstraction, necessary and useful to represent a rational organization of space. Without this abstraction, it is fairly impossible to define with mathematical precision the relationships between the appearance of objects and the receding of their various proportions on a flat screen: width, height and depth.
From the moment that a given image on a flat screen was thought about as the intersection of a plane cutting a cone or pyramid, a method emerged for what was mistakenly considered as an “objective” representation of “real” three dimensional space, though it is nothing but an “anamorphosis”, i.e. a tromp-l’oeil or visual illusion.
What has to be underscored, is that this construction does away with the physical reality of human existence since it is based on an abstract construct pretending:
- that man is a single eyed cyclops;
- that vision emanates from one single point, the apex of the visual pyramid;
- that the eye is immobile;
- that the image is projected on a flat screen rather than on a curved retina.
Slanders and gossip
The crucial role of Ghiberti, an artist which “Ghiberti expert” Richard Krautheimer mistakenly presents as a follower of Alberti’s perspectiva artificialis, has been either ignored or downplayed.
Ghiberti’s unique manuscript, the three volumes of the Commentarii, which include his autobiography and which established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, is not even fully translated into English or French and was only published in Italian in 1998.
Today, because of his attention to minute detail and figures « sculpted » with wavy and elegant lines, as well as the variety of plants and animals depicted, Ghiberti is generally presented as “Gothic-minded”, and therefore “not really” a Renaissance artist!
Giorgio Vasari, often acting as the paid PR man of the Medici clan, slanders Ghiberti by saying he wrote « a work in the vernacular in which he treated many different topics but arranged them in such a fashion that little can be gained from reading it. »
Admittedly, tension among humanists, was not uncommon. Self-educated craftsmen, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi on the one side, and heirs of wealthy wool merchants, such as Niccoli on the other side, came from entirely different worlds. For example, according to a story told by Guarino Veronese in 1413, Niccoli greeted Filippo Brunelleschi haughtily: « O philosopher without books, » to which Filippo replied with his legendary irony: « O books without philosopher ».
For sure, the Commentarii, are not written according to the rhetorical rules of those days. Written at the end of Ghiberti’s life, they may have simply been dictated to a poorly trained clerk who made dozens of spelling errors.
The Commentarii does reveal a highly educated author and a thinker having profound knowledge of many classical Greek and Arab thinkers. Ghiberti was not just some brilliant handcraft artisan but a typical “Renaissance man”.
In dialogue with Bruni, Traversari and the “manuscript hunter” Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, who couldn’t read Greek but definitely knew Latin, was clearly familiar with the rediscovery of Greek and Arab science, a task undertaken by Boccaccio’s and Salutati’s “San Spirito Circle” whose guests (including Bruni, Traversari, Cusa, Niccoli, Cosimo di Medici, etc.) later would convene every week at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent. Ghiberti exchanges moreover with Giovanni Aurispa, a collaborator of Traversari who brought back from Byzantium, years before Bessarion, the whole of Plato’s works to the West.
Amy R. Bloch, in her well researched study Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance (2016), writes that « Traverari and Niccoli can be tied directly to the origins of the project for the Gates and were clearly interested in sculptural commissions being planned for the Baptistery. On June 21, 1424, after the Calima requested from Bruni his program for the doors, Traversari wrote to Niccoli acknowledging, in only general terms, Niccoli’s ideas for the stories to be included and mentioning, without evident disapproval, that the guild had instead turned to Bruni for advice. »
Ghiberti’s patron, sometimes advisor, and close associate was Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), who, besides being the the richest man in Florence with a gross taxable assets of 162,925 florins in 1427, including 54 farms, 30 houses, a banking firm with a capital of 45,000 florins, and communal bonds, was also a politician, a writer, a philosopher and a philologist whose library contained close to 370 volumes in 1462.
Just as Traversari and Bruni, Strozzi learned Latin and studied Greek under the direction of the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, invited to Florence by Salutati.
Ghiberti’s close relationship with Strozzi, writes Bloch, « gave him access to his manuscripts and, as importantly, to Strozzi’s knowledge of them. »
But there was more. « The relationship between Ghiberti and Palla Strozzi was so close that, when Palla went to Venice in 1424 as one of two Florentine ambassadors charged with negociating an alliance with the Venetians, Ghiberti accompanied him in his retinue. »
Strozzi was known as a real humanist, always looking to preserve peace while strongly opposing oligarchical rule, both in Florence as in Venice.
In fact it was Palla Strozzi, not Cosimo de’ Medici, who first set in motion plans for the first public library in Florence, and he intended for the sacristy of Santa Trinita to serve as its entryway. While Palla’s library was never realized due to the dramatic political conflict knows as the Albizzi Coup that led to his exile in 1434, Cosimo who got a free hand to rule over Florence, would make the library project his own.
A bold statement
Ghiberti begins the Commentarii with a bold and daring statement for a Christian man in a Christian world, about how the art of antiquity came to be lost:
Ghiberti understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him, “sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings”.
In book I of his Commentarii, Ghiberti gives a list of the 10 liberal arts that the sculptor and the painter should master : philosophy, history, grammar, arithmic, astronomy, geometry, perspective, theory of drawing, anatomy and medecine and underlines that the necessity for an artist to assist at anatomical dissections.
As Amy Bloch underscores, while working on the Gates, in the intense process of visualizing the stories of God’s formation of the world and its living inhabitants, Ghiberti’s engagement « stimulated in him an interest in exploring all types of creativity — not only that of God, but also that of nature and of humans — and led him to present in the opening panel of the Gates of Paradise (The creation of Adam and Eve) a grand vision of the emergence of divine, natural, and artistic creation. »
The inclusion of details evoking God’s craftmanship, says Bloch, « recalls similes that liken God, as the maker of the world, to an architect, or, in his role as creator of Adam, to a sculptor or painter. Teh comparison, which ultimately derives from the architect-demiurge who creates the world in Plato’s Timaeus, appears commonly in medieval Jewish and Christian exegesis. »
Philo of Alexandria wrote that man was modeled « as by a potter » and Ambrose metaphorically called God a « craftsman (artifex) and a painter (pictor) ». Consequently, if man is « the image of God » as says Augustine and the model of the « homo faber – man producer of things », then, according to Salutati, « human affairs have a similarity to divine ones ».
The power of vision and the composition of the Eye
Concerning vision, Ghiberti writes:
Now, any serious scholar, having worked through Leonardo’s Notebooks, who then reads Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, immediately realizes that most of Da Vinci’s writings were basically comments and contributions about things said or answers to issues raised by Ghiberti, especially respecting the nature of light and optics in general. Leonardo’s creative mindset was a direct outgrowth of Ghiberti’s challenging world outlook.
In Commentario 3, 6, which deals with optics, vision and perspective, Ghiberti, opposing those for whom vision can only be explained by a purely mathematical abstraction, writes that “In order that no doubt remains in the things that follow, it is necessary to consider the composition of the eye, because without this one cannot know anything about the way of seeing.” He then says, that those who write about perspective don’t take into account “the eye’s composition”, under the pretext that many authors would disagree.
Ghiberti regrets that despite the fact that many “natural philosophers” such as Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras and Xenophanes have examined the subject along with others devoted to human health such as “Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna”, there is still so much confusion.
Indeed, he says, “speaking about this matter is obscure and not understood, if one does not have recourse to the laws of nature, because more fully and more copiously they demonstrate this matter.”
Avicenna, Alhazen and Constantine
Therefore, says Ghiberti:
This is quite a statement! Here we have “the” leading, founding figure of the Italian and European Renaissance with its great contribution of perspective, saying that to get any idea about how vision functions, one has to study three Arab scientists: Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham and Qusta ibn Luqa ! Cultural Eurocentrism might be one reason why Ghiberti’s writings were kept in the dark.
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) made important contributions to opthalmology and improved upon earlier conceptions of the processes involved in vision and visual perception in his Treatise on Optics (1021), which is known in Europe as the Opticae Thesaurus. Following his work on the camera oscura (darkroom) he was also the first to imagine that the retina (a curved surface), and not the pupil (a point) could be involved in the process of image formation.
Avicenna, in the Canon of Medicine (ca. 1025), describes sight and uses the word retina (from the Latin word rete meaning network) to designate the organ of vision.
Later, in his Colliget (medical encyclopedia), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) was the first to attribute to the retina the properties of a photoreceptor.
Avicenna’s writings on anatomy and medical science were translated and circulating in Europe since the XIIIth century, Alhazen’s treatise on optics, which Ghiberti quotes extensively, had just been translated into Italian under the title De li Aspecti.
It is now recognized that Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best known pupil was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1517) was himself one of Ghiberti’s pupils. Unlike Ghiberti, who mastered Latin, neither Verrocchio nor Leonardo mastered a foreign language.
What is known is that while studying Ghiberti’s Commentarii, Leonardo had access in Italian to a series of original quotations from the Roman architect Vitruvius and from Arab scientists such as Avicenna, Alhazen, Averroes and from those European scientists who studied Arab optics, notably the Oxford Fransciscans Roger Bacon (1214-1294), John Pecham (1230-1292) and the Polish monk working in Padua, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (1230-1275), known by his Latin name Vitellion.
As stressed by Professor Dominque Raynaud, Vitellion introduces the principle of binocular vision for geometric considerations.
He gives a figure where we see the two eyes (a, b) receiving the images of points located at equal distance from the hd axis.
He explains that the images received by the eyes are different, since, taken from the same side, the angle grf (in red) is larger than the angle gtf (in blue). It is necessary that these two images are united at a certain point in one image (Diagram).
Where does this junction occur? Witelo says: « The two forms, which penetrate in two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed in this point to become one ».
The fusion of the images is thus a product of the internal mental and nervous activity.
The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) will use Alhazen’s and Witelo’s discoveries to develop his own contribution to optics and perspective. “Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the representations of objects should be considered as paintings that are actually projected on paper or some other screen.” Kepler was the first to observe that our retina captures an image in an inverted form before our brain turns it right side up.
Out of this Ghiberti, Uccello and also the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, in contact with the Italians, will construct as an alternative to one cyclopic single eye perspective revolutionary forms of “binocular” perspective while Leonardo and Louis XI’ court painter Jean Fouquet will attempt to develop curvilinear and spherical space representations.
In China, eventually influenced by Arab optical science breakthrough’s, forms of non-linear perspective, that integrate the mobility of the eye, will also make their appearance during the Song Dynasty.
Ghiberti will add another dimension to perspective: light. One major contribution of Alhazen was his affirmation, in his Book of Optics, that opaque objects struck with light become luminous bodies themselves and can radiate secondary light, a theory that Leonardo will exploit in his paintings, including in his portraits.
Already Ghiberti, in the way he treats the subject of Isaac, Jacob and Esau (Figure), gives us an astonishing demonstration of how one can exploit that physical principle theorized by Alhazen. The light reflected by the bronze panel, will strongly differ according to the angle of incidence of the arriving rays of light. Arriving either from the left of from the right side, in both cases, the Ghiberti’s bronze relief has been modeled in such a way that it magnificently strengthens the overall depth effect !
While the experts, especially the neo-Kantians such as Erwin Panofsky or Hans Belting, say that these artists were “primitives” because applying the “wrong” perspective model, they can’t grasp the fact that they were in reality exploring a far “higher domain” than the mere pure mathematical abstraction promoted by the Newton-Galileo cult that became the modern priesthood ruling over “science”.
Much more about all of this can and should be said. Today, the best way to pay off the European debt to “Arab” scientific contributions, is to reward not just the Arab world but all future generations with a better future by opening to them the “Gates of Paradise”.
See all of Ghiberti’s works at the WEB GALLERY OF ART
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