The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Early Renaissance in Italy

How was single-point perspective invented?

Quite literally a “Renaissance Man,” Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith, clock-maker, mathematician, Latin scholar, and architect. It just so happens that he also invented single-point perspective, one of the most important technical innovations of the Renaissance. Also known as linear perspective, single-point perspective is a mathematical system based on natural observation. Under the rules of single-point perspective, distant objects are depicted smaller than objects closer to the viewer, while the far edges of similarly shaped objects appear shorter near the edges (this warping of forms is known as foreshortening).

Brunelleschi invented the idea of a picture plane, in which he imagined the frame of a painting as a window through which the viewer sees an illusion of three dimensional space. The artist lays out the scene according to a grid pattern, and every object in the picture, for example architectural objects like roof lines and walls, follow invisible lines called orthogonals, which converge at a single point, known as the vanishing point, usually at eye-level to the viewer. Strangely enough, Brunelleschi was primarily interested in perspective not as a painter, but as an architect. His goal was to design an interior that drew a person’s attention through a space, such as a church nave, towards the altar, which he did effectively in his design for the Santo Spirito in Florence in 1434.


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