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Precision and reason in art

590 years ago, Brunelleschi rediscovered linear perspective

Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was a talented sculptor, but that hardly meant a rarity in Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries. In those days, the Renaissance blossoming in all directions, and the artistic activities of the era were gaining prominence. The story about Brunelleschi goes that he made a definitive option for architecture after taking part in a competition to sculpt one of the doors of the Florentine baptistery between 1402 and 1403. Those responsible opted for giving the job to Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, who refused to split the work. From then on, he traveled to Rome with Donatello, another sculptor, where he immersed himself deeply in classical architecture and sculpture.

The result of this was the rediscovery of linear perspective, which had already been used by the Greeks and Romans in antiquity and had been forgotten for many centuries. The man from Florence gave his studies a more scientific than, properly speaking, artistic nature he was said to be the first to measure the monuments of ancient architecture, always seeking to understand and to put on paper the precision of what he was analyzing.

Brunelleschi himself explained the concept in the following way: “Perspective consists in showing with precision and rationality the decreasing and increasing of things that results in their becoming more distant or closer for the human eye: houses, planes, mountains, landscapes of all kinds, figures and other things”. In other words, perspective is the method that makes three-dimensional representation possible on two-dimensional surfaces, by means of geometrical rules for projection. Its main characteristic is the vanishing point, on which each series of parallel lines appears to converge.

Although based on geometry and optics, these techniques had enormous importance for artists of the renaissance for being objective and rational something very different from the concepts used during the Middle Ages. It was between 1413 and 1415 that Brunelleschi made his ideas clear, when he painted the baptistery of the city exactly as it was seen from the main door of Florence cathedral. The experiment impressed his artist friends, Donatello, a sculptor, and Masaccio, a painter. Today, the three are regarded as precursors of Renaissance esthetics. Twenty years later, Leon Battista Alberti, also an artist, profoundly erudite, dedicated to Brunelleschi his Trattato della Pittura, where he made explicit the theoretical bases of the method.

As an architect, Brunelleschi was chosen to design and to finalize the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence, in 1420. The dome of the church was entirely original in that it did away with the soffit, a wooden framework that served as a mold and support for arches and domes. The construction of the dome was to be done on top of a large octagonal base, a fair challenge for the architects of those times. To take his project forward, he created special machines and scaffolding and brought to its conclusion a work that is even today a point of reference and a subject for study in all architecture courses.

His fame as an architect was so great that, when he died, he was buried in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, an honor only granted to noblemen and members of the clergy. A polemicist, he did not say away from the effervescent spirit of those days, and engaged in some good scraps with his peers. “Brunelleschi states implicitly that the value of architecture does not lie in the delicacy and variety of the adornments, but in the distributive lucidity in its structure”, says in his book Brunelleschi (Xarait Ediciones), the also Italian Giulio Carlo Argan (1902-1992) one of the greatest art and architecture historians in the world.