Oblique Drawing: A History of Anti-Perspective

Oblique Drawing: A History of Anti-Perspective


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For more than half a century, Erwin Panofksy's Perspective as Symbolic Form has dominated studies of visual representation. Despite the hegemony of central projection, or perspective, other equally important methods of representation have much to tell us. Parallel projection can be found on classical Greek vases, in Pompeiian frescoes, in Byzantine mosaics; it returned in works of the historical avant-garde, and remains the dominant form of representation in China. In Oblique Drawing, Massimo Scolari investigates "anti-perspective" visual representation over two thousand years, finding in the course of his investigation that visual and conceptual representations are manifestations of the ideological and philosophical orientations of different cultures. Images prove to be not just a form of art but a form of thought, a projection of a way of life. Scolari's generously illustrated studies show that illusionistic perspective is not the only, or even the best, representation of objects in history; parallel projection, for example, preserves in scale the actual measurements of objects it represents, avoiding the distortions of one-point perspective. Scolari analyzes the use of nonperspectival representations in pre-Renaissance images of machines and military hardware, architectural models and drawings, and illustrations of geometrical solids. He challenges Panofsky's theory of Pompeiian perspective and explains the difficulties encountered by the Chinese when they viewed Jesuit missionaries' perspectival religious images. Scolari vividly demonstrates the diversity of representational forms devised through the centuries,and shows how each one reveals something that is lacking in the others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262017749
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 10/05/2012
Series: Writing Architecture
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Massimo Scolari is a prominent architectural historian and an artist, writer, and teacher. Currently Davenport Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture,he has taught at Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, Cornell University, Cooper Union, Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies New York, Technische Universität Wien, and other institutions.

James S. Ackerman, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of books on Michelangelo's architecture, Palladio,and the villa. He is the winner of the Balzan Prize 2001 in the category of history of architecture, which includes town planning and landscape design presented by the International Balzan Foundation.

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Copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01774-9


James S. Ackerman

I have long admired Massimo Scolari as an artist, teacher, and writer whose originality of perception is coupled with an impressively wide-ranging knowledge of the philosophy, learning, and arts of the Western tradition. His independence from the fashions of the academic and intellectual establishment guides us to discoveries that have remained clouded by our acceptance of approved approaches, giving his insights uncommon vitality. And yet Scolari, as much as any professional scholar, is a master of historical research; whatever his subject, he penetrates the foundation of related accumulated knowledge. The discursive endnotes in this volume expand the message of the text, not in a pedantic fashion, but by demonstrating that in order to get to the core of an investigation, we must absorb the contributions of our predecessors to further our own understanding—or misunderstanding—of the past. Characteristic of Scolari's work, these notes—in contrast to standard procedure—are illustrated with images that constitute another level of reference, which expands on that of the text.

Scolari's studies orbit around the theme of visual and conceptual representation, and approach that theme as a manifestation of the ideological and philosophical orientations of different cultures. Scolari considers images not just as a form of art but as a form of thought, a projection of a way of life. This is most vividly articulated in the chapter bearing the name of the book, "Oblique Drawing," which begins with an extended investigation of representation in ancient Egypt—a tightly integrated society with the worldview of a closed and relatively unchanging culture in which writing, symbol, and depiction were intertwined. For all its preoccupation with the afterlife, Egypt represented the world more truthfully than other cultures, though not without ideographic conventions for adjusting to the flatness of paintings and reliefs. Greek and early Roman artists worked in a more open society and reported what they observed as well as the events of mythology (which Plato vigorously opposed), often with striking optical persuasiveness. Arab writers and artists, who preserved many of the Greek illustrated texts, and their medieval followers in the Aristotelian tradition responded to an atmosphere of philosophical/theological uncertainty, which disrupted the coherence of the object and led to a diagrammatic image that disregarded the viewer. The iconic character of Byzantine imagery also frustrated the efforts of observers to place themselves in relation to the icon or narrative.

The radical theology of the Franciscans in the Trecento promoted a new engagement of the artist with visual experience: Giotto and his contemporaries made the picture into a stage and the viewer a member of the audience. A century later the humanist Leon Battista Alberti built the foundation of artists' perspective on the concept of the picture as the intersection of a "pyramid" of visual rays originating in the object and converging on the viewer's eye.

As the subtitle of this book suggests, the majority of the chapters examine alternative—nonperspectival—techniques of presenting objects seen or imagined by draftsmen and painters for expressive and instructional purposes. Viewers in modern Western societies usually read ancient and medieval examples of oblique drawing as stepping-stones toward perspectival representation and modern examples as arbitrary geometrical distortions.

One-point perspective, built on the principles of ancient and medieval geometrical and optical texts, became paradigmatic for modern viewers. It plays a subliminal role in many of these studies because Scolari's intention is to illuminate alternatives to its obfuscating dominance during the last five centuries. Though familiar, one-point perspective distorts. Traditional artists' perspective requires the viewer to remain in a fixed position, seeing with only one eye, when actually our perception of depth is entirely dependent on the different position of two constantly moving eyes. We are so attuned to the artist's perspective that other types of projection appear to distort their subjects; bodies or structures presented in axonometric projection seem to the viewer raised on perspectival images to grow larger as they recede to the rear. Indeed, it is not always possible to establish a rear or a front in such images: when we look steadily at the transparent cubes in "Demonstration Figures," for example, what we first see as the rear face (in figures 6.6–6.9) shifts to the front, while the inner faces of the lateral sides become outer faces.

The methods of drawing discussed here have much in common, but each of Scolari's studies has a unique approach, which I shall characterize here. "Elements for a History of Axonometry" provides a foundation for the other essays related to oblique drawing. According to The Thesaurus of Art and Architecture of the Getty Research Center, axonometry "refers to all forms of parallel projection, particularly where at least one of the three spatial axes is inclined to the plane of projection or picture surface. It is often used to refer to projections depicted as if a plan were drawn to scale, and the plan is then tilted at a 45-degree angle to provide a third dimension, typically height, which is drawn to the same scale as the plan. This system for projection depicts both the plan and volume simultaneously and with a consistent measurement, without the distortion caused by the converging lines of one-point perspective."

The essay underscores Scolari's basic thesis that the illusionistic perspective that constituted the standard representational technique from the Renaissance until the early 1900s (and that is used even today by many non-avant-garde modern and contemporary artists) is not the only, or even the best, representation of objects in the world. While perspective purports to reproduce an object or a scene as it appears to an observer in a particular position, it gives a distorted impression of size and extension, particularly with regard to elements at a distance from the hypothetical eye of the viewer. Axonometric projection, by contrast, preserves, in scale, the actual measurements of objects it represents in breadth, height, and depth, as receding lines do not converge. It therefore is suited to the depiction of things that have to be constructed, such as buildings and machines, though it is less satisfactory for irregular and diffuse objects.

"Drawing in Paralleli Modo" is a short amplification of the study of axonometry that addresses the terminology of parallel projection historically. I was intrigued to find that Piero della Francesca differentiated perspettiva (as based on optics) from prospettiva (as based on conic representation) and that the terms axonometry and oblique axonometric projection were coined as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

Scolari elevates these geometrical/optical considerations to a higher level by tracing their philosophical roots, initially to the Platonic tradition and to Plotinus in particular, who dismissed illusionism as the mere shadow of reality and exhorted readers and listeners to seek the fundamental qualities of things, accessible to the mind's eye. Thus the object depicted in parallel projection was seen as closer to nature than the one clothed in appearances.

In sharp contrast to the philosophical motivations that had prompted the use of parallel projection in antiquity and the Middle Ages, its employment by the designers of fortifications ("The Soldierly Perspective") and machines ("Machinations") was a purely practical matter. Their drawings were addressed to specialists and responded to the need for precise measurement and descriptive effectiveness. They were not interested in developing a philosophical foundation for their work.

The character of warfare changed radically in the late fifteenth century when Charles viii of France invaded Italy with mobile cannons that easily demolished the tall square towers and flat walls that had protected cities from attack by military machinery in the era before the discovery of gunpowder. A wholly new type of defensive system had to be devised, one that not only would be less vulnerable to artillery attack but also could provide ample platforms upon low-lying bastions to accommodate mobile defensive cannons. Soulless machines of destruction became the driving force behind the design of defensive fortifications. The military architect—who had to calculate the trajectory of missiles and the angles of masonry and rubble most likely to deflect or absorb them—had to be a geometer and a ballistics expert, and had to provide precise measurements for every element of the plans and elevations. Fortification designs were executed in parallel projection so as to convey exact measurements in all dimensions. Gradually, over the course of the sixteenth century, architects—who had conceived defensive systems at the end of the 1400s with attention to beauty as well as to effectiveness—yielded this part of their practice to military specialists and theorists with battle experience whose aim was to protect their fellow soldiers and the citizens of towns under attack.

In "Machinations," Scolari traces the early history of the representation of machines and mechanisms, a field dominated by craftsmen whose low social status prevented their work from gaining the recognition accorded to geometrical and optical illustrated texts. The cultural and practical importance of machines was recognized by Vitruvius, who devoted his entire tenth book to the subject, emphasizing war machines in particular but providing few illustrations, none of which have survived. The mechanical texts of antiquity and the Middle Ages emphasized application over theory. Their illustrators made no attempt to suggest a particular point of view; they represented the elements of machines rather than how they functioned, often flattening them against the picture plane and focusing primarily on parts with which the machinist consulting their drawings was unlikely to be familiar. Post-Renaissance viewers—even specialists in the field—found many such drawings to be unreadable: a recent editor of Machinationes by Heron of Alexandria had all of the ancient illustrations redrawn because they were seen to be deformed and out of perspective.

The chapter "Demonstration Figures" examines illustrations found in manuscripts and printed books of cubes and other geometrical solids from antiquity to the Enlightenment. Scolari finds frequent confusion and errors related to a subtle problem in the evolution of axonometric projection, which had not previously affected modern discussions of representation (though it was discussed in Proclus's A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements). It results from the conflict between the abstract/ideal character of propositions in Euclidian geometry (for example, a point is that which has no part; a line is breadthless length, etc.) and the function of mathematical calculation to record concrete and practical measurements and proportions, which transforms the abstract into the concrete.

Two of the chapters, "Spatial Illusionism in Pompeian Wall Paintings" and "The Jesuit Perspective in China," depart from the technical orientation of the preceding by focusing on the role of oblique drawing in art.

Certain encaustic paintings of the Hellenistic period in the environs of Pompeii attracted Scolari's attention because at first sight they seemed to him to be examples of one-point perspective of a kind not found in other antique images. He first challenges Erwin Panofsky's influential theory that Pompeian illusionism was based on a form of perspective in which lines receding from the picture plane converge on a number of points along a vertical axis, like bones radiating from the spine of a fish. Scolari argues that a convincing representation of three-dimensional depth does not require the use of any systematic perspectival construction; indeed, even after the invention of costruzione legittima in the fifteenth century, artists almost always departed from its rules in some way. His attention focuses on a wall painting in the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of Mysteries) in Pompeii that represents a three-bay columnar niche. At the rear of each bay we see the persuasive illusion of a coffered barrel vault apparently receding into the space. Scolari examines and illustrates three hypotheses about the point of view chosen to construct the illusion and concludes that none of them works consistently, because the depiction, apart from assuring that the lines of the coffers and of the architectural orders converge on a central point, is achieved subjectively.

I suppose that Scolari was attracted to the efforts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in China to import Western religious images to help convert the Chinese to Christianity in part because they unequivocally failed, demonstrating how Renaissance perspective was not universally relevant. The pictures, illustrating Bible stories and other common devotional compositions, observed Renaissance rules of perspective. The Chinese could not read them, not only because they were accustomed to parallel projection, but because most of their own images focused on landscape—flora and fauna—not on gatherings of people, structures, or other rectilinear forms. They read shadows in the Jesuits' prints and paintings as stains. Like the Platonists, Chinese artists sought to appeal to the spiritual rather than to the descriptive powers of imagery. An acute insight into the differences in approach may be found in a citation for a Chinese painters' manual of the seventeenth century, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.

The architectural model is the subject of two investigations, one general, "The Idea of Model," and one specific, "Brunelleschi's Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Gherardi Drawing."

The first provides a three-dimensional foil for the studies of drawing and painting I have discussed. Models have played an important role in the building process since the late Middle Ages, particularly in preparation for the construction of large structures, but their function has been quite different from that of architectural drawings. Because architects have to work out definitive solutions initially in plan, they rarely get involved with models until the later stages of design; like the building itself, the model (unless it is a rough sketch of massing) cannot be started until the plan is fixed; architects then normally assign the construction of models to assistants or specialists. A primary reason for the production of models is the need to elucidate designs for those who are inexperienced in reading plans and sections (for example, a body of citizens, or a patron). Scolari also points to a practical function that is rarely discussed: models make it possible to study solutions to complicated construction problems. Prior to the twentieth century, models seldom represented the environment of buildings; consequently, they rarely were made for programs of military defense, which had to be highly responsive to the topography of their sites.

The second of these chapters has two parts. The first proposes evidence of Brunelleschi's authorship of the surviving model of the cathedral dome, and the second addresses a highly technical issue raised by the drawings and explanatory notes made on a sheet of parchment by Brunelleschi's contemporary, humanist Giovanni di Gherardo Gherardi. Gherardi's drawing has been analyzed by the most qualified contemporary Brunelleschi scholars with varying conclusions. The issues are so complex that I am unqualified to judge among these conclusions, especially without having seen the original, but Scolari's interpretation seems to me to demonstrate exceptional ingenuity and to warrant our support.

What I find most illuminating in this book is Scolari's multifaceted pursuit of his fundamental thesis that, from their earliest visual representations, natural and imagined objects—especially buildings, geometrical bodies, tools, machines—have been shaped philosophically and ideologically. At any given moment in history, the reader of images starts from the presumption that there is one proper technique with which to convey observations or conceptions from maker to viewer, from one person to another, and from one time to another. Scolari's studies vividly demonstrate what diverse forms of representation humankind has devised and how each one reveals something that is lacking in the others.


Excerpted from OBLIQUE DRAWING by MASSIMO SCOLARI Copyright © 2012 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of THE MIT PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction James S. Ackerman vii

1 Elements for a History of Axonometry 1

2 Spatial Illusionism in Pompeian Wall Paintings 25

3 Oblique Drawing 47

4 The Idea of Model 137

5 Brunelleschi's Model for the Dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore and the Gherardi Drawing 185

6 Demonstration Figures 215

7 Machinations 247

8 Soldierly Perspective 287

9 Drawing in Parallel! Modo 325

10 The Jesuit Perspective in China 341

11 The Tower of Babel: Form and Representation 359

Index 375

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From the Publisher

"…[A]n excellent resource for artists, architects, and historians. And, finally,what Oblique Perspective does achieve is to underscore the need for a more comprehensive study, or perhaps even many studies." — Nancy Goldring, Architect's Newspaper

The MIT Press

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