Experimentation with the Natural World

(I haven’t written in awhile, and I don’t know when I will, so this is intended as filler. This paper is for HISTORY 31: Science, Technology and Art: The Worlds of Leonardo da Vinci. The citation superscripts were lost in the mix, but they’re at the bottom, if unlabeled. Hope you enjoy or at least decide ahead of time that it’s not worth reading.)

When we look back to the Italian Renaissance, we see two superficially different visions: the world of the past in classical Rome and the world of the future in experimentation. One aspect that unifies these two perspectives is an interest in the natural world. In 15th century Florence, artists began to focus on understanding mechanisms driving the world, recreating its characteristics in their art, and finding man’s place in it. The resulting experimentation in technique and understanding was largely driven by the demand and appreciative awareness of Florentine society. We can consider the construction of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore and the use of perspective in painting to understand how this interest in the natural world was central to experimentation at this time.

The dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore was conceived as an experiment, long before Brunelleschi proposed his solution to it. By its original foundation, the dome would be the widest in the world, though no design existed at the time for how to complete it . Here, we find the first clue to how experimentation developed in architecture: a faith that it would be completed. Although the problem had not been solved, the Opera del Duomo continued to support its construction, believing that eventually, the ingenuity of man could create a solution to overcome the constraints of physics and construction.

Overall, Brunelleschi’s proposed design exhibits his exploration of the dynamics of the world and experiments on the precise construction method. It’s likely that the design of the dome drew inspiration from his time in Rome, where he looked at their methods of vaulting . The design itself required tremendous faith: he would construct the pointed dome without centering, the wooden supports for a dome . Domes, especially ones that weren’t perfectly round, were rarely constructed without centering, and Brunelleschi needed other methods of support to counter the effects of gravity. Even with his faith in his ideas, Brunelleschi constructed two smaller domes beforehand, also without centering, an example of experimenting with an idea on a smaller scale . Overall, the construction of the dome overcome many obstacles presented by the dynamics of the world: his newly invented hoists efficiently lifted materials high into the air, rings of braces in the dome held it securely against the downwards and outwards pressure, and curvature control devices allowed work to progress evenly from all direction. These insights required a complete vision of its construction as well as a deep understanding of the dynamics that needed to be overcome.

Given its experimental nature, it’s surprising that his design was accepted, and it reflects the spirit of society at that time. Brunelleschi’s design was picked from a competition to complete the dome. Previously, he had competed for the construction of the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni and had left Florence for Rome when he lost . Brunelleschi, already a prideful man, understood the honor of competitions and the impact of a loss on one’s reputation. These competitions provided a public venue for artists to demonstrate their newest ideas. Although direct patronage was an important method of funding art at this time, these competitions encouraged participants to experiment with new techniques and methods to stand out. For men like Brunelleschi who were confident in their own abilities, these competitions were the motivation they needed. Success meant acclaim in the eyes of the often astute public.
This relationship between artists and the public extended beyond architecture to painting as well. Their efforts to understand the world were also supported by the varied talents of the public. Art was not only an aesthetic pleasure, but also an item subject to deeper analysis. Baxandall argues that we enjoy “a painting that gives us opportunity for exercising a valued skill…” This idea encourages artists to try out more complex elements in their paintings as they know that a discerning observer can appreciate it. For example, gauging, the estimation of container volumes, was a common talent among businessmen at this time, and they learned the math in school. As a small token gesture, artist might place measurable objects into paintings. More significantly, this type of critique encouraged artists to analyze their entire composition more rigorously. The desire to better represent the proportions of a human body took further study and practice to perfect . This interplay between the artist and the public motivated the artist to learn and experiment at this time.

As they improved their craft with respect to the expectations of the public, artists began to understand their role in the world. Artists realized that they were part of a movement in creating a new world, where the focus shifted away from the divine to man and his talents in the natural world. Not only did they recognize this fact, but so did their patrons. During this time, the role of expensive materials in painting diminished as “its place was filled by references to an equally conspicuous consumption of something else–skill”. Contracts specified payment for an artist’s work under separate heading, and patrons sometimes went as far as to specify certain objects that should appear in the piece. Even the talent of individual artists were translated directly into compensation for their skill, much like professional athletes today . This recognition and support of an artist’s talents not only valued his medium and labor, but also the skill and unique characteristics behind it. It served to motivate artists to develop new methods to distinguish themselves for both more lucrative contracts and popularity.

One important method developed in the early Florentine Renaissance was the use of perspective in painting. Once known in classic Roman art, perspective became a part of an artist’s academic knowledge to be integrated into practice. During the Middle Ages, artists had discarded the use of perspective, believing that it was a form of “dishonesty.” They instead painted flat images that reflected the “true” proportions of shapes . One method that Renaissance artists applied was linear perspective. Within the painting lay a vanishing point, with a horizon across it. Transverse lines crossed the plane, and orthogonal lines converged to this vanishing point.

Although this layout seems intuitive to us today, perspective was a rediscovery and extension that changed art at this time. Although Brunelleschi may have been exposed to perspective in Rome, the structure of Florence helped to solidify it in his mind. Simply looking across the city, Brunelleschi had an example of how he might develop this technique. Brunelleschi reproduced the view from the Baptistery of San Giovanni, drawing out all objects in the contents of the panel. By looking through a hole at the vanishing point in the reverse of the painting, an observer could stand at the same point and compare the actual view of the world with the image in a mirror. In a second example with the Palazzo della Signoria, Brunelleschi could concretely see the convergence of appearance of lines as the angles of the building and grid of the ground could be laid out. This visual illusion allowed others to see painting through this new perspective.

Alberti integrated Brunelleschi’s experiments into his theory of painting. He developed a painting machine that laid out the boxes for an area in perspective. Other Florentine artists picked up on this development quickly, also experimenting with this technique. Donatello’s Feast of Herod was sculpted in relief using linear perspective to give the illusion of depth. In even this case, the perspective isn’t perfect, such as the pavement in the ground. Even so, central figures in the front of the scene become more prominent. Masaccio used linear perspective in Trinity, portraying Jesus in the middle, with a barreled vault behind him and God hovering above. Again, the perspective doesn’t seem to converge to a single point, but it is a landmark use of perspective. In this painting, Masaccio chooses to put all of the human elements into perspective while God hovers above. Not only does this separate the divine world from the natural world with perspective and depth that man belongs to, it also separates the domain of these new experiments from the art of the past.

Although this paper reflects on this topic centuries later, the importance of the natural world in art was also recognized during this time. Cristoforo Landino, a Florentine philosopher during the 15th century, credited Masaccio as being an “imitator of nature” . The development of imitating nature in art relied on two important interplays. First, the imitation of nature was linked to the exploration of nature: new discoveries from experiments provided more phenomenon to imitate, and this desire to imitate nature motivated more discoveries. Second, the talents of artists were both displayed to and shaped by the public. The public valued the skill of the artist, and their appreciation for new techniques encouraged artists to try new techniques. Together, these factors created an environment conducive to artistic experimentation in 15th century Florence.

Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome (New York: Penguin Group, 2000), 6.
King, Brunelleschi’s Dome, 26.
King, Brunelleschi’s Dome, 37-41.
King, Brunelleschi’s Dome, 45-46.
King, Brunelleschi’s Dome, 20.
Michael Baxandall, Painting & Experience In Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 34.
Baxandall, Painting & Experience, 86-102.
Baxandall, Painting & Experience, 15-23.
King, Brunelleschi’s Dome, 34.
Baxandall, Painting & Experience, 119.

Baxandall, Michael. Painting & Experience In Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.
Plmb, J. H. The Italian Renaissance. New York: First Mariner Books, 2001.

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