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Belting, Hans. Florence and Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science.

BELTING, Hans. Florence and Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. 304pp. Cloth, $39.95--In this finely produced and handsomely illustrated book, Professor Hans Belting, professor of Art History and Media Theory at the Academy of design in Karlesruhe, Germany, presents a scholarly account of the influence of early studies on optics by the Arabian mathematician, Alhazen (965-1040 A.D.) and their later influence on Italian Renaissance art, as well as bearing on further Western concepts of human perception and epistemology.

The book opens with an examination of the notion of "perspective" in the narrowest sense of the word. In general English usage, the word perspective is used to signify a particular point of view as in, "From an historical perspective ...," or as, "putting things in their proper perspective." Art Historians may speak of the "atmospheric perceptive" used by Leonardo DaVinci in which cooler colors are used to portray objects at a great distance, or "hieratic perspective" used in both Medieval and Oriental art where the more important personages are rendered larger than the rest, but Belting refers exclusively to the "mathematical perspective," described in Alhazen's original work on optics as titled in the Medieval Latin translation Perspectiva.

In his work, Alhazen describes his experiments using a Camera Obscura, or darkened chamber with a small peep hole, and the aid of mirrors to prove that light traveled in straight lines (foreshadowing the work of Kepler and Descartes some 600 years later). From these studies he reversed the classical optical theory that the eye emitted energy in order to perceive objects, to a theory that physical light rays were reflected from a multitude of points on objects, and that these rays travelled in straight lines to the curvature of the eyeball and were thus transmitted to the brain. Alhazen had no interest in art, only the transmission and geometry of light. Given the Moslem prohibition of depicting images of living (breathing) creatures as counterfeits infringing on the unique prerogative of Allah, this neglect is understandable. Moslem art did, however, develop according to Alhazen's theories in the beautiful geometric patterns seen throughout the Arab world as in the manuscripts, painting, and the three dimensional stucco work called Muqarnas, found in the Middle and Far East, as well as in Granada and other sites in Andalusia.

It was in Renaissance Italy that Alhazen's Perspectiva finally produced fruit as a theory of art. With the advent of Humanism, the author tells us, the "individual human gaze" triumphed over the static theocentric world view of the Middle ages as to how man perceives the world.

The great Renaissance polymath, Leon Batista Alberti (1404-1472), was the first author to promote this transformation in his treatise on painting, Della Pittura. Alberti even used a winged human eye as his emblem. Based on the theories found in Alhazen's optics, Alberti stated that, "I will take from mathematics those things [of] which my subject is concerned." Thus he proposed that perspective was a mathematical system that indicates how a real-world scene would project to the vantage point of the observer. If a picture is to be produced, a picture surface is placed between the real-world scene and the vantage point of the individual. Each point of interest in the real-world scene is joined to the vantage point by a straight line.

Most of the Renaissance painters of this time, known as the founding fathers of the perspective technique--for example, Brunelleschi, Uccello, Masaccio, Pierro della Francesca, and Leonardo Da Vinci--were brilliant mathematicians as well as skilled painters and draughtsmen.

In a chapter devoted to the subject of optics, the author tells us that Alhazen's theories led to dispute over whether sensory perception could be the source of genuine knowledge. The dispute thus involved the relationship between the eye and the mind. Roger Bacon (1214-1292) had argued, following Alhazen, that species, or visible form, entered from without via the senses, while William of Ockham (1285-1347) and the "nominalists" denied this. Rene Descartes would insist, "It is the mind which sees, not the eye [c'est l'ame qui voit, et non pas l'oeil]."

Much of the book is dedicated to how perspective influences the subjective human gaze, such as how Baroque architecture was designed to conform to the Sovereign's "gaze," revolutionary art to the popular "gaze," or how individual artists used mirror images to reflect their own "gaze."

The orderly presentation of the physical world according to defined mathematical rules is not fully developed in this book, although the author acknowledges the work of a little known philosopher of optics, Biagio Pelicani of Parma, (d. 1416) who held that the size and distance presented in perspective were real, because they were measurable quantities. In Biagio's theory of vision, space was a quantitative dimension that provided reliable data from the external world. He states: "Vision alone is not sufficient to determine the size of one object from another," but, "the size can be determined by investigating an object's proportional relationship to an object whose size is known," and that it is precisely linear perspective that allows us to judge the size and distance of objects between the vantage point of the viewer and the horizon.

Although not emphasized, it was this "realist" view of perspective, or the scientific placing of objects and ideas in their proper proportional relationship, that was an integral part of Western thought in the age of expansion and colonization. Belting tells us, anecdotally, that the Jesuits taught the rules of perspective extensively in China, and Rudyard Kipling's father was an instructor of perspective in India.--Reed Armstrong, International Catholic University.
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Author:Armstrong, Reed
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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