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La prospettiva del Rinascimento: Arte, architettura, scienza.

Filippo Camerota. La prospettiva del Rinascimento: Arte, architettura, scienza.

Architetti e architetture 19. Milan: Electa, 2006. 366 pp. index. illus. bibl. [euro]45 ISBN: 88-370-2119-4.

While reading this book, I became increasingly dismayed at the prospect of reviewing it: there seemed to be no main argument to summarize. However, the conclusions, about a side of print, convinced me that this was the author's intention. The book gives what it promises on the cover: an account of perspective in the Renaissance, due allowance being made for the term prospettiva also covering much of what we would now call optics. The work also considers surveying and cartography. After a rapid summary of ancient and Islamic optics, the period covered ranges from the later thirteenth century (Giotto and Dante) to the seventeenth (with a finishing mid-eighteenth-century salute to Newtonianism). The conclusions sketch what happened next and the projective geometry of Girard Desargues--published in 1639 and certainly the most important piece of mathematics to come out of perspective--is classed as part of this aftermath. So I am not convinced Camerota has fulfilled the "science" part of his brief, particularly since his discussion of mathematical work is cursory throughout, thereby doing much less than justice to Piero della Francesca, Federico Commandino, Giovanni Battista Benedetti, Johannes Kepler, and several others; but his treatment of painting and architecture is of considerable interest.

There is, of course, a price to be paid for the wide range of the material, namely occasional reliance on secondary sources. In one case this unfortunately perpetuates a howler. Camerota apparently endorses James Elkins's inherently implausible, and actually erroneous, assertion that Piero della Francesca's proof of his perspective method is incorrect (one hopes Art Bulletin has smartened up its reviewing procedures since 1987). Camerota is mathematically competent and understands the technical terms associated with perspective that seem to have confused Elkins, so direct engagement with Piero's text could have enlightened him. There are even some secondary sources in his bibliography that would have done so. The slip is strange because Camerota agrees with all other historians in recognizing Piero's text as fundamental to an understanding of Renaissance writings on perspective. On the other hand, the breadth of Camerota's subject matter provides a sense of cultural context that will be helpful to nonspecialist readers.

The book is handsome, and Electa has met its customary high standard for the illustrations, though some of them are rather small. Claude Mellan's wonderful engravings of the Moon have suffered particularly badly. Galileo's small diagrams of the Moon have fared much better, and Cigoli's version of them is, as ever, much easier to admire in a photograph than from the floor of Santa Maria Maggiore about fifty feet below the tiny dome in which it is painted.

The volume belongs to a series, and it may be that some of the disservices the publishers have done the author and his readers are due to the imposition of an overall style for the series. The gravest disservice is that the index is restricted to personal names. Thus, if one wanted to know about anamorphosis, one would need to decide on a name, or resort to leafing through the volume in search of relevant illustrations. As it happens, Holbein's The Ambassadors makes a rather attractive miniature, and there are two subsections of text whose titles refer to anamorphosis--"Anamorphosis, the planisphere and the projection of shadows," and "Quadratura painting, scenography, anamorphosis"--but both of these are at too low a level to appear in the analytical contents table at the end of the book. Nor does the contents table give locations for the notes, which appear at the ends of the four main divisions ("Natural perspective," "Perspective for painting," "The eye and the compasses," and "Perspective for building"). There are no running heads. The author has written an orderly book, but the publishers have made it difficult to read in any way except straight through. This seems particularly perverse in view of the wide range of the subject matter.


Birkbeck, University of London
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Author:Field, J.V.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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