The past provides us with plenty examples that dispute the contemporary idea of the artist and the scientist as opposing and irreconcilable forces. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) represents the paradigm of the mixed character of art and science and his achievements are well-known to the public. Engineering, mathematics, painting, sculpture, music, architecture and writing are just some of the subjects touched by Leonardo’s genius, and in most of them this extraordinary author truly excelled. Michelangelo (1475-1564), although less productive beyond a pure artistic sphere, may be also regard as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, along with Leonardo.
Actually, the Renaissance is fertile ground for those who wish to investigate the crossroads towards which art and science converged. In that period, we do not only find several authors that are hardly classified within a single category, but also some very important artistic and scientific progresses in each area that resulted from an open and intense exchange of ideas. In fact, the term polymath – meaning those whose knowledge and expertise is spread out through a wide range of fields – is almost a synonymous to Renaissance Man.
Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472) is another prominent representative of this tradition. He was a painter, musician, sculptor, architect, poet and cryptographer. Although the importance of his paintings is a matter of dispute, his contribution for perspective — published in the book De Pictura (1435, in latin; later translated to Italian as Della Pittura, in 1436) — is unquestionable and invaluable .
Alberti also wrote a treatise on sculpture, De Statua (1464), and a book on architecture, De Re Aedificatoria (1845), but his studies on perspective, namely by formulating the theory of linear perspective, is the achievement that puts him in the center of Renaissance movement. Piero della Francesca (1412-1492), another Renaissance Man keen to art and science, continued this line of work and in 1474 published a treatise on geometry named De Prospectiva Pingendi. In the 15th century, architecture, geometry and painting were continuously merging and leaded to a theoretical breakthrough that changed the way artists reproduced the surrounding world.
During the Renaissance, other theories and tools besides perspective served different fields of knowledge and creative impulses. The camera obscura, for instance — an optical device whose principles are known since the classical Greece — gained popularity amongst artists after improvements in its portability and advances in optics. It seems that the camera was a highly valued tool for 17th century painters. Although there is some dispute on the thesis, some researchers argue that Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and Cannaletto (1697-1768), just to name a few, made use of the camera obscura as an assisting device, in order to improve the realism and enhance the details of their masterpieces. Two centuries later, camera obscura became the photographic camera and another prolific era of dialogue between art and science began. Still in the 17th century, other tools, such as the camera lucida and concave mirrors, were also used with the purpose of enhancing the artists’ vision and their ability to represent reality as accurate as possible.
Carlos M. Fernandes
*Alberti is often credited with the invention of perspective, but the contribution of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) should not be underestimated.