Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Notes 7-47 - Notes 48-52

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956].

Book One [cont.]

It would be well to add to the above statements the opinion of philosophers who affirm that if the sky, the stars, the sea, mountains and all bodies should become--should God so will [36]--reduced by half, nothing would appear to be diminished in any part to us. All knowledge of large, small; long, short; high, low; broad, narrow; clear, dark; light and shadow and every similar attribute is obtained by comparison. Because they can be, but are not necessarily, conjoined with objects, philosophers are accustomed to call them accidents. Virgil says [p. 54] that Aeneas stood head and shoulders above other men, but placed next to Polyphemus he seemed a dwarf. Nisus and Euryalus were most handsome, but compared to Ganymede who was abducted by the Gods, they would probably have seemed most ugly. [37] Among the Spanish many young girls appear fair who among the Germans would seem dusky and dark. [38] Ivory and silver are white; placed next to the swan or the snow they would seem pallid. For this reason things appear most splendid in painting where there is good proportion of white and black similar to that which is in the objects--from the lighted to the shadowed.

Thus all things are known by comparison. For comparison contains within itself a power which immediately demonstrates in objects which is more, less or equal. From which it is said that a thing is large when it is greater than something small and largest when it is greater than something large; bright when it is brighter than shadow, brilliant when it is brighter than something bright. This is best done with well-known things.

Since man is the thing best known to man, perhaps as Protagoras, by saying that man is the mode and measure of all things, meant that all the accidents of things are known through comparison to the accidents of man. [39] In what I say here, I am trying to make it understood that no matter how well small bodies are painted in the picture they will appear large and small by comparison with whatever man is painted there. It seems to me that the antique painter, Timantes, understood this force of comparison, for in painting a small panel of a gigantic sleeping Cyclops he put there several satyrs who were measuring the giant's thumb; by comparison with them the sleeper seemed immense. [40]

Up to this point we have talked about what pertains to the power of sight and to the cross-section. Since it is not enough for the painter to know what the cross-section is, but since he should also know how to make it, we will treat of that. Here alone, leaving aside other things, I will tell what I do when I paint. [p. 55] First of all about where I draw. I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint. [41] Here I determine as it pleases me the size of the men in my picture. I divide the length of this man in three parts. These parts to me are proportional to that measurement called a braccio, for, in measuring the average man it is seen that he is about three braccia. [42] With these braccia I divide the base line of the rectangle into as many parts as it will receive. To me this base line of the quadrangle is proportional to the nearest transverse and equidistant quantity seen on the pavement. [43] Then, within this quadrangle, where it seems best to me, I make a point which occupies that place where the central ray strikes. For this it is called the centric point. This point is properly placed when it is no higher from the base line of the guadrangle than the height of the man that I have to paint there. Thus both the beholder and the painted things he sees will appear to be on the same plane. [44]

The centric point being located as I said, I draw straight lines from it to each division placed on the base line of the quadrangle. These drawn lines, [extended] as if to infinity, demonstrate to me how each transverse quantity is altered visually. [45]

Here some would draw a transverse line parallel to the base line of the quadrangle. The distance which is now between the two lines they would divide into three parts and, moving away a distance equal to two of them, add on another line. They would add to this one another and yet another, always measuring in the same way so that the space divided in thirds which was between the first and second always advances the space a determined amount. Thus continuing, the spaces would always be--as the mathematicians say--superbipartienti [46] to the following spaces. I can say those who would do thus, even though they follow the good way of painting in other things, would err. Because if the first line is placed by chance, [p. 56] even though the others follow logically one can never know certainly where the point of the visual pyramid lies. From this no small errors arise in painting. Add to this how much the reason [of such painters] is faulty when the centric point is placed higher or lower than the height of the depicted men.

Know that a painted thing can never appear truthful where there is not a definite distance for seeing it. I will give the reason for this if ever I write of my demonstrations which were called miracles by my friends when they saw and marvelled at them. Much of it is relevant to what I have said up to here.

Let us return to our subject. I find this way to be best. In all things proceed as I have said, placing the centric point, drawing the lines from it to the divisions of the base line of the quadrangle. In transverse quantities where one recedes behind the other I proceed in this fashion. I take a small space in which I draw a straight line and this I divide into parts similar to those in which I divided the base line of the quadrangle. Then, placing a point at a height equal to the height of the centric point from the base line, I draw lines from this point to each division scribed on the first line. Then I establish, as I wish, the distance from the eye to the picture. Here I draw, as the mathematicians say, a perpendicular cutting whatever lines it finds. A perpendicular line is a straight line which, cutting another straight line, makes equal right angles all about it. The intersection of this perpendicular line with the others gives me the succession of the transverse quantities. In this fashion I find described all the parallels, that is, the square [d] braccia of the pavement in the painting. If one straight line contains the diagonal [47] of several quadrangles described in the picture, it is an indication to me whether they are drawn correctly or not. Mathematicians call the diagonal of a quadrangle a straight line [drawn] from one angle to another. [This line] divides the quadrangle into two parts in such a manner that only two triangles can be made from one quadrangle. [48]

This being done, I draw transversely in the quadrangle of the [p. 57] picture a straight line parallel to the base line, which passes through the centric point from one side to the other and divides the quadrangle. Because this line passes through the centric point, I call it the centric line. [49] For me this line is a limit above which no visible quantity is allowed unless it is higher than the eye of the beholder. Because of this, depicted men placed in the last squared braccia of the painting are smaller than the others. Nature herself demonstrates to us that this is so. In temples the heads of men are seen to be almost all on the same level but the feet of the farthest correspond to the knees of the nearest. However, this rule for dividing the pavement belongs to what we shall later call composition.

[All that I have written is] such that I doubt if much will be understood by the reader, either because of the newness of the material or because of the brevity of the commentary. How difficult this is can be seen in the works of antique sculptors and painters; perhaps because it was obscure, it was hidden and unknown to them. One scarcely sees a single antique [i] storia aptly composed. [50]

Up to this point I have said useful but brief things; I believe [they are] not completely obscure. Let it be understood that I have made no attempt to capture the prize for eloquence here. He who does not understand this at the first glance will scarcely learn it no matter how much effort he applies. [51] To the subtle of wit and to those suited to painting, these our things will be facile and most beautiful no matter how they are said. To one who is rude and by nature little given to these most noble arts, these things--even if they were most eloquently written--would be unpleasing. This book should be read with care, then, because it is written without eloquence. I beg that I may be pardoned if, where I above all wish to be understood, I have given more care to making my words clear than ornate. I believe that which follows will be less tedious to the reader.

We have talked, as much as seems necessary, of triangles, pyramids, the cross-section. I usually explain these things to [p. 58] my friends with certain prolix geometric demonstrations which in this commentary it seemed to me better to omit for the sake of brevity., Here I have related only the basic instructions of the art, and by instructions I mean that which will give the untrained painter the first fundamentals of how to paint well. These instructions are of such a nature that [any painter] who really understands them well both by his intellect and by his comprehension of the definition of painting will realize how useful they are. Never let it be supposed that anyone can be a good painter if he does not clearly understand what he is attempting to do. He draws the bow in vain who has nowhere to point the arrow. [52]

I hope the reader will agree that the best artist can only be one who has learned to understand the outline of the plane and all its qualities. On the contrary, anyone who has not been most diligent in understanding what we have said up to this point will never be a good artist. Therefore, these intersections and planes are necessary things. There remains to teach the painter how to follow with his hand what he has learned with his mind.

End of Book One
[p. 59]



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