Author(s) Barbaro, Daniele
Title La pratica della perspettiva...
Imprint Venice, C. & R. Borgominieri, 1568
Localisation Paris, Cinémathèque française - bibliothèque du film, WD 4°38
Subject Perspective
Transcribed version of the text


     The treatise on practical perspective by the Venitian humanist Daniele Barbaro was the first work of its type published in Italy. Before then, it was enough to consult very incomplete approaches, such as Pomponio Gaurico's on perspective in sculpture (1504).  Admittedly, Alberti's De Pictura was published (in Latin in 1540 and in an Italian translation in 1547) but it did no more than set forth the precepts of practical perspective and draw conceptual consequences from it for painting.  When all was said and done, Serlio's development of the question in his Book I remained the most developed.  Theoretical knowledge relative to the practice of perspective was then spread more often by means of manuscripts and loose sheets.
Besides the book published in 1568 and 1569 by the Borgominieri brothers, we have three manuscripts of Barbaro's perspective at the Marciana library in Venice; one Latin version entitled Schenographia pictoribus et sculptoribus perutilis (cod. Lat. VIII. 41, 3069) and two Italian versions. The first one (cod. It. IV. 39, 5446) was hand written by the author and contains several additions and illustrations related to the published text.  The second version (cod. It. IV. 40, 5447) is the text that was used for publication.
In his annotations on Vitruvius' treatise (1567), Barbaro had already devoted a long passage to the question.  Whereas in the first book he discusses Vitruvius' three modes of representation (ichnography, orthography and scenography), he emphasizes a point of philological erudition which appears interesting.  Indeed he asks himself whether the third mode truly corresponds to scenographia, a representation in three dimensions (perspective or a scale model), or to skiagraphia, stemming from a drawing with shadows and understood here as the profile of things.  Even if the definition that Vitruvius gives to it refers more to the first, according to Barbaro, the profile or the section responds much better to architectural needs than perspective does.  He pursues this reflection on pages 129 to 131 of the treatise on perspective.  Thus, according to its author, the treatise on perspective, coming out two years after the Vitruvian annotations, is anchored in the practices of representation and not of construction.  On that occasion Barbaro asserts the link between perspective and theatre scenery painting.
However, the experience recorded by Barbaro in his work did not come from painters' workshops.  He learned perspective with the mathematician Giovanni Zamberti, the brother of Bartolomeo, the celebrated translator of Euclid.  From contact with him, he became initiated into the questions of geometrical optics which make up the starting point of his treatise.  But he extends the universe of scientific reference considerably for problems of figurative standardization.  The questions raised by Ptolemy's planisphere entered into debates on perspective in the second half of the 16th century, thanks to Federico Commandino's annotation (1558).  Commandino's work, and later that of Guidobaldo del Monte (even more so) began nevertheless to sketch out the separation in the evolution of treating perspective into two distinct branches: one speculative and the other practical.  Barbaro recognized the learned characteristics of Commandino's demonstrations "ma quanto allo essercitio, & alla introduttione di persone noue all’operare di mano oscure, & difficili" (p. 3).  All through the La pratica della perspettiva, it is therefore a question of creating conditions which would transmit mathematical subject matter to artists, allowing them to use it. This didactic preoccupation is reflected in the structure of the text.  The work opens up with a preparatory text which contains the principles of geometrical optics, the division of surfaces, the properties of triangles and the distinction between point at the level of the eye and distance point. The heart of the account, presenting the different methods of rendering perspective, is organized according to Vitruvius' three modes of representation.  First, plane figures and the reduction of floor surfaces or paving.  Barbaro rapidly finds overt support in his reading of Piero della Francesca's treatise, De prospectiva pingendi, written around 1474, which, although it remained in manuscript form, was rather widely distributed.  In particular in this first part, he borrowed the demonstration of the necessity of placing the represented object in the background of the painting. This remark gave him the opportunity to discuss the difficult problem of the aperture of the angle of vision with which the theoreticians of perspective opposed each other during the Renaissance.  There follows a part which corresponds in his opinion to orthography and devoted to going from plan to elevation.  This chapter presents several deployed polyhedra borrowed from the Underweysung der Messung de Dürer (1525) and draws on the mazzochio, already made popular by Piero and which was to become a usual illustration in treatises treating the question.  The fourth part, the third one in the account on the methods of rendering perspective, is devoted to scenography and, indeed, after a review of perspective in capitals and other architectural elements such as the architrave, it contains a presentation taken from Serlio of the three kinds of scenes: tragic, comic and satyric.
The rest of the treatise is composed of four short appendices, separated from the general discourse.  The sixth part is the account and the reduction of the diagram of Ptolomy's planisphere.  It holds a specific place in the treatise, apart from the usual methods of rendering perspective. Then come some pages on the projection of shadows, a set of themes which was not to find its true place in the treatises on perspective until the beginning of the 17th century, followed by the proportions of the human body, considerably inspired by Vitruvius and Dürer.  Finally, there is a last section bringing together several instruments which had not yet all appeared in literature: Dürer's coarse netting and Baldassare Lanci's instrument.  Among the instruments, he displays for the first time the practical functioning of the “camera oscura”: the necessity to have a perfectly dark room, the use of the convergent lens, the way to focus on the subject and the method the artist must use to render shadows and copy the image.  After having declared the end of his treatise, he nevertheless adds one more instrument, to measure walls, by Giacomo Castriotto. If this seems a bit irrelevant, the link with questions of perspective is however real, since the two activities are based on calculating triangles.
Barbaro's treatise on perspective is the first text which attempted to bring together in a single book subject matter which until then had been dispersed in works coming from numerous, sometimes unrelated, disciplines, and of very different statuses.  It was also difficult for artists and amateurs to have access to this subject matter because it was located in personal manuscripts and communications as well as in published works.  Barbaro structures the science of perspective around Vitruvius' three modes of representation which are understood here as categories of explaining knowledge.  He expresses his remarkable skill in reformulating speculations and giving them a function clearly and briefly.  Thus Barbaro's treatise constitutes the first reduction in the art of perspective, a model which was to be traditional until the 19th century. There is a reissue in 1569.

Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny (Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin) – 2010


Critical bibliography

P. Caye, L. Moretti, F. Lemerle, V. Zara (ed.), Daniele Barbaro 1514-1570. Vénitien, patricien, humaniste, Turnhout, Brepols, 2017.

P. J. Laven, Daniele Barbaro, patriarch elect of Aquileia, with special reference to his circle of scholars and to his literary achievement, unpublished thesis, University of London, 1957.

G. Farhat, "Contemplation des éléments: l’intelligible en perspective; Barbaro, Jamnitzer, Pacioli, Proclus et la visualisation des éléments naturels", H. Brunon, D. Mosser & D. Rabreau (ed.), Les éléments et les métamorphoses de la nature, Bordeaux, Blake & Co, 2004, pp. 93-109.

S. Marcon (ed.), Daniele Barbaro 1514-70 Letteratura, scienza e arti nella Venezia del Rinascimento, Venezia, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana 10 dicembre 2015-31 gennaio 2016, Venezia, antigaedizioni, 2015, pp. 147-155.