It is said that the theory of perspective in art was greatly developed during the Renaissance because of the search for reality at this time: more realistic representations.

My question is what motivated this search for reality? Were there philosophical, theological reasons, etc? Was it an intellectual challenge? curiosity? demands from the wealthier social class who wanted paintings like photographs? Are there references and studies that deal with this issue?

The theory of perspective is an important part of the history of science and mathematics. It is a mathematical model that describes how objects appear to change in size and shape as they are seen from different angles. This model has been used in art, architecture, and engineering for centuries.

One of the earliest known references to the theory of perspective is in the work of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. In his book, Optics, Euclid describes how to construct a perspective drawing. He also discusses the effects of perspective on the appearance of objects, such as how they appear to shrink as they move away from the viewer.

The theory of perspective was further developed in the Renaissance by artists and mathematicians such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, and Albrecht Dürer. These artists used the principles of perspective to create realistic and convincing paintings and sculptures. They also used perspective to create illusions of depth and space.

The theory of perspective has also been applied to other fields, such as engineering and architecture. In engineering, perspective is used to design objects that are safe and effective. In architecture, perspective is used to create buildings that are pleasing to the eye.

In conclusion, the theory of perspective is a valuable tool that has been used in a variety of fields. It is a product of the history of science and mathematics, and it continues to be used today.

Here are some additional references that support this thesis:

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Translated by John R. Spencer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.
Dürer, Albrecht. Four Books on Human Proportion. Translated by Caroline Elam. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by perspective theory? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Aug 25, 2023 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ "who wanted paintings like photographs" --- I wonder if, centuries before photographs were invented, people would have had any concept what a "realistic" "photograph" would look like. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2023 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Mauricio, I mean linear perspective en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspective_(graphical) $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2023 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ @TorstenSchoeneberg, of course my comment is anachronic but my inttention was to clarify my qurstion gor us, modern citzens. Y the inhabitants of the time did not know what a photograph was, but they had mirrors and I think they knew how to judge whether or not the drawing represented the object drawn $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2023 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it is not clear what an answer would look like. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2023 at 0:52

1 Answer 1


There were of course philosophical and cultural reasons for the development of the (linear) perspective during the Renaissance. It cannot be considered simply a change of tastes of patrons of art or a phenomenon out of curiosity.

It was linked to profound cultural changes and different attitudes toward the role of man in the world and toward religion which took place during the so-called humanism ( also called Renaissance humanism).

And it was also linked to a renewed interest in sciences, as physics and mathematics: consider, first of all Leonardo Da Vinci, who was at the same time one of the greatest artists of all time and a scientist.

In short words, it can be said that perspective can be considered a consequence and an expression of the modern anthropocentrism, which arose with humanism and Renaissance.

By the term Renaissance humanism historians denote a vast cultural renewal movement, in arts and in philosophy, which characterized European civilization, conventionally established between the end of the XIV century and the end of XV century, which had an attitude of sharp break with Medieval thought, above all by setting the man at the center of the vision of life and of the world, and therefore substituting anthropocentrism for theocentrism, which was typical of the previous era.

Renaissance humanism was characterized by an intense study of ancient classical authors, and an acknowledgment of the privileged position of man in nature.

In figurative arts, perspective is the expression of this new anthropocentrism:

In perspective the anthropocentric culture of modern era finds expression. The new painting style which we call Renaissance, based on perspective and on the rationalization of space, is the sign of a new attitude of man toward the world, of a spiritual, cultural and social transformation […]. The concept of space which emerges is not an expression of eternal ideas, immutable and abstract[…] The perspective image confers to the observer a privileged position, that acknowledges the primacy of the subject in the area of knowledge, and their centrality in historical agency. For this reason, perspective is the sign of the constitution of an anthropocentric thought, which abandons the Medieval theocentric attitude.

[…] The space that is represented is no longer the divine and absolute space, but the projection of a subjective point of view, both individual and universal: individual because it is supposed to be occupied by a unique observer, with only one open eye; universal as any other observer could stay on that point and reconstruct the space which from it takes form according to the universal laws of Euclidean geometry and optic. $^1$


The literature about Renaissance and perspective is very vast. Some of the most important historians of art dedicated efforts to the subject.

With regard to perspective, specifically, there are two books of some of the most well-known scholars of art:

Panofsky, Erwin, Perspective as a symbolic Form

Florensky, Pavel, Beyond Vision

Florensky was a Russian philosopher, a mathematician and an art historian, and he wrote also about art and mathematics.


Perspective is at the center of many connections between art and sciences, in particular, of course, mathematics and physics.

Boyer, A History of Mathematics, and Kline, Mathematic Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, devote some chapters to Renaissance and mathematics, and in particular to the relationships between mathematics, perspective and art.

Boyer recalls Italian and European artist who developed relatively new links between mathematics and figurative arts, as Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer.

In particular it is interesting that he mentions a treatise, which has been lost, by Leonardo Da Vinci, about perspective, Trattato della Pittura (Treatise of Painting), which begins with the admonition. “Don’t read me, if you are not a mathematician!” (Boyer, Chap. 15, sec. 20) $^2$,

Morris Klein devotes a chapter to the mathematical contribution of Renaissance, and recalls that the Renaissance artists were ‘universal’ men, as they had to do any kind of jobs, so that

they were obliged to learn mathematics, physics, architecture, stonecutting, engineering, metalworking, anatomy, woodworking, optics, statics, and hydraulics. They worked manually and at the same time they coped with the most abstract problems. At least in the XV century, they were the best mathematical physicists. [emphasis mine] (Kline, Chap. 12, section 1) $^3$

Therefore, they contributed to the development of geometry, for instance Alberti introduced the concepts of projection and section.

Kline, moreover, points out that at the origin of the projective geometry there were some problems that arose in the theory of perspective:

Some geometers of the XVIII century tried to give an answer to these problems. They considered the methods and the results they obtained as a part of Euclidean geometry. Actually, these methods and results [.. .] proved to be the origin of a new branch of geometry , which in the XIX century became known as projective geometry.

Obviously, the studies about perspective were linked not only to mathematics but also to physics.

An interesting study available in English is

Camerota, Filippo, Linear Perspective in the Age of Galileo.

The author here discusses the work of Ludovico Cigoli, La prospettiva pratica (The Practical Perspective), which is an extraordinary scientific document of the role of the representation of the visible world in Galilean research. Cigoli was a painter very close to Galileo, and his treatise illustrates important aspects of the perspective painting, as orthogonal projections of shadows or the use of mechanical instruments.

Another book by Filippo Camerota is La prospettiva del Rinascimento. Arte, architettura, scienza. (Perspective of Renaissance. Art, Architecture, Science)

The book is a history of perspective, beginning with the studies about vision based on the geometric model of Euclid, through Giotto, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Leonardo, with its connections with mathematics and science.

But I don’t know if an English translation exists.


You can see also:

Samuel Y. Edgerton,
The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe

$^1$ https://finestresuartecinemaemusica.blogspot.com/2018/09/la-prospettiva-come-espressione.html (my translation). The literature about Renaissance humanism and anthropocentrism is broad, for some link in English see https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/issue/the-anthropocentric-cosmotheory-of-the-renaissance-and-the-cult-of-man/ https://mylandrover.ru/en/suspension/antropocentrizm-i-gumanizm-v-filosofskoi-mysli-vozrozhdeniya-gumanizm-i.html

$^2$ p. 343 Italian edition

$^3$ p. 271 Italian edition.

  • $\begingroup$ The whole "anthropocentric" idea seems to be a 20th century fabrication. Do you have any evidence that any of the 17th century scholars you mentioned thought about their activity in terms of "anthropocentrism"? Most of them were likely deeply religious persons who would have balked at such characterisation. Many people were interested in perspective in the 17th century, but if you consider the two great pioneers of what will later be called projective geometry, namely Kepler and Desargues, the idea of underlying "anthropocentrism" seems out of place. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2023 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Anthropocentrism is of course a later term, a historical category as many, but the concept, the idea of man at the center of the world, it is the common, wide- spread concept, I dare say standard, concept of scholars of Renaissance art and literature, and the basic concept related to humanism, as reported in any text of history of art and literature. It is not a particular idea of some scholar, it is the mainstream vision, so that it is also what we are said at high school and in high school texts of history of art or literature. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2023 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ What can be the references? We can look at the history of art of Renaissance of the most important art historians, as Ernst Gombrich or Giulio Carlo Argan. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2023 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Religion is not in question, the idea that humanism, placing the man at the center of the universe, abandons religion is a misunderstanding, no serious scholar of Renaissance humanism would say such a thing: religion of course was not dismissed, but the perspective changed. “Humanism remains a deeply religious culture and substantially Christian. But the shift of cultural epicenter – from God to man – produces a new spirituality marked by tensions and inquietude unknown in the previous era”. This is a possible synthesis (by Battista Mondini, a well-known Italian philosophe and theologian). $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2023 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ We can for instance think of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who is one of the most important protagonists of humanism: for Erasmus, humanism placed at the center the ability to reason of man, of course not neglecting Christian religion: “What the eye is for the body, the reason is for the soul” (Erasmus). His humanism and the linked return to sources (humanist gave much importance to philology) led Erasmus to his Reform, intended as a recovery of the true message of Christ and of the original message of Christianity. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2023 at 11:52

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