Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1425
Linear perspective is a fascinating device used by most painters in the fifteenth century. Some artists used
it for powerful emotional effects; others used it to create visual “tricks” to amuse viewers. An example of
the latter is Andrea Mantegna’s Frescoes in the Camera Picta (literally “the painted room”) of the Ducal
Palace in Mantua. Here, the ceiling is painted in perspective so that it appears open to the sky. A number
of giggling ladies and small angels look down and a heavy pot of flowers perches precariously above our
Mantegna, ceiling for the Camera Picta, 1473
Around 1435, humanist and artist Leon Battista Alberti wrote a book called On Painting. In it, he described
how to accomplish linear perspective, but he also discussed other matters important to painters. Most
important, he said, was that the story in the painting be told clearly—organized well without excess clutter,
but with enough variety to make the work interesting. Although some patrons still preferred the richly
decorated surfaces of the international style—a style derived from the late Gothic style, which was popular
in the courts throughout Europe—the more progressive patrons encouraged the kind of clarity and
rationality that Alberti wrote about.
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