Plate 14 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus



Giorgio Vasari credited Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) with the discovery of oil pigments, but scholars have shown that the use of nut and seed oils to bind colors predated the work of van Eyck. Stradanus's image illustrates all the stages of a panel painting, from underdrawing to finishwork. The apprentices (in various stages of their training) practice drawing, grind colors, and prepare the palette for their master. The use of oil paints was only one of the new modes of representation that emerged at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Artists also rendered nature and the human form with an unprecedented naturalism, featuring, significantly, the perspective constructions of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). One result of this striving to imitate nature precisely was an increasingly interconnected relationship among art, observation, mechanics, and nature.

Artists' perspective was developed in early fifteenth-century Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi and others. It involved a geometric method of projecting a three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface. Brunelleschi used perspective construction to make a series of trompe l'oeil panels on which were painted images of buildings familiar to his fellow Florentine townsmen. David Summers has argued that Brunelleschi was not striving to render buildings in a naturalistic manner, but rather was attempting to replicate the architectural drawings of the Roman architect, Vitruvius, for use as illusionistic backdrops on the stage (skenographia). Perspective soon became a routine part of the training of painters and sculptors. Because it involved geometric techniques, it helped to make painting a mathematical art, and thereby raised its status to a liberal art. (The liberal arts included the quadrivium taught at university, which consisted of the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.) The rising status of painting in the fifteenth century continued the slow valorization of the mechanical arts that began in the Middle Ages and can be found, for example, in Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon.

During the same years that Brunelleschi experimented with his perspective panels, the painter Massaccio (1401-1428?) utilized mathematical perspective in such works as Trinity Fresco (probably 1428). It would be left to Leon Battista Alberti to provide a theoretical and mathematical formulation for perspective in De pictura (1435 in Latin, translated into Italian in 1436). Alberti thus helped raise painting from its status as a mechanical and servile art to that of a liberal art. The son of a banking family, Alberti was trained in humanist letters, and also was a practicing architect, designing important buildings in Mantua, Ferrara, and elsewhere.

Insight into the way in which painting and the high arts of sculpture and precious metalworking were raised to the status of liberal arts can also be gained by examining the processes of fabrication of precious objects. To that end, Beth Holman has focused on the making of Giulio Romano's (1490s-1546) Salt Cellar with Satyrs for Federico II Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua. Extant letters between patron and artist make clear the ways in which art became a matter of state to the wealthy Italian nobles of Mantua, Milan, Florence, and elsewhere in Europe. As these rulers sought to hold on to power, they transformed the physical landscapes of many cities, using the constructive and decorative arts to help effect their claims to power. A perspective on this process can be gained from Benvenuto Cellini's (1500-71) Autobiography, which documents the value that both artists and patrons placed on the actual experience of working with materials. In all these sources, the concept of disegno, the design or idea of the work, became key. As a creation of the mind rather than the hand, disegno thus provided an avenue to higher status for certain artists.

While painting and sculpture were gaining status as liberal arts, technological processes and methodologies were also gaining cultural significance. Books on mechanical arts such as weaponry and engineering appeared in manuscript form. Such books contained drawings of machines and machine elements like gears, and often included explanatory text. Delight in mechanisms and machines are evident in numerous striking drawings that appear in such books. A notable example is Leonardo da Vinci's manuscript Madrid Codex I on the elements of machines and mechanics. In the Madrid Codex and in many later "Theaters of Machines" (the term used to describe the spectacularly illustrated machine books printed in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries), machines are considered not only a route to more efficient engineering projects, but also a way of learning about the natural world, and particularly the nature of motion. Out of this fascination with machines, artifice and nature moved closer to one another, leading eventually to the practice of viewing nature as a machine.