Historically, the process of designing in perspective is commonly related to painting, but it’s important to note that the use of perspective influenced architecture and urban design as well. From today’s point of view, it’s hard to believe that the concept of perspective had to be “discovered”, but before the 1400’s the idea of designing in a constructed manner was had been seemingly lost. Prior to the 1400’s paintings illustrated important people and objects larger than less important ones; and although distant objects were sometimes shown smaller than near ones, and the suggestion of perspective could be implied, this wasn’t done in a regular and accurate way.
In the above painting titled “Maestà“, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308–1311, Mary and the baby Jesus are painted proportionally larger than the surrounding figures. Mary’s throne suggests depth in what looks like one-point perspective, but when lines are projected it becomes apparent that there are multiple vanishing points.
It was Filippo Brunelleschi who first demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective. In about 1413 Brunelleschi demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective. Brunelleschi noticed when a building’s outline was continued all of the lines converged on the horizon line.
[Brunelleschi] gave much attention to perspective, which was then in a very evil plight by reason of many errors that were made therein; and in this he spent much time, until he found by himself a method whereby it might become true and perfect—namely, that of tracing it with the ground-plan and profile and by means of intersecting lines, which was something truly most ingenious and useful to the art of design.
According to Vasari, Brunelleschi set up a demonstration of his painting of the Baptistery in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. He had the viewer look through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistery. He would then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the painting of the Baptistery and the building itself were nearly indistinguishable. Thus, proving his concept of constructed perspective.
It’s important to note though that scholars do not believe that Brunelleschi actually invented perspective, but possibly rediscovered it. In the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, which dates to sometime around 40–30 BC, the walls were decorated with a number of constructed views. In the image below, from the villa, the use of one-point perspective is apparent.
Visual Interactive Art
Around 1427 the artist Masaccio won a commission to produce a fresco of the Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This work of art was one of the first that was calculated to be viewed from one vantage point.
According to the reconstruction Masaccio started by producing a rough drawing of the composition and perspective lines on the wall. The drawing was then covered with fresh plaster for making the fresco. To ensure the precise transfer of the perspective lines from the sketch to the plaster, Masaccio introduced a nail at the vanishing point under the base of the cross and attached strings to it, which he carved in the plaster. The scratches of the preliminary work is still visible.
 B. Deimling, Early Renaissance Art in Florence and Central Italy, in R. Tolman (ed.), The Art of Italian Renaissance, Konemann, 1995, p. 244-246
Brunelleschi also used his new tool of constructed perspective when he began designing Basilica di Santo Spirito, in Florence, in early 1428.
Imagined Urban Space
Between 1477-1484 three similar Italian Renaissance paintings were produced by three separate artists. The three paintings are today called The Ideal City (or in Italian La Città Ideale). Each painting, although different in their imagined view, has the commonality of one-point-perspective. Shown below are the three paintings.
It’s important to note how the ground plane is rendered with a designed pattern. If you eliminate the patterns the three-dimensional objects will appear to float off the surface. When designing urban spaces this rule becomes very important in visually ‘grounding’ walkable surfaces.
The Use of One-Point Perspective is Realized in the Design of Urban Space.
Prior to the idea of a designed regularized streetscape most streets were a composite of buildings that did not necessarily work together.
In 1560 Giorgio Vasari was given the commission by Cosimo I de’ Medici to house the offices of the Florentine magistrates, thus the name Uffizi, or “offices”. The internal courtyard (or cortile), which is long and narrow, is generally considered the first regularized streetscape of Europe.
The concept of the bay, when repeated and placed side-by-side, allows for a series of continuous lines, which will converge and connect to a single vanishing point.
Vasari then has these lines visually converge on the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Perspective is Taken to the Grand Scale
Eventually the concept of designing in one-point perspective is used at a grand scale. In the early 1600’s the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace are extended with the introduction of a long axial vista.
This concept eventually develops into long boulevards, as developed in Paris.
This idea of the long boulevard is eventually used by L’Enfant in his 1791 design of Washington DC and can be seen in the analysis of his early plan.
As a final note…
While writing this piece on perspective, I was discussing the peice with a colleague here in Florence. They commented, “Straight streets are nothing new. All you have to do is look at medieval new-town, and their designed straight streets.” Let me clarify, having a straight street does not constitute the use of perspective as a design tool. Yes, when you look at a photo of a straight street in a medieval new town one-point perspective immediately comes to mind, but the fabric of buildings that make-up the walls of the streets were not planned to create straight lines towards a vanishing point. Shown here is a view of a street of a medieval new-town called Monpazier, located in southern France.
The height of the buildings were typically controlled in these medieval new towns, but as you see in the image above, this is the only organized aspect of these designed settlements.
If you wish to read further of the design of medieval new towns (called bastides in French) I recommend the following excellent book titled, Florentine New Towns: Urban Design in the Late Middle Ages, by David H. Friedman, MIT Press © 1989.