Sculpture Journal


Sculpture Journal (2020), 29, (2), 243–254.


Reviews Christopher R. Lakey, Sculptural Seeing: Relief, Optics, and the Rise of Perspective in Medieval Italy New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2018, 240 pp., 36 colour and 100 b/w images, £55. 978-0-300-23214-1 In his classic lectures, The Art of Sculpture, Herbert Read disparages illusionistic relief. He writes, ‘The theories of perspective developed by Brunelleschi and others in the fifteenth century had an immense effect on all the arts. However beneficial these influences may have been on architecture and painting … in sculpture their effects were disastrous.’1 Christopher R. Lakey’s new book, Sculptural Seeing: Relief, Optics, and the Rise of Perspective in Medieval Italy, attempts to revise this narrative. He chronicles an earlier, twelfth-century episode in the history of perspective and argues for a Quattrocento exchange between media wherein the arrow points the other way. Lakey claims that the new spatial naturalism of fifteenthcentury painting – what Alberti calls rilievo – derived not from Brunelleschi’s novel mathematics, but rather from centuries-old developments in ‘optical aesthetics’, already present in medieval architectural reliefs. If we follow Sculptural Seeing, then, ‘perspectivist’ innovations, far from negatively impacting sculpture, actually began there; it was fifteenth-century Italian painters who in fact benefited from the practices of earlier carvers. Chapter 1 details how writers such as Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–1152) and William of Conches (1085–1154) espoused a ‘Romanesque visuality, or an epistemology of seeing’ (p. 38) drawn in large part from Greco-Arabic sources. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 endeavour to map this period visuality on to sculptural practice. Did twelfth-century carvers of architectural reliefs structure viewing experiences according to the same assumptions about sight evinced in optics treatises? Lakey argues for the affirmative. Relying on exact-angle photographs and painstaking geometric diagrams, he lays out the case for proportional relationships linking roving observers to elevated objects at sites in north and central Italy: San Zeno, Verona (c. 1138); SS. Pietro ed Orso, Aosta (c. 1130); Sant’Andrea, Pistoia (c. 1300); and the cathedrals of Modena (c. 1099), Ferrara (c. 1135) and Fidenza (mid-twelfth or early thirteenth century). One way to understand Lakey’s book is as a sort of prequel to Robert Munman’s 1985 essay, ‘Optical Corrections in the Sculpture of Donatello’, itself a pendant to Earl E. Rosenthal’s important 1964 article, ‘Michelangelo’s Moses, dal di sotto in sù’.2 Munman’s ‘firm but flexible criteria’ for assessing Donatello’s work will prove useful to readers of Sculptural Seeing St George Killing the Dragon seen at a 45-degree visual angle. Ferrara cathedral, Italy, west façade (photo: Christopher R. Lakey, courtesy Yale University Press) 243 | Sculpture Journal 29.2 [2020]

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