Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 25, 2019
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 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300232141)

Christopher Lakey’s book, Sculptural Seeing: Relief, Optics, and the Rise of Perspective in Medieval Italy, makes a bold if ultimately problematic argument: Lakey suggests that the origins of perspective in Renaissance art are to be found in medieval relief sculpture, that the Albertian system of perspective evolved from the practices and concepts of medieval stone sculptors beginning with the revival of architectural sculpture associated with Romanesque art, around 1100. The book’s argument, however, is like a thought experiment in which it is necessary to accept the hypothesis as a premise to sustain the conclusion.

Lakey aims to prove that medieval sculptors, or at least a few of them living in a pocket of northern Italy, were deeply concerned with the problem of executing forms that “look right” to viewers from their various points of view on the ground in architectural space. He suggests that medieval sculptors conceived their works with ideal viewpoints or “standpoints,” as the author terms it, from which a viewer would perceive a sculpture as it was intended ideally to be seen. Lakey thus attempts to externalize the fixed point in one-point perspective. He likewise externalizes Erwin Panofsky’s concept of the Raumkästen, the “space-box” internal to the framed space of Renaissance painting. Lakey conceives of this external “space-box” as an actual cube of space anchored at opposite ends by the relief and the ideal standpoint, from which the viewer would obtain a privileged perspective on the sculptor’s work. Lakey also examines ways in which medieval sculpture accommodates different perspectives occasioned by the transit of beholders in the course of movement through architectural space. These two different, though not necessarily contradictory, medieval perspective schemes—one based on fixed standpoints and the other premised on beholders in movement—both serve his argument that medieval sculptors were concerned with their works “‘looking right,’ the figure’s naturalism” (150). For Lakey, this preoccupation of the medieval sculptor must be understood in relation to medieval optical theory. The sculptor was concerned with how things look to the viewer, and the scholar of optics was concerned with how the viewer sees, the operation of sight. Together, he argues, medieval sculptural practice and optical theory contribute to an “optical aesthetics” in medieval art and culture, the precursor to Albertian perspective.

The author’s discussion of optical theory and medieval seeing, which is erudite and detailed, contributes to a large body of recent scholarship with related concerns (e.g., Beate Fricke and Urte Krauss, eds., The Public in the Picture, Diaphenes, 2015; Herbert Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art, University of Toronto Press, 2004; Roland Recht, Believing and Seeing, University of Chicago Press, 2010; and Barbara Nolan, The Gothic Visionary Perspective, Princeton University Press, 1977). As a general criticism, however, I found the book’s excursions into the history of optical theory much too long and its attention to works of art far too brief.

Two of Lakey’s five chapters are devoted to optics. Chapter 1, “Embodied Seeing,” seeks to describe in terms of optical theory a principle of medieval visual reception: “embodied seeing,” “an apperceptive and a phenomenal process based on a set of perspectival relations between beholders and objects” (20). This is, I think, an unnecessarily confusing way of saying that medieval viewers looked at artworks in person in actual space and time and in physical relation to the artwork, unlike we moderns, who tend to behold artworks remotely through fixed views offered by reproductions. Lakey’s “embodied seeing” is less a principle of medieval art and more a correction of the modern gaze, appropriately reminding one to beware the effects of photography on our visual reception and cognition of artworks. (Lakey’s discussion of embodied seeing should be read against a recent book by Kerr Houston, The Place of the Viewer: The Embodied Beholder in the History of Art, 1764–1968 [Brill, 2019], a brilliant examination of this idea and its broader historiographic context and significance.) In chapter 4, “Optical Aesthetics and the Problem of Looking Right,” Lakey returns to optical theory in an effort to demonstrate an intellectual basis in medieval thought for concepts of vision that anticipate Albertian perspective.

The extensive focus of the book on optics does little to convince me that the medieval artist’s concern for how things look had much directly to do with the scholar’s concern with how we see. Lakey’s arguments about optics boil down to two claims: medieval sculptors demonstrate an interest in the reception of their works and a capacity to anticipate the viewer in their designs. These propositions seem self-evident to me and not in any way dependent on abstract scholarly ideas about the mechanics and theory of sight.

Lakey nonetheless argues, at times directly and at times implicitly, that medieval artists and scholars of optics were mutually interested in and aware of each other’s ideas. I thus found especially frustrating the book’s final passage, a disheartening qualification of the entire argument: “Whether or not the major artists of the Romanesque and Gothic periods read these treatises on vision, or on optics, is immaterial. . . . Certainly the tilting down of an object higher than eye level so it can be seen more clearly, or making things farther away from ground level larger than those closer, proves there was an optical aesthetics” (170). This closing statement alludes to the book’s lead example: a relief on the facade of the cathedral of Modena that projects slightly from the block “on a downward oblique angle” (4). Because it facilitates viewing from below, it “demonstrates how artists were keenly attuned to discourses of optical theory and visuality in the twelfth century” (5). This thin wedge of stone relief is a slender lever to lift such a heavy argument.

The scarcity of examples is the chief shortcoming of the book. The artistic evidence focuses on three or four principal monuments. The artworks that receive the closest attention are exclusively works of northern Italian stone sculpture, and especially examples of tympanum and mural sculpture. Modena is the subject of chapter 2, “The Iconology of Sight,” which offers a synthesis of research on this canonical monument, with the conclusion that the Modena facade sculptures are implicated in “formal strategies of . . . display” (77)—in other words, that they were meant to be seen.

Lakey’s argument is supported by one truly superb piece of art history. Chapter 3, “The Geometry of Vision,” is an excellent analysis and explanation of the geometry of the portal of the cathedral of Ferrara and of the design and organization of its sculptural decoration. Lakey shows with clarity and force how the Ferrara portal sculptures were conceived architecturally according to a geometrical logic that both facilitates certain points of view and accommodates the perspectives of viewers in movement. The author’s insight into the architectural sculptor’s logic of design at Ferrara stands out as exceptional, and the larger argument wants for equally compelling examples, although the book’s analysis of sight lines and the compositional conceptions of the Pisanos’ pulpit reliefs at Pisa and Pistoia also offers an eye-opening look at these works. Many of the other artworks that illustrate the book receive passing attention and at times raise questions that the author does not address, for instance the early Romanesque relief of Christ in Majesty currently located in the ambulatory of the basilica of Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. I was both perplexed by the author’s brief discussion of this work—practically the only piece of sculpture not of north Italian origin cited in the book—and surprised by his unsupported assertion that it was designed to adorn a portal and to be seen from below.

The book’s final chapter, “Words for Relief (Rilievo),” is intended to carry the argument about medieval sculpture and optics forward to the beginning of the Renaissance, but it is a text that in many respects stands on its own as an engaging and useful study of a foundational concept. This chapter, in the vein of C. R. Dodwell’s classic essay “The Meaning of ‘Sculptor’ in the Romanesque Period,” demonstrates how variously the key term and concept of rilievo was used in late medieval and early Renaissance culture, though Lakey is inclined to collapse applications of the concept into one another in support of the larger argument of his book.

Despite these shortcomings, Sculptural Seeing is an erudite study that contributes to the field on several different fronts. It refreshes and deepens understanding of medieval optical theory and its development in parallel with medieval art. It offers a masterful explanation of the Ferrara cathedral portal, and it reexamines the meaning of rilievo as a fundamental concept in medieval and Renaissance discourse. The author’s larger argument concerning the origins of perspective may not convince all readers but should fuel productive reflection and discussion about medieval sculpture and its place in the narratives of art history.

Peter Scott Brown
Professor of Art History, University of North Florida