Is Measure the Foundation of the Beautiful?

A View of Istoria


“Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body.” ~ Leon Battista Alberti 

How do we ever come to an agreement or disagreement with any lasting value about what is and what is not beautiful, today or in all the yesterdays passed, if we do not first agree to some measure of accounting?  If we are interested in quantifying beauty, that is to say establishing a common foundation upon which we can grapple certain methods of appraisal and purposeful qualifications, then dutifully we must come together and produce substantive results beyond mere fanciful pleasures.  Then, and only then can we meet, then the first order of business must be measurable calculations as we would expect in examining the paintings of the Renaissance or any other.  As such we might value the idea of Istoria as it is a component of Leon Battista Alberti‘s concept of an absolute and perfect painting.  In order to understand Istoria, we must first examine its rank in Alberti’s treatise on painting, as the first tier in a hierarchy of elements.  Istoria, loosely described as a narrative assembled from divergent themes and sources over a particular period of time, is followed by portraiture, landscape, still life, and genre.  It is further composed of the three principles of pictorial art; circumscription, composition, and reception of light.

Leon Battista Alberti  – Italian author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cryptographer and general Renaissance humanist polymath.

Leon-Battista-Alberti-Quotes-4Alberti, a well-known architect, artist, and intellectual, was searching for a way of bringing the heightened sense of exploration and experimentation of the day into a methodology where the artist and viewer alike could come to a common perception and appreciation of the formal characteristics of beauty in art.  Alberti’s treatise emphasizes the importance of monumentality as a vehicle for the dramatic content and a way in which to connect to the viewer on an emotional level.  He believed that geometry and perspective were integral to the function of the three pictorial principles.  Alberti saw balanced color and surfaces, consistency, propriety, and a true representation of space as indicative of Plato’s statement that “measure is the foundation of the beautiful.”

WiseMenAdorationMurilloThe Adoration of the Magi, sometimes called the Adoration of the Kings, is the title given to the Christian account of the meeting of the Magi with the infant Jesus.  It was at this meeting that the visiting Magi brought gifts from their homelands as an offering to the new King of the earth (Wikipedia1).  There have been many renditions of this event by such artists as Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Hugo van der Goes, 1470, and Leonardo daVinci, 1481-82, to name a few (Textweek).  Taken from the second chapter of the Gospel of Mathew (2:1-11) the account refers to a list of details as a kind of foundation that is common amongst renditions.  There is mention of a “diversity of animals, the three ages of man, the racial variance of the Magi,” and a specific mention to a “crowded and diverse scene” (Wikipedia2).  As a result there is usually a concentration of some or all of these details as we can see in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi and Pietro Perugino’s Adoration of the Kings.

screencapture 5Pietro Perugino’s Adoration of the Kings {Epiphany} was executed for the Church Santa Maria Dei Servi in Perugia, c.1476 (Gallery).  In this particular example of the subject the artist includes a direct reference to the “Epiphany” or “Manifestation” in the title.  This reference refers to the “three manifestations of the Lord’s Divinity” which portray the traditional celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Magi, and the baptism of Christ (Women for Faith & Family).  Perugino prefers to narrow or flatten the picture plane in his painting, depicting the crowd, animals, and Magi as a singular mass of nearly indistinguishable bodies.  Perugino goes so far as to construct a gilded arch that frames the scene and directs our eyes to the central point of importance: the meeting between the Magi and the infant Jesus.

Adorazione_dei_magi,_filippino_lippiFra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi appears to be the result of two artists, Fra Angelico who it is believed started the altarpiece, and Fra Filippo Lippi who completed the rest (National Gallery).  It is interesting to examine the use of variety where the artist seems to clearly be working within the idea of monumentality and dramatic content that is at the heart of Alberti’s treatise.  Fra Filippo seems particularly interested in perspective and variety as a means of conveying spatial depth where he uses landscape and the procession of people and animals to fully populate the scene.  He carefully navigates the countryside with a juxtaposition of the old medieval buildings in ruins and the new manger in the foreground as the source of the meeting and the birthplace of the new King.  We can easily refer to Alberti’s concept of Istoria in this example where “Istoria is most copious in which in their places are mixed old, young, maidens, women, youths, young boys, fowls, small dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, landscape and all similar things.”  It feels almost as if Fra Filippo had a checklist of Alberti’s treatise beside him while he worked.

Little is known of Fra Fillipo Lippi’s early style or origins as a painter, but in the 1430’s and 1440’s he showed an interest in the interaction of landscape and figure in such works as Annunciation, c. 1445, and Coronation of the Virgin, 1441-47 (Web Gallery).  Perugino on the other hand seems more interested in the subjects and the landscape as setting.  I am reminded of Giotto’s work of the Proto-renaissance.  In Giotto’s Lamentation fresco from the Arena Chapel, the background serves to represent the real world of appearances but like Perugino, the focus is on the figures and the event rather than their occupation of and interaction with the landscape.  This is also evident in Perugino’s other works, such as The Ascension of Christ, c.1496-98 and The Mourning of the Dead Christ (Deposition), c.1495, where the figures occupy a single foreground plane and the background serves primarily as backdrop.

ascensionPeruginoPerugino chooses to limit the scope of the crowd in his painting.  Fra Lippini on the other hand goes to great length to expand his crowd not only in variety and quantity, but also at various planes through out the scene.  We follow the serpentine procession as it begins in the upper right quadrant and travels to the middle ground before disappearing behind the buildings and mountain only to reemerge on the other side, directing our attention along the way to the central point of the narrative.  The effect is to “open up before the beholder…as an extension of the viewers own world.”

ascenFlorentinischer_MeisterAccording to a quote by Frederick Hartt, the late professor of art history at the University of Virginia, he says of Alberti’s principles “[He] wishes the narrative to unfold in copiousness and variety, of humans and animals, and objects in poses and movements full of grace and beauty…all these in opposition to the figural alignments common not only in the Trecento, but even in the compositions of Masaccio.”  I see this as the fundamental distinction between the paintings of Perugino and Fra Filippo.  While each work in their own respect contains a majority of the characteristics found in Alberti’s treatise, it is this comparison to the work of Masaccio that introduces an interesting point of examination.

biograpMasaccioMasaccio is described as “one of the most important 15th century Italian painters” and later according to Alberti, “Masaccio harmonizes with my ideas.”  But in order to fully appreciate Masaccio and in turn use this observation as a viable distinction between the works in question, we must understand the meaning of Hartt’s criticism of “figural alignments.”  The significance here is in observing this trait in practice in Masaccio’s work and then in Perugino’s Adoration of the Kings.  By examining Masaccio’s Tribute Money it is apparent his figures occupy a predominate space in the foreground of the picture and the heights of the figures seem very similar.  There is little to no effort to introduce figures in scale in the background or to depict an environment that can be explored and naturally occupied.  We can also see this repeated in Masaccio’s Holy Trinity.  Perugino’s figures follow suit, relegated to the foreground of the landscape.  Now this is not to say that Masaccio or Perugino’s paintings are inferior only that for the sake of this paper this observation can be made and proven as a noticeable artifact that is not replicated by Fra Filippo.

Masaccio_Artists_Faces_SPeter_Enthroned_BRI believe Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi best represents a predominance of the elements of Istoria in Alberti’s Della Pittura (Italian) (English).  Fra Filippo crafts the scene on a monumental and dramatic scale with careful use of landscape and perspective to inform our experience and lend credibility to the importance of the narrative.  Unlike Perugino’s work, Fra Filippo depicts his figures in relation to their space keeping in mind the effect the natural realm would have on a kneeling figure or a scantily clad boy standing on ruins.  In this painting, the composition of the mountains, trees, and buildings construct a framework that as we follow creates a heightened sense of expectation about the symbolic and literal importance of the event.  Fra Filippo’s figures are expressive in their variety and class, age and distinction, suggesting a meeting of the world of pagan past with the new world of Christianity.

books_redATLThe Adoration of the Magi by Fra Filippo Lippi personifies Alberti’s absolute and perfect painting.  Istoria serves as a starting point for this painting, a place to construct a landscape rich in the representation of figures and movements bestowed with grace, beauty, and propriety.  I agree with the assertion that we cannot find a present-day verbal equivalent of the word Istoria, that in order to acquire meaning one must first immerse oneself in the work and the artist.  With these transitory fragments we might then be capable of grasping by the eye that which exists in the verisimilitude of any great work of art.

I wrote this article while in film school at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California.  Original published Published on: Jun 5, 2010 @ 16:45


“Wikipedia 1” July 23, 2005

“Textweek” July 25, 2005

“Wikipedia 2” July 25, 2005

“Gallery” July 22, 2005

“Women for Faith and Family” July 23, 2005

“National Gallery of Art” July 23, 2005

“Web Gallery of Art” July 25, 2005

Other sources


About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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6 Responses to Is Measure the Foundation of the Beautiful?

  1. Simon says:

    I think what defines perfection has changed. Art can be without a narrative. Art can be about simplicity. Art can be about portraying what is and isn’t ugly. Art can be about what is grotesque. I love the Renaissance as it was a fantastic time period in terms of considering structure and depth within Art. For example, the use of perspective by Masaccio or the contorted figures by Michelangelo. In terms of defining ‘perfect painting’ by Alberti – or the higher arts defined by Leonardo, I feel that this is historical but has no relevance in todays art as the floodgates have opened and Art can be about so much more (or about so much less).

    • rorydean says:

      Great to see ya here Simon – I wrote these articles while in filmschool and I’m amazed at the traffic they receive – though lacking in people actually compelled to comment the bane of the blog – the views correspond with the schools’ class schedule, each year when that class comes around people track back to my site for references I hope, inspiration maybe, or just to help write their final papers! I should get a tax? Ha!

      Absolutely, the criteria for perfection has changed but only so far as to alienate the individual from the greater opinions of the informed. It’s my opinion that modern art was the death knell for sustainable measurable practices in the approach and appreciation of art. What is or is not art is always going to first be subjective, what I see and taste appeals to me, followed (hopefully) by a more objective consideration of other factors, such as spacial and temporal aesthetic value, historical context and meaningful understanding of the art, artist and dozens of other factors that can and should be considered. It’s not that one must always wage war with their opinions but to quantify and qualify that which is or is not art requires a common perception and methodology so that two people can have a constructive, experiential relationship with art and conduct a meaningful conversation about it. If you and I cite various sources and references unknown to the other and we refuse to bring that knowledge into our discussion, it serves no purpose and we cannot commit to a leveled dialog, much less come to a final (not that it is ever possible to have a final word about art) place from which to leave our time together.

      “We agree to disagree” is the sound of the first nail in the coffin of our disagreement.

      I have conversations with people all the time who refuse to educate themselves and therefore qualify their absolute opinion regarding something. Take for instance, all Nolan’s films suck. Have you seen them all? No, I started and stopped with Batman. Then how can you qualify your opinion when you haven’t seen them all? Or, that movie sucked. But it made a billion dollars, it got Nolan a three-picture revisionists dream contract with Warner Bros. to make his dream trilogy, he’s considered one of the most influential filmmakers of the past decade in the most reputable publications and other brilliant filmmakers, there’s this and that, and the other thing – but the movie sucked. I’m not suggesting to change that person’s opinion, only to qualify it for the sake of a conversation. If that person is unwilling to take in all the facts they cannot conduct a meaningful examination of the subject. They can tell their 5 year old over breakfast of champions about their personal opinion but it has no relevance nor place in a broader context of consideration of the art or artist.

      If we’r talking about personal definitions of art, yes. If we’re talking about art as a force of concentrated details in varying shades of gray, in a frame of alabaster stone and gold leaf inlays set in mahogany wood around canvas made of ancient threads by a political dissident of the 19th century commenting on the bastardization of personal liberties, personal definitions of art hold you at a distance, unprepared to consider the broader properties of your viewing experience and unable to voice an opinion of measurable importance.

      “With these transitory fragments we might then be capable of grasping by the eye that which exists in the verisimilitude of any great work of art.” -me

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  3. jimeli1 says:

    This review fanscinated me…..Brought me to some tears and also showed me the mortal sides of a spiritual matter, in more depth….My favorite blog thus far my brilliant brother…..James

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