History of Photography

H of P Seminars
Critical Studies
E. Chambre Hardman


History of Photography Seminars

2. The Camera during the Renaissance 1300-1550

The origins of the camera obscura and it's utilisation in the sixteeenth and seventeeth centuries


The Renaissance was a period of major developments in western intellectual history, particularly in architecture, painting and literature but also in democratic law and patterns of work. Philosphical debate became more open and what we would now call science re-appeared after being suppresssed for nearly a millenium.

In the context of photography the Renaissance period sees the publication of the first written descriptions of the camera obscura, as an aid to contemporary astronomers, architects and painters in mapping their worlds. The discovery by Renaissance artists of the use of infinitely diminishing perspective was similarly a major innovation and has continued to be the most useful model for accurate description in graphic representation.

The Renaissance starts c.1300 in the Northern Italian cities which were much richer and intellectually developed than other parts of the western world especially in Law and Medicine. the Renaissance ends c.1537 with Calvin's Theocracy at Geneva and when the city of Venice ceases to control eastern trade and goes into economic decline.

Art historians define the period of the Renaissance as 1300-1550, and with reference to it's painters it starts - "As early as Giotto (d.1337) and ends anytime after the death of Raphael (d.1520)".

"Renaissance" can be interpreted literally as "rebirth"

In Italy after decline of The Roman Empire c.300AD, the Renaissance was a new golden age in Italy. The Renaisance should be seen as a totalising process where society's basic stucture was affected; notably the rise of individualism and capitalism.


This was a period when:

*The individual has his [her?]own self determined history of personal development.

*Politics: saw the equality of individuals, historically this was the first wave of the protracted transition from feudalism to capitalism.

*Work: The beginnings of the estrangement of public and private life.

*Religion: The disintegration of dogma and the rise of Calvanism.

*Philosophy: beliefs could freely be chosen c.f. Galileo & Guiado Bruno

*Art: Although remaining largely an expression of religious ideas the earlier Medieval depiction of Christ as a suffering and tormented deity fades and becomes multifarious.

In 15th century Florence "Liberty & Equality" were political slogans, equality was unknown to antiquity (although Athens was a democratic state it was still based on slavery). However these effects only really affected the bourgeois, it was not until the Enlightenment that libery and equality affected all social classes and was enshrined in law.

Giorgio Vasari is considered to be the first art historian and the first writer to formulate an autonomous history of art in his classic work "Lives of the Painters and Sculptors and Architects" (1550). Renaissance artists were inspired by early Christian and Late Roman Art. Vitruvius for example became a model for Renaissance architects.




The Renaissance architecture of Leon Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi represent a transition from wall architecture of the earlier Gothic, to an architecture concerned with an architecture of rich and proportioned, internal spaces. The experiments and discoveries of these architects laid the foundations for the High renaissance concept of a building as an organic whole.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) Prodigious scholar similarly inspired by classical past in the writings of Vitruvius notably S.Andrea in Mantua. (design 1470) Alberti's "Della Pittura" published (c.1436)included the first published description of perspective construction.

Alberti also offers the first clear description of the camera obscura. Alberti's proposed a method of making pictures that described a segment of the visible world as it could be seen by one eye at one place at one time. Importantly this allowed a systematic, repeatable and quantifiable approach for geographers, navigators, builders, mechanics and soldiers.

Alberti's innovation should be considered against the background that by 1469 "Hellenistic astrology having been safely countered by the early church, returned after a thousand years through the Arabs and Spain"[Aby Warburg] and by 1492 Columbus sails the ocean blue - to the New World. Columbus had been supplied with a speculative world map by the aged Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli who had been a close associate of Alberti.

Filippo Brunelleschi's (1377-1446) was the most famous Florentine architect of the 15th century. His innovative dome for Florence cathedral while architecturally based on Roman construction methods it was a major feat of engineering.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80)had the most lasting architectural influence with what has become known as Palladian architecture. created harmonious designs which have been much copied.A profound knowledge of Roman antiquity conditions all his buildings. His classical conception of harmonic proportion based on mathematics where rooms are often based on the proportions 10:6 - length to width.A sixth was also preferred Renaissance key in music.

The Golden Section was also important in architectural proportion and Palladio designed many villas, which were intended as working farms & summer residences, using its proportions.These were his most important architectural type, The Palladian Motif - Symmetry of blocks and repeated features typically the use of colonades -reaching out like arms to greet the visitor- and the use of a portico. Palladios style marks the high point of the period and the dominance of the merchant class

By the end of the Renaissance in England (1540) Henry had closed 800 monasteries in England. The work of monks was a major source of artistic work in the making of illuminated manuscripts and books. For example the Lindisfarne Gospels were writen and painted by monks of a Northumbrian, island monastery in the 13th Century

The International Gothic style seen in the 1416 Tr�s Riches Heures manuscript by the Limbourgh Brothers in Burgundy for the Duke of Berry was essentially a court art, (perfect for staying isolated indoors). Representationally it was more concerned with rich and elaborate costume than with attempts to represent figures in three dimensions.

The dresses and especially the hats described in paintings of the International Gothic are the height of fashion, Burgundy at this time set the fashion for all of Europe. The decorative characteristics of this type of painting were appreciated by wealthy patrons who knew little and cared less about the nobler qualities of painting and sculpture, this ready appeal explains the speed with which the International Gothic style spread across Europe.

Northern Europe also excelled at stained glass. Consider the northern environment which was cold and wet compared to the warm and dry atmosphere of italy which favoured open windows and the fresco.

New Developments in Painting

Classical art history has analysed Renaissance painting as a narrative of stylistic development. From 1250 Italianate painting spread to Germany and by 1450 the influence was as much,if not more, from the Netherlands some changes of theme can however be observed.

Representative Italian painters include:

Duccio [Di Buoninsegna] (1278 - 1318) painted coherent narratives and used gold leaf in his paintings as magnificence. However the foreground and background are not coherent, and the representation of the landscape was a background for dying saints rather a description of topography.

Simone Martini (c.1285-1344) A painter of sophisticated elegance which marks the transition from International Gothic style to the period of the Beautiful Madonnas. Saints were represented as poor and humble with torn clothing and often wounded and suffering. The Byzantine architecture often seen in his painting while using geometry and perspective drawing still looks like a backdrop.

Giotto (1266-1337) made tremendous advances in the technique of representing the human body in representations of scenes from the bible or lives of the saints. Realism tempered by magnificence of their halos of gold. Giotto describes classsical architecture for example,looking into rooms and plays with the idea of relative proportion.

Giotto epitomises the trend in Medieval European painting, combining a rigorous sense of reality with an inspired acceptance of faith. Stylistic development in painting appears to stop in the middle of the 14th century. Bubonic plague cuts short the movement inspired by Giotto because no major artist appears to have survived it.

Masaccio (b.1401- 1428 died Rome age 27) Masaccio's interest is vivid realism rather than a purely decorative naturalism. Although he lived in poverty and died young, in five or six years work he was to revolutionize Florentine painting. His most famous fresco "The Rendering of the Money Tribute" describes groups of figures in a landscape which obey the same perspective, creating a new pictorial language.

Fra Filippo Lippi An orpan brough up in a Carmelite monastery, apprenticed to Masaccio His Barbadari Altarpiece (commisioned 1437) is one of earliest datable exampleof the Sacra Conversazione (Madonna & child group, where the saints are so placed as to suggest the intimacy of a Holy Conversation piece). Also complexity of his individual forms, draperies fall in small folds eg.Tarquinia Madonna (1437) where every square inch is broken up into different form and colour.

Fra Angelico started painting 1420, became a Dominican and painted for didactic purposes. Style is simple and direct and a little conservative. Brilliant use of light and colour in "Miracle of St Zenobious" (1438) panel.

Piero Della Francesca (b. 1416) The most highly regarded 15th C italian painter (This was not so in his lifetime) 1450 makes considerable researches into perspective. His fresco "The Flagellation of Christ" (c.1460) is an exalted mathematical demonstration Unidentified Witnesses on the right and marked foreshortening. Della Francesco discussed perspective and its relationship to mathematics with architect Alberti Also portraits with landscape background for example his diptych "Duchess and Duke of Urbino (c.1473). Humans replace the gods as portrait subjects in an earthly renaissance landscape of order. Dukes disfigurement.

The Black Death or plague was associated with rats who were the vector for the flea borne bacteria Pasturella pestis. It first appeared in England in 1348 and during the next two centuries swept repeatedly through Europe. It's last occurrence in England was in London 1664/65 when 70,000 people died.


Flemish Painting in the 15thC.



The Flemish technique of the oil medium is demonstrably ahead of the use of oil paint elsewhere. Northern painters increasingly confined their art to easel pictures, wheras the Italian patron wanted fresco's.

Jan Van Eyck (d.1441Bruges) With his brother Hubert van Eyck, both appear to have worked on the Ghent altarpiece. his most famous work "The Arnolfini Wedding" (1434) is sometimes described as a painted marriage certificate, (until the Council of Trent in 1560 a priest was not required to be present at a marriage). The painting decsribes an Italian merchant of Bruges at the most solemn moment of his vows (candle above his head signifying the presence of god), at the feet of his young wife stands a small dog (emblematical of marital fidelity) and behind them is the marriage bed. The mirror on the wall reflects the scene (and also the artist).

Other notable painters include Konrad Witz "Christ Walking on the Water"(1444) and Petrus Christus "St Eligius and the Lovers" and "St Jerome". After Van Eyck's death in 1441 Christus is the most important Bruges painter.

Painting in 16th Century Florence

By 1509 Gothic period of architecture has definitely ended, (Salamanca started 1509) Italian workmen ornament the new quadrangle of Hampton Court with terracotta busts of Roman Emperors. Holbein turns out portraits of Henry and chief nobles, Fashion spreads to country houses, family portraits take their place alongside tapestries.

in Florence Leonardo da Vinci's (1452-1519) "Mona Lisa"(1505) is an avant garde work 1505, although painted 70 yrs after van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage of 1434. Da Vinci's "Virgin of the Rocks" (1485) demonstates a new scientific observation wher the rocks in the background elicit an almost lunar geology. The connotation of Woman and Rocks Dangerous/ secure, hard/ soft, angular/ curved are much debated. Leonardo embodies the Renaissance man being scientist and artist. When applying for a job in ordinance he listed his skills and ended by saying "and i can draw as well as any man."

Later Renaissance painters of importance include

Andrea de Messina, "Portrait of a Young Man"(1473) Born in Southern Italy (socially inferior) he was one of the earliest artists to adopt Flemish innovations,although 30 years after van Eyck's demonstartions.

By 1500 the cross-fertilisation of European and Italian painting is complete.

Giovanni Bellini "Portrait of the Doge" (1505) State Portraiture

Carlo Crivelli "The Annunciation" (1486)

Signorrelli "The End of the World" (1500)

Sandro Botticelli "The Birth of Venus (c. 1490)"

Giorgione The beginnings of landscape painting, a recognisable and identifiable landscape with moral content in his The Tempest (1508), which narrates the story of man who rapes (ie not in wedlock) a woman who has his child, the painting connotes the man's (Giorgione's?) associated feelings of guilt.

Andrea Mantegna (b.1431) Painter to the Gonzaga's, Mantegna has an obsession with detail and an archaelogical exactitude for armour and triumphal arches.

Developments in Sculpture

By c. 1420 Donatello has supplanted Ghiberti as the major Florentine sculptor and was the major force in Italian art. His "David"(1433) was the first nude figure cast in bronze since classical times and as such was the rebirth of the classical past, and an inspiration to later Renaissance artists.

Michelangelo Buanarotti, painter, sculptor and architect Michelangeleo like da Vinci is an exemplary model of the Renaissance man. Michelangelo's Three Pieta's- Rome 1500, Florence 1550 and Milan 1562- are the highpoints of late Rennaissance sculpture. In 1534 Pope Paul summoned Michelangelo to enter his service declaring "I'm determined to have you in my service no matter what."

Printing Technology

Like the wheeel printing is one of the half dozen great inventions of mankind. The great step forward was the invention of moveable type: each letter is cast separately in metal and then combined to form words. The letters could be re used. When worn out, remelt and recast. Combined with the use of ancient screwpress which impressed ink characters on dampened paper, the basic elements of printing was a commercial business by 1450 [Gutenburg Press] within 30 years there were presses all over Europe run by Germans.

The woodcut was the ealiest printing process and was in use by c.1400 ( earlier in China). The principle is that a smooth block of wood, will if inked, print as a rectangle. If a trench is cut into it, the trench will not be inked and will therefor print white. So with the use of knives and gouges a picture could be cut with an inscription beneath it. Text has to be written backwards since printing automatically reverses the cut image. A "Block book" is where the woodcut is the the entire page of the book and the block can only be used for one book, there can be no reusing of motifs, letters, borders etc.

Also in use in the 15th Century were the Itaglio techniques :

*Drypoint : Drawing on soft copper plate with steel point which gouges out a furrow.

*Line Engraving: Lines are cut by pushing a Tool [burin] through the copper. Much more difficult technique than drypoint,but gives more impressions before wearing out.


For commercial book illustration engraved processes are inferior to woodcuts because:

1. They require a different and heavier pressure - therefore illustrations & type can't be printed together - two runs needed.

2. Woodcuts last much longer (thousands of prints, rather than hundreds) but Copper Engraving is however far more subtle.

Commercial printing is at first, slow to develop. Guild rules about demarcation were very strict, this would lead to the trades unionism of the middle ages. The 1470 Augsborg agreement allowed woodcut illustrations to be used provided they were cut by the Formschneider or professional cutters.

Albrecht Durer was the greatest artist of the period to practice extensively as an engraver. The son of a goldsmith, around 1494 he came into contact with Italian Renaissance work, which he copied, including Mantegna's "Battle of the Sea Gods". the iconography of Durer's work is very important in interpreting his work.

For example in his engraving "Young Couple Threatened by Death" (1497), the twin trunked tree is like the limbs in a passionate sexual embrace where the Dance of Death can be seen behind the tree and the hourglass represents time trickling. The portrait is of a young man and a woman of higher rank [headress = married] they are therefore an unequal couple. This was Durer's most copied and forged work.

From 1503 Durer's work becomes increasingly microscopic and he experiments with theories of ideal proportion. By 1505 his new style is based on Italian chiaroscuro [light and dark] prints- usually a woodcut printed in more than one colour so as to give the effect of tone.Durer managed to print from one plate to give the effect of a middle tone.

His greatest achievement Melancolia (1514) represents one of the four human temperaments,melancholy which would subsequently be associated with genius. She personifies geometry, measurement, number and astronomy. Note the magic square used for calculations, the vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines give sum. Durer was at the time living in the house of an astronomer Bernard Walther.

The earliest use of the camera obscura was by astronomers who used it to observe sun spots. As previously decsribed Alberti had described the camera obscura some 80 years before. In 1518 Giovanni della Porta describes how the camera obscura could be used by artists, the image was simply traced on paper laid on the ground glass. (Magicus Naturalis)

Of photographic interest is that during this period the alchemist Paracelsus [Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus] (b.1493) had knowledge of the chemical prepararation of silver and silver chloride.

Suggested Further Reading

Thomas More's "Utopia"(1516)

Machiavelli's (b.Florence 1469) "The Prince"

Montaigne's (b.1533) "Essays"

Francis Bacon (b.1516) "The Advancement of Learning"

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) "My Life"

Michelangelo - Letters

Leonardo da Vinci- Notebooks

Giorgio Vasari "Lives Of the Artists" (Florence, 1550)






In the 14th century England Oxford is the centre of intellectual life. The period sees the rise of secular education and debate about the role of the clergy.

1377 Langland writes "Piers Ploughman"

1387 Chaucer (1340-1400)begins work on "The Canterbury Tales".

1390 Gower writes "Confessio Amantis".

1400 Sole surviving manuscripts of "Sir Gawain","Pearl", "Cleanness" and "Patience".

Printed Books:

1456 Gutenberg prints The Bible in Latin

1473 Caxton prints books in English the "History of Troy" is the first book printed in English. 1474 Caxton prints "The Game and the Playeof Chesse" and a medieval romance.he learns the technique and has the books printed in Bruges and Cologne . 1477 Caxton sets up printing press at Westminster under Royal patronage. In 14 years prints 100 titles, Chaucer,Gower, Lydgate, Aesop's "Fables" and the writings of "Cicero" are in English.

1485 Malory publishes "Morte Darthur".

1487 William Tyndale translates bible into English.

1489 Erasmus at Oxford writes "Praise of folly", denouncing the monks for "observing with punctilios scrupulosity a lot of silly ceremonies and paltry traditional rules"� "for which Christ cares nothing" Erasmus writes in latin,popular English anti-clerical writers were far more blunt. 1500 Erasmus publishes "Adagia".

Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) Poet and public servant publishes "And wilt thou leave me thus".

1513 Skelton publishes translation of Machiavelli's "The Prince".

1516 Thomas More publishes "Utopia".

1517 Martin Luther publishes "Wittemberg Theses".

1519 Erasmus publishes "Praise of Folly".

1547 Permission for the clergy to marry is symptomatic of the Protestant doctrine to exalt the married state, and to dedicate the business life in reaction against the medieval doctrine that the true life of "religion" was celibacy and monastic separation from the world. The new English religion idealized work, dedicating business and farming to god.

1548 Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (his student) both formerly strong believing catholics now write protestant music at Chapel Royal for Elizabeth I. 1549 Book of Common Prayer written

1558 Pewter gradually replaces wood for plates and tin replaces wooden spoons and fork in farm households.

1540 Copper engravings begin to replace woodcuts in Italy, the process soon spreads to the Netherlands.

By 1540 in England 800 monasteries had been closed and the wealth confiscated used to fund Henry's VIII's wars.



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