The View Through Glass

Painters’ Science, Mathematicians’ Art, and the Magic of Shadows
  • Rossella LupacchiniEmail author
Part of the The Frontiers Collection book series (FRONTCOLL)


In his De pictura‚ Leon Battista Alberti used the tale of Narcissus, who was turned into a flower‚ to present painting as the flower of arts: “What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?” Indeed, the view through the surface of the pool, or through the (looking) glass‚ gives evidence of a theory of knowledge entailed by artificial perspective which mathematics and the philosophy of nature were not ready to accommodate. Narcissus’ metamorphosis calls attention not only to the critical function of a see-through plane for visual knowledge‚ but also to the magic of shadows. Narcissus did not fall in love with his own specular-image, but with a shadow that he believed to be of someone else. If the seduction of the other is the first step towards the recognition of the self, the magnetism of the shadow is the first step on the road to knowledge. Yet, the shadow was a challenge for painters. Taking a picture of reality, each painting is a ‘still life’, where shadow is essentially a changeable form. Leonardo was aware of the problem, which also arose in depicting the continuous transformation of nature. While artificial perspective will lead mathematicians to conceive of a visual geometry, which extends Euclid’s, a reverse perspective, namely a “doctrine of shadows,” will lead Leibniz to address Leonardo's demand for a geometry “which is done with motion.” In this article we will discuss how the dialogue between art and science, starting in the Renaissance, transformed our view of geometry and our understanding of natural processes. We will also try to rethink such an important contemporary issue like quantum interference effects.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Communication StudiesUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly

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