Friday, June 16, 2006

Bird’s Eye View of Western Tuscany

It can seem that in sixteenth century Italy, artists and cartographers worked on a continuum between maps and landscape paintings. Leonardo da Vinci’s Landscape (Arno Valley) 1473 has a high vantage point and some of the landscape features in it start to take on the characteristics of a map’s aerial perspective. As Malcolm Andrews has pointed out (Landscape in Western Art), the Birds-eye View of Western Tuscany of c. 1502 is half-way between a map and a landscape drawing, whilst Birds-eye View of Southern Tuscany – Val di Chiana c.1502 (below) can be more clearly categorised as a map. Both of these views were drawn during Leonardo’s time working for Cesare Borgia.

Leonardo da Vinci, Birds-eye View of Southern Tuscany
– Val di Chiana c.1502

Later in the century, Cristoforo Sorte (1510-95) performed a similar role for the Venetian government, producing beautiful charts like the Map of the Territory of Verona and Vicenza. A cartographer, engineer and architect, Sorte was also the author of the treatise on painting, Osservazioni nella pittura (1580), which includes comments on the art of landscape. The range of Sorte’s interests suggests that the poetic pastoral landscapes of Venetian art might have a connection with the practical concerns of Venetian land reclamation and chorography. However, Denis Cosgrove’s essay ‘The geometry of landscape’ suggests a deeper layer uniting these interests, since the mathematics involved in landscaping and the atmosphere of a painting were both seen as expressing the universal harmony of nature. Although Sorte did not explicitly write a hermetic theory of landscape painting, his treatise is, according to Cosgrove, infused with the sort of symbolism found in esoteric writing, and focuses particularly in dawn and dusk and the cycle of the seasons. Sorte advised painters to convey the variety of the seasons, from spring with its ‘diverse shades of green’, to summer when ‘the earth burns in the heat, as if its vital spirit were exhausted’, autumn, when ‘leaves turn russet’ and winter, with its mists, rain, frost and snow: an ‘earth shorn of all beauty’.

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