Who Discovered Linear Perspective?

Linear perspective was one of the art world’s greatest and most ingenious discoveries, but who was the very first to uncover its magic?

Oct 11, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

who discovered linear perspective


Linear perspective – or lines which converge into one or more distant vanishing points – is one of the art world’s most ingenious discoveries. Throughout the centuries, artists have explored how this mathematical hack can create the illusion of infinite space and make interior and exterior buildings appear to recede into the distance. But who actually discovered linear perspective? Attempts to create spatial depth in art have been in existence since ancient Greek and Roman times. But it was the Renaissance architect and artist Filippo Brunelleschi who made the first mathematical drawing using linear perspective, and his discoveries had a phenomenal impact on the history of art.


The Architect Filippo Brunelleschi Devised Linear Perspective

A diagram illustrating Filippo Brunelleschi’s linear perspective by 16th century architect Vredeman de Vries, via Professor Blanchard


The Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi made the first known drawing in 1415 that used the mathematical system of linear perspective to create the illusion of a building receding towards the horizon line. But he wasn’t the first to make an attempt at doing so – in fact, Greeks and Roman used angular lines to convey space in their art. Centuries later, both early Renaissance artists Giotto di Bondone and Duccio di Buoninsegna both used similar devices. But it was Brunelleschi who made the most radical breakthrough. He devised a simple and easy to apply system of creating a vanishing point on a horizon line and drawing diagonal lines towards it. These diagonal lines could convey roads, buildings or interior spaces vanishing into the distance. Brunelleschi also observed through his use of linear perspective that forms and spaces appeared smaller when further from the eye.


Leon Battista Alberti Documented Brunelleschi’s Linear Perspective 

One of Leon Battista Alberti’s diagram demonstrating linear perspective in Della Pictura (On Painting), 1425, via London Fine Art Studios


The Renaissance architect, writer and all-round polymath Leon Battista Alberti took Brunelleschi’s incredible discovery and recorded it in his treatise Della Pictura (On Painting) in 1435. Alberti was the first European to write such a theoretical text about making art. He argued that perspective was a powerful tool that linked art with the rising humanist interest in scientific and mathematical reason. Alberti wrote, “Know that a painted thing can never appear truthful where there is not a definite distance for seeing it.”


Raphael and The School of Athens

Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City

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Italian Renaissance artists began applying the principles of linear perspective into their art from the 1420s onwards. Raphael’s masterwork titled The School of Athens, 1509-11, is one of the finest examples of linear perspective at play, and the incredible, awe-inducing qualities of depth and space artists were able to create while using this mathematical system. Other notable artworks which would not have been possible without perspective include Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, 1494-98, and Pietro Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter, 1481-2. If you look closely enough, in some Renaissance masterpieces, more than 20 horizontal lines can be traced back to a single vanishing point!


Two and Three Point Linear Perspective

Viator’s three-point perspective in De Artificiali Perspectiva (1505), via Essential Vermeer


Two and three-point perspectives came later, most notably through the writer Jean Pelerin, known by the name ‘Viator.’ In his De Artificiali Perspectiva, 1505, he wrote about using a further two ‘tier points’ alongside the central vanishing point, which enabled artists to depict buildings seen from a series of unusual or oblique angles.


A page from Jean Cousin’s Livre de Perspective, 1560, vi Christie’s


Later, building on all this history, the perspective theorist Jean Cousin perfected Pelerin’s ‘tier point’ theory, and added to it a series of accurate methods for foreshortening the human body in Livre de Perspective, 1560. By 1600, it was largely expected that artists should have a firm understanding of perspective in order to be taken seriously by their patrons. Since then, artists and theorists continued to add multiple perspective points into their optical experiments. Many of these discoveries continue to prove hugely popular, and even vitally important, across the fields of art and design today.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.