The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in many aspects of the Classical world of Ancient Greece and Rome – particularly in its philosophy, literature and architecture. An important aspect of this revival was a renewed interest in the philosophical ideas of Pythagoras and Plato. In fact Greek thought had proved capable of inspiring and reviving the intellectual life and arts of Western Europe for centuries, despite the fragility of its influence during the turbulence of the Early Middle Ages. But the Renaissance, with its reaction against the narrow medieval scholasticism, saw a much broader interest in Platonism in particular.
One of the most important aspects of this stream of thought was its engagement with mathematics and with Geometry in particular. Part of its great originality lay in the belief that Nature could be best understood through the abstract medium of number and measurement – an intuition that of course laid the foundation of Science. But these principles, which led it to give a high value to ideal formulations of numbers, proportions and geometric form, also exerted a strong aesthetic appeal. It was this aspect of Platonism that became a source of inspiration to artists from the very beginning of the Renaissance – in particular, the Pythagorean notions of ratio and harmonic relations as underlying, but at the same time existing above and beyond, the mundane world.
This revived interest in geometry was associated with another field of enquiry, one that had been developed during the Islamic tenure of Classical Greek knowledge, that of Perspectiva, that is to say, of the science of Optics and the mechanics of human perception. Discoveries in this area were of equal interest to scientist and artists alike – in fact the problems of creating a convincing representation of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional surface exerted a particular and sustained fascination throughout the Renaissance. This preoccupation reflected the abiding spirit of the time, common to both the arts and sciences, which might be characterised as a drive to explore and grasp reality.
This fascination with the aesthetic aspects of Geometry culminated, one might say, in the art of an obscure group of German artist/craftman in the mid-16th century (Wenzel Jamnitzer, Lorenz Stoer, Johannes Lencker and Peter Halt), samples of whose work is presented below. This period, in mid-16th century Germany, saw the publication of a handful of books that presented a range of intriguing geometric drawings that were unlike anything that had ever appeared before, or have been seen since. The initial response to this early Geometricism is surely that of their strangely modern quality…