Have you ever wondered what the value of practicing construction is? Is it simply an exercise in seeing the figure as a series of 3-d volumes and forms? Is it a way to make our drawings look rigid and without soul, forsaking subjective expression for an objective analysis? Does it historically coincide with the practice of animation?? Or, is it possible there is a much richer/longer historical trajectory that this exercise pays homage to?
The following summarizes some of the research I've done when trying to answer these questions for myself and students. On a more personal note, my interest has never really been in the look or labored development of a finished study, but rather, the moment a drawing can be seen to animate and collide with a larger framework of thought or philosophy. This specific investigation is born of that fascination. I will post this in 5 parts (as to not overwhelm anyone with too much boring writing) over the next month. While this first entry is more set up, the following will share and discuss more images. Hopefully, you’ll find it to be of some interest or use in imagining what might be only one explanation for practicing construction J
Anatomy and Renaissance architecture have an inseparable relationship. The writings/drawings of Leon Battistia Alberti, Francesco do Giorgio Martini, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci (to only mention a few) all show a persistent interest in an anthropomorphic relationship of the figure to architecture. Be it in the planning of cities, specific structures, or ornaments, the human figure can be seen as the foundation for a great deal of the design language used in architecture. These phenomenona are especially clear in architecture as it is an art unlike painting, drawing, or sculpture, in that it has no direct referent to nature, and is based on the ability to synthesize all of the others into a broader scheme of invention. In this sense, architecture may be seen as separate and autonomous from natural forms, yet dependent on a different order derived from an aesthetic evaluation or conceptualization of nature. It is here, that an understanding of anatomy and the analysis of the figure into geometric volumes developed a conceptual model specific to the successful practice of architecture. This conceptual model was based around a consideration of the Neo-Platonic aesthetic and emphasized a practice focused not only on natural observation, but also methods of representation leading to invention and a broader understanding of design.
My interest, in understanding constructive visualization practices of the present, is to develop a deeper understanding of the functional and aesthetic uses of seeing the natural mechanics of the figure as analogous to structural occurrences in building. At the same time, and perhaps separate from the practical knowledge of the figure, I am interested in architecture’s usage of the figure as a training tool: primarily, the study of the figure and anatomy as a rite of passage for artistic development in the humanist tradition and Neo-Platonic aesthetics. While it is common to think of the practice of dissection as solely directed at understanding the surface contours of the figure for use in painting, sculpture, or drawing, we should also understand its role as a design tool with which artists continued their aesthetic evaluation of nature for inclusion into the larger composition of buildings and architecture. In particular, I will look at Renaissance artists who developed a sensitivity to design by way of abstracting the figure into a specific form language (harmony by proportioning geometric forms). My contention is that what mattered most in the study of anatomy is the ability to see this abstraction and compose with it, as it allowed for a direct carry over into the concerns of architecture (and perhaps design in general). My brief survey will concentrate on the writings and sketches of artists, looking specifically at how they allude to this practice.
Section 1 - Neo-Platonism
In the Renaissance, mathematical precision and an eloquent usage of geometry were key to expressing a system of precise harmonies. This aesthetic is born of an interest in antiquity, and with it, a return to philosophies at its core. In order to manifest this, architecture (and objects) came to be seen as an expression of the spirit of man, or an affirmation to a link with the absolute. In this way, we can understand Renaissance architecture as indebted to Platonic thought. For Plato, access to the metaphysical, and hence ethical, order to the world is discovered only through rational thought. Within this schema, the arts can have value only by correctly representing this order and aiding in the alignment of a subject with it. In other words, there is no autonomous role or value to the function of art. Following this idea, Plato remains suspicious of the mimetic arts (or mimesis) as having too great a potential to cloud the truth and/or override the rational with emotive qualities. This in turn would produce the effect of eroding our attachment to the ethical/rational, and with it, the good in real life. It follows that the arts could only have a value if they represent this rational order, which in turn aligns the audience with it. To this point, Plato states:
If one were to separate from the arts the doctrine of numbers, measure, and harmony, little would be left but miserable remains. By beauty of form, I do not refer to what most people consider beauty, such as the beauty of humans or certain paintings. By beauty I mean, rather, something square or circular, or surfaces and solids formed with the aid of a compass, straightedge and set-square: such things are always beautiful in themselves, and embody artistic feelings of a very special nature.
Here Plato points to the building blocks upon which organic and inorganic form in the Renaissance is founded. Specifically, the emphasis is moved away from the outward appearance of things, and focused more on an underlying logic and its accompanying geometric formula. In essence, beauty is harmony expressed through a specific mathematic proportion (or golden mean) in order to symbolize a larger harmony of the world and soul.
It is this underlying interest that is found throughout artistic practice in the Renaissance and, in particular, the way artists examine anatomy for architecture. This influence of Neo-Platonic aesthetics on Renaissance artists and architects is primarily disseminated through the attention and importance given to the writing of Vitruvius. In the next section, I will address the connection Vitruvius makes between the study of architecture and the human body, as well as how his influence extends to artists during the Renaissance via Alberti.