European Diary

A Sense of Perspective

It may seem to the least demanding of readers that this column, though generously meandering of thought, is short of action.  The trouble, I must admit, is that I have no sense of perspective.  There may well be more references to current events in a couple of pages of Plato’s Dialogues than in everything I have written in this space.

It is worth remembering, however, that our culture did not begin with Socrates.  Telling me that I don’t know how to write is a little like telling the artists decorating the temple at Karnak that, according to the laws of perspective, the more distant objects and figures must be made smaller than those in the foreground, whereas they have used the relative size of these objects and figures to reflect their political or social importance.  Yet geometric perspective, like the keystone arch so rarely seen in their architecture, was known to the mathematically minded Egyptians, who simply chose not to apply it to their painting.  Nor did the Greeks, and it was not until its usefulness in theater set design was first appreciated by them that it can be said to have been invented or discovered.

To be at all useful, perspective must have a captive audience, such as the viewer positioned directly in front of a Mantegna hanging on a flat wall or the seated spectator in the theater transfixed by a new Sophocles tearjerker.  Without insult to either,...

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