Taking a look at a National Gallery of London guide I ran into the oil painting "The Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein and remembered my shock when in class (a century ago, more or less) Antonio Calvo Castellón revealed a hidden surprise in this double portrait:
|The ambassadors, Hans Holbein (The Young), 1533|
If you look carefully there is a strange element at their feet. To discover what it is I want you to rise and observe your screen from different angles ... Exactly! A skull. How is it possible that this misshapen representation acquires a perfect shape through an oblique glance at the painting? Why did Holbein represent this skull in that unrecognizable foreground?
The answer is: Anamorphosis. Anamorphosis is a perspective effect used in the art that forces the viewer to be positioned at a certain location to appreciate a specific proportionate pictorial element. Sometimes the work was designed to be at a certain place, such as a stairwell or a high terrace and then the artist added anamorphic elements perceived by observing the work from a certain position, ascending the stairs, looking up, etc…
The magic is created by pure visual perception and requires a special mathematical knowledge. Nowadays the artists who create some anamorphic element are supported by software that guide them in representing images. But 500 years ago things were different.
Who wants to learn more about this interesting artistic element has hundreds of websites at his or her disposal. I want to focus on just upload some of the most interesting examples of anarmofosis in the art world:
Entasis on classical columns: There are theories that defend the gentle curvature of the shaft as a "correction" element of the vision. The further viewer sees those columns and entasis corrects the natural deformations of the vision, giving to the shaft a perfect straightness. This makes we can include this element within anamorphosis by the interaction between visual perception and positioning of the viewer.
|Anamorphic drawings, Leonardo da Vinci, 1485 (face and eye)|
|William Scrots, Portrait of Edward VI, 1546|
Main headwall of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milan. Bramante. 1488. The nave behind the altar does not exist. Anamorphosis is used in the Renaissance and Barroco for creating illusions (trompe l'oeil).
|Jean François Niceron, 1640, Anamorphosis.|
This French mathematician and painter was most of his life devoted to the phenomenon of anamorphosis. In this example the image is meaningful only when it is reflected on the surface of a cylinder having the dimensions of the brown central circle.