The second article in the series on the evolution of the photographic medium explores the discovery and the use of the ‘camera obscura’ during the Middle Ages, when Giotto’s artworks were regarded as the highest expression of artistic realism in the history of humankind.
The discovery of the ‘camera obscura’ (from Latin ‘dark chamber’ or ‘camera obscura’ as it was known in Italy in the Renaissance) date back to ancient times. We do not know for certain who was the inventor of the camera obscura; however, it is a well-known fact that the Chinese, in the V century B.C., were the first to take an interest in the proprieties of light, which they studied by relying of the camera obscura. They were the first to realise that light travels in straight lines; specifically, they analysed the proprieties of light by using a light-proof tent. On one of its wall there was a tiny hole, the size of a nail, which will be later known as ‘pinhole’ or ‘stenopeic hole’ (from ancient Greek stenos, ‘narrow’, and oraos, ‘to look’). The light reflected by any object illuminated by light and placed outside the tent right in front of the pinhole, passes through this hole; an image of the object is reproduced on the opposite wall of the tent.
However, the image is projected upside-down and inverted right to left. In order to capture the projected image, it was essential that the tent was light-tight. Complete darkness was absolutely necessary, the same way you need darkness in cinema theaters. This explains why this device was named ‘camera obscura’ in Italy. Light’s ability to ‘focus’, that is, focusing an image as it is projected through a pinhole is at the basis of the later development of the camera obscura system.
In the IV century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work ‘Problemata’ (Problem), describes the Camera Obscura as a device that could get an image in focus. To be more precise, the philosopher mentions a light-proof room with a small hole drilled in one of its (outside) walls; this pinhole projected the external scene on the opposite side.
Much later, in the 11th century, an Arabian scholar known as Ibn-al-Haytham experimented with the camera obscura, with which he made astronomical discoveries by studying solar eclipses. He was able to observe a solar eclipse without being blinded by sunlight, thanks to the image being projected on the opposite wall of his camera obscura.
Giotto and the Medieval Art
Until the Middle Ages, the most prevalent artistic discipline was Painting. Artists strived to represent subject matter in a truthful and accurate way. Painting was the only art capable of achieving this goal. The most renowned medieval artist was, without doubt, Italian painter Giotto. He was exceptionally skilled with the brush, so much so that he was regarded by his contemporaries as the undisputed master of painting. Legend has it that Giotto’s master, Cimabue, once commissioned him to complete a painting. Giotto added a fly on the face of the subject; when Cimabue assessed the picture he did not realise that the fly was painted and tried several times to whisk it away.
This is probably just an anecdote, but it is telling of Giotto’s technical skills even as a young apprentice. Giotto was the first to introduce visual realism in art in order to represent reality as accurately as possible. Tradition holds that Pope Boniface VIII asked the most acclaimed artists of his time to send a sample of their best works, for he wanted to commission some paintings for the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi only to the best painter. In the Pope’s presence, Giotto drew a perfect circle: powerful in its simplicity, Boniface VIII was hugely impressed by the circle’s perfection. The artist who could draw freehand such a perfect circle, was without question the right painter to choose. This is how Giotto gained the fame as one of the greatest artists of all times. However, his works show the limits of Middle Ages’ painting, that is, the lack of perspective. Indeed, artists were not yet aware of the relation between objects in space; for this reason, medieval paintings had a highly stylised, bi-dimensional look. A camera obscura could have really made a difference!