The Daring
Diagonal
Virtual
Museum

A division of the Center
for the Study of Diagonality
in World Culture

Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum
INTARSIA – A Renaissance Obsession
Intarsia, Italy
Various intarsiatori
15th century
Executed by: Multiple artisans
Date: Renaissance

During the Renaissance, the creation of panelized scenes using inlaid wood, a craft called intarsia, was the geometrical art par excellence. This melding of the art of perspective with interest in geometry resulted in an art form that arguably did much to increase awareness and appreciation of angularity and a "fractured" image as design motifs worthy of further exploration.

For people living in the latter half of the 15th-century and the first quarter of the 16th-century, intarsia functioned like today's movie theaters and TV; it was a form of entertainment. Perspective and complex geometric forms were dramatically and precisely created by intarsiatori, the masters of perspective. Just in Florence alone in 1478, 48 workshops were churning out these meticulously crafted "paintings," not on canvas but in wood. One might say it was a craze. Street scenes and architectural complexes, both real and imagined, were precisely rendered using as many as 1,000 pieces of ebony, cypress, boxwood, walnut, and fruitwoods selected for just the right color and gray value to create the illusion of depth and verisimilitude. As Dr. Judith Tormey has written, "The sudden flourishing and the subsequent fortunes of intarsia coincided with the Renaissance effort to give art a mathematical basis … intarsia dramatically exemplifies the fusion of art, mathematics and philosophy during the Renaissance."

The intarsia craze ended about 1550, but one wonders whether intarsia was an antecedent that directly influenced the art of the modern era, particularly Cubism and other expressions of Diagonality. "Some intarsia panels showed the Renaissance mastery of constructing polyhedrons. Piero della Francesca (1410-1492) wrote several illustrated documents showing how to construct these three-dimensional forms built up of polygonal facets. His works included Trattato d'abaco and Libellus de quinque corporibus. Illustrations include the icosahedron, the dodecahedron, and the cuboctahedron, drawings that remind one of the drawings by the 20th century architect/engineer R. Buckminster Fuller.

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