Interpreting Illustrations – Where are you looking?

A common criticism of illustrations, especially the earlier ones, is that the artist doesn’t understand perspective. While there is some truth to that, most of the time the perceived flaws in the illustration are in the viewer’s mind rather than the page.

Consider this example from Fiore:


It is tempting to think of the fencer on the left as simply right ochs. But if that’s the case, the illustration is badly drawn. He’d have to turn his head even further to see his opponent on the right, and the human head just doesn’t turn that far. Clearly this is just another example of the artists inability to draw anatomically correct figures.

But look at the eyes. If he were truly standing in right ochs, why isn’t he looking at his opponent? Likewise the fencer on the right seems to be looking out of the page.

What’s happening is that we’ve got the camera angle wrong. We’ve been trained by 17th century manuals to assume every illustration is directly to the side such that both fencers are the same distance from the camera. But in this case, if we want to see the fencer from the side, we need to rotate the image roughly 45 degrees.

This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Fiore often draws his figures at “odd angles” in order to better show the details. And he isn’t the only one, we saw the same thing in the vom Tag post. And if we look closely, we’ll probably see other examples across the various manuscripts.

Note, however, camera angle isn’t the only reason why a fencer may not be looking at his opponent. If the illustration is in the middle of a play, it could be telling us that one or both fencers moved such that one has lost sight of the other. This is to be expected when fencers correctly execute offline steps, especially at closer measures.

Thanks to Brain Stokes, organizer of Fiore Fest, for pointing out the trick of the eyes. Fiore Fest will be held next year in Santa Clara at Steaphen Fick’s school.

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