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Studies of the origins of linear perspective in European painting tend to focus on developments in treatment of the spatial dimension, with attention especially devoted to mathematical principles that underlie the representation of three-dimensional space. The theoretical understanding of this is first articulated in Alberti’s treatise De pictura (1435). Given that carpets are relatively flat objects, and that their patterning, no matter how complex, was intended to be viewed as two-dimensional, the linking of carpets to the representation of three-dimensional space would seem to be paradoxical. But the relationship may actually find a basis in historical reality.
Carpets produced in the “Orient” in the fifteenth century and earlier were imported into an emerging early modern Europe from lands to the east. When they appear in European paintings, they are often depicted as flat objects, conforming to a vertical picture plane, while in the same paintings the depictions of human beings, architecture, furniture and objects are depicted as if they exist in three-dimensional space.
This paper presents the results of my study of representations of carpets in European paintings, which suggests that different conceptualizations of space exist in the same painting. Considering patterns of trade and the transmission of ideas, we may begin to recognize that carpets in Europe, expressive of the traditions of Islamic art that rely upon grids for patterning, may indeed be significant antecedents to the development of linear perspective in the subtle shift from square grid to projective grid.