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Marvellous Vistas

Originally published 23 Aug 2010

"You will experience great pleasure by gazing out from the mountain over the countryside for you will get the impression of looking not at the landscape but at some great painting”

Pliny the Younger, a learned Roman Prosecutor, wrote this in the 1st Century AD. He is describing the effect that panoramic plateau scenes can have on our emotions. We feel at once on top of the world and in awe of it.

detail from A Man Reading, about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, The National Gallery, London

The plateau composition became part of the Netherlandish artists' repertoire in the early 1400s – mastered, and possibly pioneered by Jan van Eyck.  In his painting Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata circa 1430, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  a city glimmers in the distant valley. Rocky outcrops and mountains on the horizon naturalistically frame the plateau. Rocky outcroppings became a common workshop motif in by the late 1400s. A distant scene heightens the grandeur of the foreground, while also adding an alternative layer of interest. It is thought this may be the first appearance of such a vista in European painting. His Netherlandish contemporaries and successors including Rogier van der Weyden propagated this concept, as seen in A Man Reading circa 1450.  A window onto a distant horizon was a particularly popular compositional device.   It has the additional effect of blurring for the viewer the division between the real and the imaginary, making the interior seem extra tangible, becoming a foil to the exterior landscape.

Northern Italian artists including Andrea Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as their patrons, were eager to import this Northern trend, complete with signature rocky outcroppings. The plateau view became increasingly frequent framing portraits such as Leonardo’s,  as well as religious scenes, such as the The Agony in the Garden, 1458-60.

The Agony in the Garden about 1458-60, Andrea Mantegna, The National Gallery, London

Landscape appreciation was seen as essential to physical and spiritual health for cultured Renaissance Italians.  When one’s Pallazo could not manage a real landscape view, a painting was seen to be a suitable alternative.  Isabella D’Este, who sometimes ruled Mantua while her husband Francesco II Gonzaga was away on business, took this concept to heart.  She lined up the horizon lines of paintings by Mantegna, Perugino and Lorenzo Costa in her Studiolo in order to immerse herself in a grand imaginary landscape in 1522. (ref 1)  Her collection can be viewed at a Louvre mini-site.

Today, game artists use the power of the panoramic vista to enhance immersion.  Assassins Creed 2, a strategy game (released by Ubisoft 2009) ported the Renaissance love for vistas in their recreation of Florentine, Venetian and Roman locations.  Bird’s eye views over 15th century architecture and Tuscan plateaus tap into our visual heritage established by early Renaissance painters.  Our cultural DNA is sparked if only as a background layer, as concentration is focused on the drama of foreground characters, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Assasin's Creed 2 (2009)

Leonardo himself had a particular fascination with rocky landscape backgrounds in his portraits and religious scenes.  The opportunity to see the Mona Lisa in person is an opportunity to appreciate the Star Trekian vista framing the lady.

detail from The Virgin of the Rocks about 1491 - 1508, Leonardo da Vinci, The National Gallery, London

The restoration of the National Gallery’s The Virgin of the Rocks in London unveiled amongst other delights, a hinterland of glacial waters and craggy formations.

The vistas, the rocks, and the florescent waters of Leonardo are repackaged as Planet Pandora, the setting of Avatar (game released by Ubisoft 2009).   It’s fantastical yet deeply familiar.  The landscape is iconic, buried deep in our collective imagination - rocky outcroppings rising from the mist, framing the Pandoran struggle.

Planet Pandora, the setting of Avatar

But finally, the modern urban habitat transcribes itself onto the vista. The energy of the metropolis combines with our deep love of panoramic views, and the result is Mirror’s Edge (released by Electronic Arts 2008).  Tokyo, the ultimate 21st century city-scape inspires clean white geometrics against a cobalt sky. Rocky outcroppings have morphed into billboards and water towers, an awesome backdrop for illusive urban liberation.

Mirror's Edge (released 2008)


1. Witte, Arnold Alexander, The Artful Hermitage: The Palazzetto Farnese as a Counter-reformation Diaeta, Volume 2 of L' ErmArte Series, L'ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER, (2008), pp. 48-52.


Archived Comments

Joe 14 Sep 2010 I’ve been trying to think of photographers who may have used the majestic vista through the window motif, but I’m struggling. Possibly the medium makes it technically difficult to achieve (too much contrast) though I’ve seen early portraits with landscapes painted on to a screen behind the sitter. Clearly landscape and urban photography have had a significant impact (consciously or unconsciously) on the aesthetics of the games featured above.



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