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How Did Humans Learn to Paint in Three Dimensions?

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If you begin clicking through The Portrait Project's timeline, a strange thing starts to happen around the 1300s. The flat, childish depictions of kings and saints begin to change. Their faces start to curve, ever so slightly, into what looks like a third dimension. Noses begin to have shading and depth. The Christ child begins to look like he's being held by his mother, not sitting flush with her. The portraits are still flat and unnatural, but not nearly as primitive as the portraiture that came before them.

Then come the 1400s, and suddenly portraits become people. They pop off the canvas in variations of darkness and light, their faces detailed and proportioned.

I was puzzled by this. Being able to paint in three dimensions is not like being able to build a car. For a car to work, you must learn thousands of separate skills and concepts, from how to make steel to how to drill for oil, and then piece them precisely together. Those processes took thousands of years to culminate in Karl Benz's Motorwagen and Henry Ford's Model T.

But to paint photo-realistically—that's different. It seems like a simple matter of sweeping your paint brush a different direction, of using darker paint for shadow and making things smaller if they're far away. How could the artists of the first millennia and before not know how to do this? It's as if the knowledge hung there in the air, unseen or ignored.

Or did it?

Art History

James G. Harper is a professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in the history of Renaissance art. According to Harper, the first misconception is that humans never knew how to draw in 3D before the 1300s. He points to the work of ancient Romans in the Pompeian Second Style wall paintings and the 8th century illuminated manuscripts, the Coronation Gospels of Charlemagne, which, although primitive, show clear use of realism and perspective.

The real reason that three-dimensional art was seldom seen before the 14th century was that artists didn't want to portray life in three dimensions. Harper explains: "In the medieval period artists lost the desire to make lifelike images. The job of art was not to reproduce the real world, but instead to show another world. Unshackled from the mundane task of realism it entered a more expressive realm."

Western Civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire was miserable, riddled with plague and hunger and oppression. People of the Dark Ages were simply waiting out their time on this mucky rock called Earth until they could be called to Heaven. And it was the surreal unknown of Heaven that most strongly influenced their work.

Gradually, artists lost the knowledge required to render realistic imagery. Says Harper: "Bit by bit, (artistic) training stopped including things like perspectival composition or the modeling of 3D forms through the modulation of light and shadow. To regain that, one would have to retrain oneself."

That retraining was sparked by the Renaissance. Renaissance means rebirth, a finding value in the old ways. The ancient world was re-examined and revived, one facet being the desire to paint realistically. Simultaneously, as the works of the great ancient philosophers were being widely read, the individual self became interesting again. The human form and the life within it became worthy of close examination and accurate reproduction.

A 13th century painter named Giotto was on the forefront of this revolution. As one 17th century biographer said, Giotto initiated "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life." He laid the groundwork of realistic painting that has touched every artist from Michelangelo to Thomas Kinkade.

The mathematical precision that later artists would use to bring proportion to their canvases was slower to develop. "For modeling with light and shadow (as well as psychological realism) Giotto is a great artist to consider," Harper says. "But mathematical perspective was truly lost, and though Giotto understood that diagonal lines signaled spatial depth, it was not until Brunelleschi's c. 1410 experiment that they understood it systematically."

There isn't a single reason Western Civilization suddenly gained (or regained) the ability to paint in three dimensions. It came about through the retrieval of old ideas and the birth of brand new ones. People began to see life as more than just God's desperately uncomfortable waiting room. Artists began to observe the essence and detail that filled their actual lives, and, as artists must, brought what they saw into the light.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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