Perspectiva Corporum Regularium (Perspective of regular solids), created in 1568 by German goldsmith and printmaker Wenzel Jamnitzer (1508–1585) and available online through the Getty Research Institute, is a study in shapes inspired by the five Platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. An article by Frank J. Swetz on the Mathematical Association of America’s website explains that the Platonic solids were thought to be the building blocks of four basic types of matter: tetrahedron of fire, octahedron of air, cube of earth, water of icosahedron. The 10-faced solid — the dodecahedron — symbolized heaven and the universe.
In Perspectiva Corporum Regularium, Jamnitzer rotates and carves each of the solids to demonstrate how they might function as the building blocks of the world. Though science has since demonstrated the atom to be the most basic part of all matter, Jamnitzer’s studies possess a captivating artistic merit. With the manipulation, repetition, and layering of basic shapes, they seem like distant precursors to Minimalism and its concerns.
Jamnitzer sometimes sketches solids in sculptural positioning — a shape upon a pedestal — enhancing an understanding of the three-dimensional form in space. The resulting manipulations are often so varied it can be hard to discern from which Platonic solid they originated. This is Jamnitzer’s point: to show that all matter might be constituted by these primary shapes. Although our understanding of the essence of matter has changed, interestingly, the underlying concept of building blocks has not. All matter is constituted of molecules made of atoms, adding up to their own kind of minimal, molecular geometry.