Piero della Francesca's treatise on perspective, De prospectiva pingendi, that is, 'On perspective for painting' is the first manual of drawing devoted to the new science of painters. With this fundamental text begins the great experience of Renaissance perspective, whose theoretical principles had been established by Leon Battista Alberti a few decades before. Its dissemination in the artists' workshops was entrusted to a series of handwritten codices, only seven of which, splendidly illustrated, have survived to our own day.
The treatise was almost certainly written around 1474-75, although continuous minor modifications appearing in the surviving codices suggest a gestation that could date back to the mid-1460s. Piero wrote it in the vernacular, and Maestro Matteo di Ser Paolo d'Anghiari then rendered it in Latin "de verbo ad verbum" (Luca Pacioli, Summa de aritmetica). Divided into three books, De prospectiva pingendi is the first systematic treatise on perspective to be entirely illustrated, as well as the first in which the author is concerned with providing mathematical justification for the procedures described. In the first two books, the author illustrates the perspective techniques to be employed for figures of plane and solid geometry; in the third, dealing with more complex figures, Piero introduces a method that is "easier to demonstrate and to understand", even though "the effect will be the same". In his work, the graphic text is just as important as the written one, and the perspective problems are progressively difficult.
The treatise has survived in seven handwritten codices, three in Italian – Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, ms. Parmense 1576; Reggio Emilia, Biblioteca Comunale "A. Panizzi", ms. Reggiani A 41/2 (formerly A 44); Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, ms. D 200 inf. – and four in Latin – Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, ms. S.P. 6 bis (formerly C 307 inf.); Bordeaux, Bibliothèque Municipale, ms. 616; London, British Library, cod. Additional 10366; Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Lat. 9337 (formerly Supplément latin 16) –. The codex in Italian at Reggio Emilia and those in Latin at Bordeaux and Milan are probably coeval (there appears, in fact, the hand of the same copyist). The Italian versions closest to the original are those of Reggio Emilia (considered without the additions) and of the codex (no longer extant) from which the one at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana was copied.