Exhibition Review

Architecture in Italian Renaissance painting



WHILE LINEAR PERSPECTIVE is synonymous with the emergence of a new language of painting in fifteenth-century Italy, it is surprising that the architecture that appears in the art of that period has received little systematic study. Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery, London (to 21st September), gathers together works predominantly drawn from the Gallery’s permanent collection, turning the spotlight on the role played by architecture in these works. Deft use of the Sunley Room has allowed the curators to arrange the show in four main sections. These consider in turn how architecture serves formally to structure the spatial construction of the composition, how buildings offer ‘entry points’ to the pictorial field, how architecture serves to situate the depicted scene in a real (remote or contemporary) setting, and finally how archi­tecture serves to create the sense of a distant historical past. While these aspects are quite familiar, and indeed many of the paintings are well known, by bringing together works spanning two-and-a-half centuries ranging from Duccio’s Annunciation (c.1311)1 to Giorgio Vasari’s mid-sixteenth century drawing of the Entry of Leo X to Piazza della Signoria (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford), these strategies are shown to be remarkably constant throughout the period.

A conscious effort has been made to bring together images produced from across Italy, although no particular attempt is made to consider whether the construction of three-dimensional illusion conformed to different norms in different centres, so the focus remains predominantly on Florence. Yet there are remarkable examples of the varied ways in which the technique was adopted in different cities. Bramantino’s Adoration of the kings (Fig.44), for example, uses architecture in a wholly unusual way, its meticulous perspectival grid rendering a building that conforms in no way to traditional depictions of the birthplace of Christ, here shown as an unfinished contemporary all’antica palace interior rather than the more usual classical ruin. By contrast, the rough-hewn wooden hut of Ercole de’ Roberti’s Nativity (Fig.45) is at once rudimentary and yet rigorously classicising. Indeed, as one of the short films accompanying the show (an interview with the contemporary architect Peter Zumthor) highlights, it seems to anticipate the origins of architecture in the ‘primitive hut’ outlined in the mid-eighteenth century by M.-A. Laugier. These and other works, such as the Sassetta panel from the Sansepolcro altarpiece, might have been set into a wider context to show how the practice of architecture itself – and its depiction and the anticipation of its development in painting – followed widely diverging lines.

Instead, a somewhat simplified and homogenising narrative is proposed, which stresses the opportunities opened up by the realistic depiction of architecture within the pictorial frame. Within this scheme, the most revealing findings come where the architectural sensibility of the chief curator, Amanda Lillie, is given more free rein. This is espe-cially the case with the display of Domenico Veneziano’s Carnesecchi tabernacle, a detached fresco of the Madonna and Child (Fig.43) with two flanking saints, displayed well above head height over the entrance to the Sunley Room to evoke its original setting as an outdoor shrine attached to a palace a short distance west of Florence Cathedral. The work is shown together with a reproduction of Giuseppe Zocchi’s 1744 print of the area, in which the shrine is clearly visible. Here architecture and urban setting are integral to understanding the work, and indeed its intended low viewing point explains the somewhat distorted perspective if seen at eye-level as is normal in a museum display. In turn, the temporary arch for the tabernacle installation serves as a frame to recreate the sensation of entering a dark oratory, through which Lorenzo Costa’s and Gianfrancesco Maineri’s Virgin and Child with saints (1489–1500) is viewed; here, the light sky of the background contrasts with the dark inte­r­ior, the unusual high throne serving as a frame for the depiction of scenes from the life of Christ in fictive marble bas-relief. Dom­enico Veneziano is the protagonist of another illu­minating observation that highlights how the predella panel of a Miracle of St Zenobius (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) is depicted as taking place in a topographically accurate representation of Borgo degli Albizzi, a street that was on the processional route taken to commemorate the life of the Florentine bishop-saint Zenobius. In fact, Domenico’s work contrasts surprisingly with Botticelli’s painting of the same subject made almost half a century later, where the topography is much less carefully rendered, perhaps on account of the fact that his predella panel depicts three distinct miracles within a single pictorial frame. In these instances urban space – how it is structured, how it influences the pictorial narrative, and how it creates the viewing conditions for individual works of art – offers fresh insight for a contextualised understanding of pictures and how their contemporary viewers might have perceived them. So too, as Lillie notes for Sebastiano del Piombo’s Judgment of Solomon (Kingston Lacy, Bankes Collection, National Trust), the painting’s innovative horizontal format allows the artist to depict a monumental interior space evoking an Ancient Roman basilica, while at the same time extending the built space of its probable original setting in the portegho of Andrea Loredan’s new palace in Venice. Here too, a consideration of the architecture – both its fictive representation in the painting and its setting in the palace – serves to explain the splendour of the broad horizontal space, and the low perspectival vantage point for the paving design.

Building the Picture offers a valuable survey of the role of architecture and perspective in Renaissance art, and this is all the more the case on account of the innovative decision on the part of the Gallery to accompany the show with an online catalogue.2 Its great value is that all the research that underpins the exhibition is made freely and permanently available in a series of well cross-referenced essays and catalogue entries, predominantly written by the curators, but with texts by a team of other contributors. While many readers would probably have preferred a downloadable file with the entire text, the online catalogue will make a lasting contribution; with five short films – also available online – structured around interviews with film-makers, architects and a designer of digital virtual reality environments, these resources will also help to open up the research to a wider and younger public.

1    All works cited are in the permanent collection of the National Gallery unless otherwise stated.
2    Online catalogue: Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting. By Amanda Lillie, with Caro­line Campbell, Alasdair Flint, Caroline Elam, Jessica Gritti, Charles Robertson, Arnika Schmidt and Jennifer Sliwka:www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/exhibition-catalogues/building-the-picture/.