Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

Art, Renaissance art Free
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Carlo Crivelli  ('The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius', 1486)
'The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius', 1486

© The National Gallery, London

Duccio ('The Annunciation', 1307/8-11)
'The Annunciation', 1307/8-11

© The National Gallery, London

Giorgio Vasari ('Pope Leo X processing through Piazza Signoria in 1515', c.1588)
'Pope Leo X processing through Piazza Signoria in 1515', c.1588

© By permission of the Governing Body, Christ Church, Oxford (JBS 160)

Domenico Veneziano  ('Saint Zenobius Bishop of Florence restores to life a widow's son killed in Borgo degli Albizzi, Florence', about 1442-48)
'Saint Zenobius Bishop of Florence restores to life a widow's son killed in Borgo degli Albizzi, Florence', about 1442-48

Lent by The Syndics of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Sandro Botticelli  ('The Adoration of the Kings', about 1470-5)
'The Adoration of the Kings', about 1470-5

© The National Gallery, London

Sandro Botticelli  ('Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius', about 1500)
'Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius', about 1500

© The National Gallery, London

Vincenzo Catena  ('Saint Jerome in his Study', probably about 1510)
'Saint Jerome in his Study', probably about 1510

© The National Gallery, London

Now, this small exhibition is about the place of architecture in Renaissance painting. Oh, and many of the subjects are religious. Hold on though, because these works get better and weirder the more you get into them. It’s ace and it’s free.

Take Carlo Crivelli’s ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486). The Angel Gabriel has landed on earth to give Mary the news that she’s going to bear the son of God. She’s indoors, in a rather fancy house, while Gabriel has been waylaid in the street near a cucumber by a man who’s showing him a tiny model town. In the background the citizenry get on with their stuff, apparently impervious to the Holy Spirit, descending as a bolt of gold that goes into Mary’s head through a special hole in the wall. The painterly treatment is glitteringly hyper-real, while the architecture is a fantastical assemblage of real and imagined.

The point is that the architectural settings of many Renaissance works are as open to interpretation as the ostensible subjects of the paintings. The religious and the secular, the ancient and the modern are all mixed up, and so the built environment takes on an almost postmodern sensibility. Indeed, some architectural developments of the period took their cue from building styles in paintings.

Unlike Crivelli’s painting, Antonello’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ (1510) is of a dark interior that keeps the viewer on the doorstep. We are left to peer at Jerome sitting at an overcomplicated desk, the compartmentalised space perhaps suggesting his strict moral segregation, or love of mental tidiness..

Realising that the very structure of these paintings is problematic and up for debate is fascinating, especially if your art history has some shaky foundations.

Chris Waywell


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This exhibition feels larger than its four small rooms, perhaps because the message it conveys is big:  take another look at those paintings with which you are so familiar, and notice their architectural background... you might be surprised by what you find: