During the Italian Renaissance, artists indulged their love of architecture by building elaborate structures in paint.
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Confronting Carlo Crivelli’s The Annunciation, With Saint Emidius (1486), the viewer may feel unsure whether he or she is looking at a painting or about to enter a building. It’s not just the astonishing trompe l’oeil effect created by the sharply rendered architectural details and the swift recession of the lines to the vanishing point. It’s the way everything in the picture—the human figures, the angels, the perching pigeons and the peacock, even the fruits and vegetables strewn on the floor in the foreground—is contained within a structure too wild to exist in real life but convincingly real in egg tempera and oil on canvas. With this bizarre piece of fantasy architecture, Crivelli manages to encompass indoors and outdoors at once; the staircase, which contains a window and an arch for good measure, is unexpectedly situated outside, while the whole central passageway, leading to a courtyard, is open to the air. Only the trees in the far distance appear to be unenclosed, though an ambiguously rendered set of parapets raises the question of whether they may actually be inside a walled garden. Even the golden ray of divine light beaming down from the sky and bearing the dove of the Holy Spirit has to pass through a little architectural detail on its way to the Virgin’s head. The tiny gold-ringed archway piercing the frieze above the columns looks as if was placed there by the painter-architect in anticipation of this exact moment of supernatural contact. As in fact it was.
With this architectural tour de force, Crivelli was doing more than just showing off—although that was certainly part of the agenda in those early days when linear perspective had just recently been rediscovered. But by situating the elements of his painting within a structure he himself created, the painter was controlling the narrative as well as the space. While Crivelli’s late-Gothic sensibility led him to results that tended to be somewhat more hyperreal than average, intensely architectural painting was common during the Italian Renaissance. The colorful panels and canvases of the era abound in porticos, arches, columns, and elaborately inlaid floors, and figures are forever crossing thresholds or standing on grids. Architectural elements were far more than simply backdrops or stage sets, as proved by a very innovative and comprehensive exhibition on view through September 21 at the National Gallery of Art in London. “Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting” explores the various pictorial roles played by buildings from the late Middle Ages to the High Renaissance and sheds light on the reasons for the intense preoccupation with architecture that prevailed at that time. The show—the first ever on the subject—is a collaboration between the National Gallery and the art history department of the University of York and brings together a broad assortment of paintings and drawings (from the National Gallery’s collection as well as loans) by artists including Duccio, Botticelli, and Michelangelo to tell its story.
To a certain extent, the passion for architecture was an outgrowth of the Renaissance’s enthusiasm for antiquity. Structures built by the ancient Romans could be seen all over Italy. They were the most visible and tangible remains of the Classical culture being recovered and celebrated by the Humanists, and their various stages of ruin seemed to symbolize the state of Classical culture, badly in need of restoration but by no means lost. In a world where scholarship, literature, and the visual arts were interdependent and intertwined, it was inevitable that architecture would capture the artistic imagination. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a strange and beautiful illustrated book published in Venice in 1499, perfectly crystallizes the mood. Its eponymous hero, a youth called Poliphilo, pursues his beloved, Polia (who symbolizes, among other things, Classical culture), through a series of fantasy structures based on Roman, Greek, and even Egyptian temples and palaces. In the finely wrought anonymous woodcuts that accompany the narrative, the human figures seem dwarfed by the architecture.
On a less pagan note, in the so-called Ruskin Madonna (Virgin Adoring the Infant Christ, from 1470–75, by Andrea del Verocchio and workshop, once owned by John Ruskin), which is included in the exhibition, the sacred pair are placed amid Roman ruins, the Virgin’s head framed by crumbling Corinthian columns. The curators of the exhibition, Amanda Lillie and Caroline Campbell, see the receding perspective of the ruins, executed with virtuoso skill, as symbolizing nostalgia for the receding past. The details of the structures themselves are so lovingly rendered—weeds are shown poking up from the blocks in the ground, and the stone of the pilasters looks vulnerably porous—that any notion of Christianity triumphing over outdated paganism seems beside the point.
A ruined, though imaginary, Roman-type basilica dominates Botticelli’s great tondo (round painting) Adoration of the Kings (1470–75), taking up the central two-thirds of the image. Masquerading as a manger for the moment, the basilica shelters the Christ Child, Mary, the Magi, and a huge crowd of reverent onlookers. As the eye moves off to the edges of the painting, the ruins themselves slide off into an ever more ruinous state. The keystone of the central arch has slipped out of position and looks as if it may tumble at any moment, giving the whole composition a sense of fragility that the painter contrasts with the newness and power of the infant Jesus. But these ruins have a strength all their own—an examination of the underdrawing shows that Botticelli planned the whole composition around the architecture, and that the incised lines delineating the ruins were made before anything else.
For Renaissance artists, building a picture using an architectural approach involved no danger of subordinating the human element to a mechanistic scheme. In his influential early 15th-century manual for artists, Il Libro dell’ Arte, Cennino Cennini applied the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’ system of modular construction to the construction of paintings. The units of measurement in that system are none other than the proportions of the human body, so there is bound to be a continuity between the figures and the structures within which they are placed and move about.
The architectonic role of built structures is very clearly demonstrated in one of the works on paper in the show, a circa-1500 preparatory drawing by Lorenzo Costa for a lost or never-executed fresco, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee. The artist went lightly over the details; the tops and bases of the columns are very sketchy. Instead, he concentrated on the literally overarching structural aspect of the Classical interior; the masses and proportions of the architecture give order and meaning to the scene happening within it.
In Sassetta’s Saint Francis Renounces His Earthly Father (1437–44), the architecture helps the underlying narrative along by separating the figures into zones of meaning. St. Francis, naked, having renounced his family’s wealth and social standing, is sheltered by a bishop at the right of the painting; his position under the fancifully colored vaulted arches of the building underscores that protection. The saint’s father, dressed in rich reds, thunders his rage from stage left, outside the space delineated by the columns; he is in the profane realm, isolated from his son by his obstinacy.
In one of the latest examples from the show, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556–59), the architectural elements are deliberately off-kilter, to enhance the sense of mutability and uncertainty appropriate to this tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As the hunter Actaeon surprises the goddess in her bath, his impending transformation into a hunted stag is prefigured by the way the monumental stone arches in the background fail to connect with their surroundings as they should, and by the way the circular stone basin in which Diana and her nymphs are bathing slants uneasily into the water rather than resting flat.
Whether deliberately inaccurate or painstakingly accurate, the perspective in these Italian Renaissance paintings is almost always in the service of something other than itself. The curators of the National Gallery show are very clear on the point that illusionistic perspective was not the primary impetus behind the architectural elements of these pictures but was merely a tool to achieve various effects, emotional or otherwise. True, the technique of using vanishing points to convey depth of space had only recently been discovered (actually rediscovered, because the ancient Romans had known the technique, unbeknownst to moderns until the excavation of Pompeii in the 18th century), so there was a certain temptation to show off a new achievement, but most of the artists managed not to fall into the trap of letting the perspective drive the art instead of the other way around.
The great architect Filippo Brunelleschi, designer of the domed cathedral of Florence, is credited with formulating the rules of linear perspective. In the early 1400s, according to his younger contemporary and biographer Antonio Manetti, Brunelleschi made panel paintings of the Baptistery of Florence and the city’s Palazzo Vecchio as seen from two particular places in the then-unfinished cathedral. He then rigged up a series of mirrors so that viewers could compare his paintings (both now lost) with reflected images of the scenes painted, which he believed was more accurate than comparing them to a naked-eye view.
Brunelleschi’s innovation spread across Italy and then the rest of Europe, but the thrill of making an exact replica of a view lost its luster fairly quickly. While some of Piero della Francesca’s chilly scenes do resemble textbook exercises in perspective, most painters departed considerably from “reality” in constructing their buildings. In Crivelli’s Annunciation, the perspective is almost as unreal as M.C. Escher’s, and even the less extreme examples tend to use perspective to heighten drama or draw the eye in a particular direction rather than to emulate Brunelleschi’s mirrors.
Almost all of the buildings in these paintings are imaginary, but they can’t really be considered “fantasy architecture” in the current-day sense. These painters weren’t frustrated architects indulging themselves in two dimensions because they had no hope of accomplishing anything in three. Far from it—Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, to give the most distinguished examples, designed real buildings on public commission. In a catalogue essay, curator Amanda Lillie writes that the emphasis on architecture in the flat art of the Italian Renaissance is an expression of an “integrated practice in the arts” that was more important then than at any time before or since. Most of the painters of the era had expertise in other areas of art and technology—architecture, goldsmithing, furniture making, even engineering. The various art media were themselves more closely integrated with each other than they are today; one reason that the architectural element in the paintings makes sense was that the paintings themselves were often architectural elements. Many were site-specific, intended to fit into altars in churches or other public spaces, and the three-dimensional frames for paintings mimicked architectural elements like columns and pediments.
The Italian word disegno, a key term in the vocabulary of Quattrocento visual artists, encompasses drawing, draftsmanship, design, and architectonic planning. These endeavors—and the mental processes needed for them—were conceived as basically inseparable, all part and parcel of what Lillie terms “visual rhetoric.” Any good painting or drawing had to persuasively communicate visual ideas in the same way that a sculpture or a building did, and that rhetoric ran through the various media like the finely made, seemingly effortless lines of a Renaissance drawing.