Building the picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

 Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidiu, 1486: © The National Gallery, London

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidiu, 1486: © The National Gallery, London


The National Gallery once again builds on its strong reputation for Renaissance art with an exhibition presenting the role of architecture in Renaissance painting. Following the success of the recent Veronese exhibition, the National Gallery has assembled a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries to demonstrate the diverse and intricate uses of architecture within Renaissance art.

The Gallery claims this is ‘the first exhibition in Britain to explore the role of architecture within painting’ and the exhibition boasts architectonic paintings from the likes of Crivelli, Duccio and Botticelli. Drawing in part from the National Gallery’s own very fine collection of Renaissance painting, the exhibition also presents Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Judgement of Solomon, marking its first display in London for 30 years, and The Ruskin Madonna by Andrea del Verrocchio, which is on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Renaissance was a period in which art and architecture flowed together more freely with much less formal division between the two, not least because there was no specific apprenticeship for architecture. Indeed, the great architect Brunelleschi was trained as a goldsmith and Michelangelo was a much celebrated artist before he turned his hand to architecture.

The exhibition stresses the centrality of architecture to Renaissance painting. The buildings we see depicted do not simply function as background to the figures, but their inclusion is often key to the narrative and to the understanding of the painting. One such example is Antonella da Messina’s St Jerome in His Study where the architectural structure in which the Saint is set literally fortifies the meaning of the painting: the complexity and serenity of his surroundings mirror that of St Jerome’s scholarship.

Architectural features can be seen too, to convey emotion as can be seen in Domenico Veneziano’s Saint Zenobius Bishop of Florence restores to life a widow’s son killed by an ox cart in Borgo degli Albizzi, Florence where the narrow and angled perspective of the street emphasises the horror of the scene.

The elements of architecture are heavy with symbolism throughout the paintings presented and the numerous arches and doorways are suggestive of sacred entry into heaven itself. Thresholds too are commonly found in Renaissance paintings and evoke the idea of passage into a divine space.

The paintings are complemented by five short films that explore how contemporary thinkers are once again beginning to erase the distinctions between different media and feature award-wining architect Peter Zumthor and art historian T J Clark among others.

Building the Picture exposes architecture that no longer forms a passive frame, or serves merely as a compositional prop, but that plays an integral part in the meaning of the painting.


September 2014

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