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Around the galleries

Building the Renaissance picture

— July 2014

Associated media

Andrea del Verrocchio & workshop, Virgin adoring the Infant Christ ('The Ruskin Madonna'), 1470–5. Egg tempera & oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 106.7x76.3cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Purchased with the aid of The Art Fund & The Pilgri

Sue Grange finds art and architecture functioning together in the paintings currently on show at London’s National Gallery

It still happens in Italy today. You are walking down the street and your eye catches sight of someone looking down at you. You stop and look closer. It is a painting or possibly a sculpture, set into a wall or more often than not a corner of a wall. Usually behind glass, Mary or Jesus or a certain local saint looks out, from this strategic position, at the sea of humanity passing by: art and architecture functioning together.

This is how the National Gallery's free summer exhibition 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' begins.

Domenico Veneziano's painting  The Virgin and Child  (c.1435–43), originally displayed in a street tabernacle, is hung high on a wall and you pass strategically by it to enter the exhibition. For hundreds of years this work surveyed the people of Florence as they went about their affairs, but more significantly from its strategic position it surveyed them as they processed through the town in commemorative and celebratory parades: art and architecture functioning together.

This exhibition is the first in Britain to explore the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries and is the result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York. Viewers are encouraged to look in greater depth and in fresh ways at the architectural settings in what may be familiar paintings from the gallery's own collection. Viewers are challenged not to see the architectural settings as simply background but as an integral and significant part of the works themselves.

Architecture can be used to encourage viewers to enter paintings: steps can lead us up into the scenes depicted, painted frames create a window effect beckoning us to look through; arches, openings and doorways invite us in, as in Carlo Crivelli's The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486).

Architecture can divide the painting into areas where each section suggests a certain meaning. In Sassetta's Saint Francis Renounces his Earthly Father (c.1440) Francis, together with a Bishop, is standing under a wide and spacious arcade. In his rebellion against his father's wishes he is protected by the edifice and officers of the church. His father stands outside beyond the confines of the arcade, impotent to compel his son to return to his former life.

Architecture can be used to suggest the passing of time and the sequencing of events. In Botticelli's Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius  (c. 1500) three events in different places and at different times are depicted in one painting. On an elevated arched plinth to the left of the painting an exorcism is taking place. In the centre in front of a family palace a boy is brought back from the dead. To the right hand side against the backdrop of a deep barrel-vaulted archway a blind man is being healed. This site still exists today and is called the Vault of San Pietro and is found in Florence in the Piazza S. Pier Maggiore. Virgin Adoring the Infant Christ (1470-5) from the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, sets the Virgin and Christ amidst a vast complex of classical ruins, implying that the old world of paganism has passed away and that the new age of the Messiah has begun.

Architecture can be read as a commentary on the characters or events portrayed. In Antonello da Messina's Saint Jerome in his Study (c.1475) the viewer sees Jerome in a little room in the centre of a vast vaulted building. This can be read as a metaphor for how Jerome's translation of the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate) lay at the heart of the huge structure that was western Christianity. The precision of the architectural setting, the incised lines of the masonry and tiles echo the clarity and precision of his translation.

Architectural settings can be real or imagined. Portrait of a Man in Armour (attributed to Francesco Granacci, c.1510)  shows a detailed background depiction of the Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia in Florence. This reinforces the sitter's role as defender of the city.  Various interpretations by artists of the destroyed Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem show contrasting ways in which artists have imagined this stupendous building.

Five short films shown to support this exhibition offer a fascinating commentary on how today's artists, architects and designers approach the use of architectural settings in their work. For me, the most striking film was Peter Gornstein, cinematic and artistic director of a computer games company, discussing how his team work together in a manner creatively similar to that of a Renaissance master's workshop. All five films and the very detailed accompanying publication to the exhibition are available on the National Gallery's website.


Susan Grange
Independent art historian

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