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Architecture: The National Gallery's current 'Building the Picture' exhibition offers much insight into the role of architecture in 15th-century Italian painting-and the principles of perspective that it encapsulates gesture towards the entire history of architectural perspective.

Buildings do make a picture. The architecture can be real or imaginary, old or new. Cityscapes or grand architectural gestures can form a theatrical backcloth to dramatic events in the foreground. Sometimes buildings can be shown on a two-dimensional surface in ways they cannot be appreciated in three dimensions. In Carlo Crivelli's painting of The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (Fig. 2), painted in 1486 for the town of Ascoli Piceno, we can see both exterior and interior space: the Virgin in her room behind a grilled window, struck by the Holy Spirit as a golden shaft coming down from heaven, and the local saint and other figures in the street outside. And the architecture is gorgeous, with highly ornamental Corinthian pilasters, an open loggia with an elaborate ceiling above, and a rightly ornamented archway in the distance.

This splendid painting, large and rich in colour and detail, hangs in pride of place in the National Gallery's current exhibition, 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' (until 21 September). Consisting largely of works in the gallery's own collection but organised in collaboration with the University of York, the exhibition presents works dating largely from the second half of the 15th century in which buildings or fragments of buildings, arcades and gateways or streets, dominate the compositions. Carefully drawn buildings or interiors in which the Virgin Mary or assorted saints are depicted are so familiar that such a use of architecture tends to be taken for granted. In this intelligent and enthralling display this phenomenon is for once specifically investigated. Indeed, as Nicholas Penny claims, this 'is the first exhibition in Britain to study in depth the role of architecture within painting, and the first anywhere to focus exclusively on architecture within Italian Renaissance pictures'.

The pleasure these paintings give is partly the pleasure the artists clearly took in detail, in depicting ornament or Corinthian capitals or the construction of a window. There was also the possibility in exploring space as well as in playing with the ambiguities of depicting depth and recession on a flat plane. An enchanting painting by Antonello da Messina of a familiar theme, Saint Jerome in his Study (c. 1475; Fig. 1), is framed by a representation of an elaborate gothic opening in which each stone and joint is carefully depicted. Within, the saint's room is properly vaulted while further interest is given to the depiction of space by having the vista of a gothic arcade on one side and windows through which gardens, buildings and distant hills can be seen beyond.


In many of the pictures, the architectural forms are clearly contemporary, reflecting the new interest in the architecture of Roman antiquity which lay behind our term 'Renaissance'. In others, architectural structures are depicted in decay, so suggesting the passage of time. In some, buildings are shown in a state of collapse, no doubt as a metaphor for the transience of human endeavour but interestingly reminiscent of some of the mannerist games played by Giulio Romano in his buildings in Mantua. As Amanda Lillie writes in the online catalogue (why not on paper as well?), 'particular qualities of scale, structure, proportion, mass and the whole language of Gothic or Classical architecture are available to be selected, absorbed and reinterpreted within a painting. A picture could achieve an architectural sort of beauty.'

On one level, perhaps it is not surprising to find so much convincing architecture in Renaissance paintings as so many painters worked as architects as well: Michelangelo, Baldassare Peruzzi, even Raphael. There were not then the rigid divisions between artistic activities that developed subsequently. Furthermore, to place religious themes within architectural settings was in a tradition, for figures of saints were placed in niches in so many medieval buildings and religious scenes had been depicted within elaborate frames in reredoses and altarpieces. But there was something else going on in these Renaissance paintings that is only tangentially referred to in the exhibition but which surely accounts for what Reginald Blomfield noted a century ago in Architectural Drawing and Draughtsmen (1912): 'The astonishing thing is that architectural draughtsmanship should appear in Italy, completely equipped, within certain limits, in the latter part of the fifteenth century.'


In one of the paintings, Sassetta's Saint Francis renounces his Earthly Father (1437-44), action takes place around round-arched arcades, but the architecture is simplified and the viewpoint oblique. It is still medieval in character. But most of the paintings in the exhibition employ a fixed central viewpoint instead of the multiple viewpoints typical of medieval art, and exploit the new discovery of linear perspective. With this mathematical system, involving lines receding to a single vanishing point, depth and an accurate depiction of scale was possible; distance was represented in a series of planes. Artists were clearly keen to explore the possibilities of depicting space and distance with convincing accuracy by such methods, and it was surely easier to do this with architecture --orthogonal, disciplined and precise--rather than with more imprecise and vague forms of trees and landscape. Crucially, the system of linear perspective, based on vanishing points, was formulated by Leon Battista Alberti--uomo universale: theorist, artist and architect--in his book, De pictura (1436). It is surely this influential work that lay behind so many of the later 15th-century paintings in the exhibition.

But there was more. Alberti dedicated his book to, among others, Filippo Brunelleschi, the great Florentine goldsmith and sculptor turned architect who was responsible for the astonishing dome of Florence Cathedral. This extraordinary man had discovered the principles of linear perspective around 1415-20 by applying the mathematical methods of measuring and surveying buildings to painting. Famously, Brunelleschi made a painting of the Baptistery in Florence with accurate optical perspective and invited people to test its exactness by seeing the actual view through a small hole in the centre of the painting and then comparing it with his representation seen in a mirror. This painting is long lost, as are others he executed of buildings in Florence, but it is known that around 1425 Masaccio used Brunelleschi's system for his fresco of The Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella. In this, the depiction of a classical coffered barrel vault, seen from below, is similar to that in the painting of The Virgin and Child and Saints (c. 1498-1500) by Lorenzo Costa and Gianfrancesco Maineri in the exhibition.

Other painters turned architects such as Donato Bramante and Baldassare Peruzzi (who is represented in this exhibition) followed Brunelleschi in using perspective techniques to depict their own, and others' architectural designs. From such drawings can be traced the whole history of the architectural perspective, that pictorial method of accurately depicting an architectural design as if solid and real, an art which is evident in these Renaissance paintings, and one which would go on to flourish, in particular, in 19th-century Britain.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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