Building the Picture explored the fertile architectural imaginary of the Italian Renaissance city-states. Rather than focusing on architectural projects in the usual sense, the exhibition examined the real and imaginary buildings, streets, and piazzas that are depicted in narrative and devotional paintings and in the preparatory drawings that artists made for these works. Located in the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, Building the Picture was small but substantial, making good use of the gallery’s permanent collection in combination with some well-chosen loans. It was ordered according to four themes that were taken to be fundamental: constructing the picture, entering the picture, place making, and architectural time.

The exhibition started from the premise that architecture, rather than being something of secondary importance—a support for the main action—ought to be considered in these paintings as a protagonist. Two paintings depicting the Annunciation in the section dedicated to “entering the picture” might serve as examples. In Duccio’s tightly composed panel, the action takes place before a structure that includes both round and pointed arches (a choice that may be of some symbolic import). Far from providing mere scenery, the architectural setting orders every aspect of the painting, defining the relationship between the figures and binding them into a unified whole. The painting once formed part of the celebrated Maestà for the high altar of Siena Cathedral, the panels of which are a master class in how architecture may be employed for the purposes of storytelling, allowing the viewer to enter the picture imaginatively, intellectually, and affectively.

Where Duccio confines his Annunciation to a shallow space, in The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius Carlo Crivelli creates a street scene that recedes sharply into depth—demonstrating, with breathtaking effect, the dramatic potential of one-point perspective when applied to regular, architectural forms. In the foreground, the Virgin inhabits a sumptuous palazzo, the marbled façade of which is adorned with ornate pilasters supporting a richly carved entablature. The interior of her room is lined with humbler wood, although, like the loggia above it, it also boasts a decorated, coffered ceiling. As the catalog essay notes, the tension between the insistent operation of the perspective system and Crivelli’s delight in architectural surface is palpable across the entire canvas.1 Architecture does indeed emerge here as a protagonist, seeming to interrogate the nature of pictorial representation itself.

Crivelli’s practice of combining what look like observable elements of the architectural everyday with passages of fantastical and ostentatious display might be taken as indicative of the exhibition’s broader terrain. At times, the visitor encountered extravagant settings such as the partially ruined antique buildings among which Liberale da Verona has Dido meet her end. Elsewhere, a kind of verisimilitude prevailed. The building in which Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome is ensconced is a complex architectural fantasy, but it somehow contrives to feel sober and real.

The room in the exhibition devoted to place making included examples of artists fashioning our experience of existing places. The subject in Francesco Granacci’s Portrait of a Man in Armour is depicted in front of Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, while Giorgio Vasari, in a preparatory drawing for a fresco, represents a scene of political triumph within the same real setting. Adopting a viewpoint used by Granacci’s master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, both works, and particularly Vasari’s powerful drawing, present the trecento piazza as conforming more or less to quattrocento norms. On the other hand, images of the Temple in Jerusalem, described in the exhibition as “the ultimate symbol of a sacred site,” refer to a building long since destroyed—a fact that sometimes prompts a considerable degree of invention. Thus, in Sebastiano del Piombo’s unfinished Judgement of Solomon, the most striking loan in the exhibition, the temple (if that is what it is) is transformed into a grand Roman basilica.

The strength of the exhibition lay in the richness of the artworks on display. The visitor was provided with relatively little information in the form of text, and this lack of theoretical or art historical direction could have felt like a deficiency. However, the curators made the clever decision to include short films in which five speakers—an architect, a film director, an expert in computer animation, a historian of modern art, and a historian of cinema—reflected on works and themes in the exhibition from a contemporary perspective. These films were a great success. At a stroke, they provided new perspectives on the artworks, rendered them accessible to a broader public, and demonstrated their continued relevance.

The decision not to publish a printed catalog was probably the right one. Instead, a catalog was created that may be accessed freely online, along with the short films that accompanied the exhibition. The essays are informative and useful, although they are perhaps sometimes too dismissive of the theoretical potential of the topic. This is particularly evident where the issue of perspective is concerned. Erwin Panofsky’s extraordinary essay on the subject is, as has often been observed, highly problematic. Good arguments can be and have been deployed against many parts of it, but the claim that Renaissance painters had no conception of “psychophysiological space” does not strike me as being one of them.2 After all, Renaissance painters were similarly unacquainted with the concept of “place making”—a thoroughly contemporary notion that is imbued with the speculations of modern phenomenology—but the exhibition itself demonstrated that we may nevertheless fruitfully employ this concept in the discussion of Renaissance art.

Overall, however, this was a clever exhibition that made good use of the gallery’s resources to provide an introduction to a fascinating but overlooked subject. Abounding with marvelous and compelling works of art, it was the kind of small, free exhibition of which we might hope to see more.

Related Publication

Amanda Lillie, ed., Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting (London: National Gallery, 2014), online only, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research /exhibition-catalogues/building-the-picture

Note

1.

Amanda Lillie, “Constructing the Picture,” in Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, ed. Amanda Lillie (London: National Gallery, 2014), http://www.national gallery.org.uk/paintings/research/exhibition -catalogues/building-the-picture/constructing -the-picture/putting-perspective-into-perspective (accessed 12 Jan. 2015).

2.

Ibid.