Review – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

The National Gallery is hosting a free exhibition until 21st September 2014 in the Sunley Room.

NG739 Carlo Crivelli  The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486 Egg and oil on canvas 207 x 146.7 cm Presented by Lord Taunton, 1864 © The National Gallery, London

NG739
Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486
Egg and oil on canvas
207 x 146.7 cm
Presented by Lord Taunton, 1864 © The National Gallery, London

The influence of Renaissance architecture on many facets of modern life is often underrated. In this exhibition, which brings together works from different collections and locations for the first time, the influence of Renaissance architecture is explored.

A great way to start is to watch short documentaries in the film room (you can also watch the videos online– see link at the end of this article). These explore how Renaissance works have influenced everything from computer-generated imagery technology (CGI) to the designs of the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

CGI developers who studied Renaissance paintings noted that the architecture portrayed in them is perceptibly flawed in order to emphasise figures. Marcello Venusti’s The Purification of the Temple  was a collaborative process between Venusti and Michelangelo, whose drawings were used for the figure composition. It has recently been used to form the background inspiration in a computer game about ancient Rome, continuing that tradition of artistic cross-pollination.

The videos also show how Renaissance art influenced modern cinema, with some great archival footage.

The next time I watch an opening scene in a film with the camera panning from outside in, I’ll understand a little more the debt this technique owes  to Antonello de Messina’s Saint Jerome in His Study. 

The exhibition leads us from the documentary films to the paintings via drawings on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Queen’s private collection. The idea of staging a picture is presented. Each composition is a theatrical scene in which the buildings form a support and background for a narrative expressed through human figures.

Among my own favourites was Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Judgement of Solomon (c.1506-11), on loan from the National Trust. This ambitious large-scale narrative painting, which remains unfinished, shows figures nestled among classical architecture, with the focus on Solomon as he ponders the case of the two mothers in conflict over a child. The architecture in the painting reinforces the narrative.

NG3919 Sandro Botticelli  Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, about 1500 Tempera on wood 64.8 x 139.7 cm Mond bequest, 1924 © The National Gallery, London

NG3919
Sandro Botticelli
Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, about 1500
Tempera on wood
64.8 x 139.7 cm
Mond bequest, 1924
© The National Gallery, London

Ruins were used in nativity scenes to show that Christ was bringing in a new order, and to contrast the transience of the material world with the eternal nature of the spiritual world.

Ruins are used in Baldassare Peruzzi’s Adoration of the Magi  (c.1523) a wonderful pen, ink and wash drawing copied into a painting by Girolamo del Treviso. This highly finished drawing is worth seeing in and of itself, with archways in a semi-ruined state, trees intruding on the ruins and a parade of strange people and animals. Elephants and strangely horse-like giraffes walk towards the foreground, where human figures are tucked in close with a rearing horse and treasure boxes.

In Ercole de’ Roberti’s Nativity (1490-3) the small tempera painting is dominated by the stable in a totally convincing illusion of an impossible space.

The process of making works is shown through the squaring-up visible in a drawing by Giorgio Vasari on loan from Christ Church, Oxford. The drawings are a real compliment to the painted work on show, and further reveal the artists’ thought processes. The choice of landscapes, objects and architecture all reveal the passing of time.

Among the most cinematic of the works is da Messina’s Saint Jerome in His Study. You see St Jerome at his desk in the centre of the painting, but you also see the slippers he left at the base of the stairs before he stepped up to his room.

NG4758 Sassetta  Saint Francis renounces His Earthly Father, about 1440 Egg tempera on poplar 87.5 x 52.4 cm Bought with contributions from The Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearstead, 1934 © The National Gallery, London

NG4758
Sassetta
Saint Francis renounces His Earthly Father, about 1440
Egg tempera on poplar
87.5 x 52.4 cm
Bought with contributions from The Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearstead, 1934
© The National Gallery, London

A similar sense of time passing is also suggested in Saint Francis Renounces His Earthly Father (c.1440) by Sassetta (see left). The artist uses a built structure to suggest the conflict between the secular and the spiritual by placing some figures inside and others outside.

Carlo Crivelli’s The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486) is full of glorious details (see main image above). It is an intensely complex scene with repeating motifs of rug, plants and figures, and the isolated presence of the Virgin in a tightly enclosed area seen from the side.

As you go around the exhibition, here are a few fun things to look out for:

  • Spot the monkey in Botticelli’s Adoration of the the Kings.
  • Spot the giraffe in Baldassare Peruzzi’s Adoration of the Magi.
  • Find the model city in Carlo Crivelli’s The Annunciation with St Emidius. 

A really worthwhile exhibition to visit.


Editor’s note:

Sketch by Charlie Kirkham ASGFA of The Anunciation by Carlo Crivelli

Sketch by Charlie Kirkham ASGFA of The Anunciation by Carlo Crivelli

Building the Picture – Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting is the first exhibition in Britain to explore the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. It’s on at the National Gallery until 21st September 2014. For more information please visit the National Gallery’s web site http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/building-the-picture

Video link: Five contemporary perspectives on imagined architecture and how closely the modern arts of design parallel those of Italian Renaissance painters.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/channel/building-the-picture/

Charlie Kirkham ASGFA is the Society’s Associates Representative on the SGFA Council.

 

 

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One Response to Review – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

  1. Jo Hall says:

    Thanks so much for this Charlie,
    Really looking forward to visiting the exhibition!

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