BogeArt Review- Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

The National Gallery has started curating exhibitions looking to rejuvenate their permanent collection by encouraging us to engage with these works (many of which hang in forgotten about parts of the gallery or storage normally) from a different angle.

“Buildings in paintings have always been treated as a background, as something subordinate to the figures themselves,” says Amanda Lillie, co-curator of Building the Picture, “We’re arguing that the buildings are active protagonists. They’re not just propping up the characters, but are also capable of carrying key messages and performing a series of crucial roles themselves.”

This DIY-exhibition is rather ingenious; the National Gallery does not have the trouble of borrowing/commissioning work, and the limitations that come with only using NG works invite curious and exciting ways to approach the art. It was really interesting to look a little more closely at works I would perhaps walk past on a regular visit, or works I knew fairly well (e.g Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation) and really consider the architectural feats achieved in paint that perhaps surpassed those achieved in real life.

The exhibition begins with five short films which give five contemporary perspectives on imagined architecture. The short I found the most interesting in regards to the exhibition was the film on computer game cinematics. Computer game cinematic director Peter Gornstein talks us through the construction of virtual architecture, and like was often the case with Renaissance paintings, the virtual world provides a platform for architect to realise their imagined dreams. What is visible in many of paintings in the exhibition is the idea of the painted architecture surpassing the real life architectural possibilities of the Renaissance; many are of such a fantastical nature that the construction would doubtfully seem possible even today.

What is also drawn to attention through the comparison with video games is the idea of entering a space/world when viewing these paintings. The architectural features in their most blatant form provide context; but these Renaissance images, thanks to the developments in perspective, allow the viewer to visually step into the beautifully crafted religious scene. Similar to how we step into a virtual world when playing video games. When looking at the Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study, c.1475, I almost feel as though I can walk into the study and turn a corner to explore the church-like setting, like I would be able to if it were a video game.

Crivelli’s Annunciation appears early on in the exhibition, marking the end of the Middle Ages with its love of magnificent patterns and linear effects and the introduction to the mathematical and convincing Renaissance. Crivelli does comply with the idea of architectural fantasy that was explored in the films. His passion for adorning every inch of the picture area creates an impractical and divine scene that surpasses the realms of reality. Segments of the back panel from Duccio’s Measta and The Virgin and Child with Saints by Lorenzo Costa and Gianfrancesco Maineri show us how the architectural features in art can be used as a narrative tool. Duccio’s panels were part of a series, and he was revolutionary in how he used the architectural structures to lead our eyes through the scenes and on to the next. In Costa and Maineri’s work the architecture allows for several stories to be told within the one unified image, e.g Adams Temptation in the bottom center is part of the interior architecture.

I could go on as for such a small exhibition it covers a lot of ground, but perhaps more importantly it inspires curiosity, forces us to look, really look, and investigate what the architecture in the paintings actually does. If you wish to delve deeper and learn more on the subject the catalogue is online (amazing) as are the films. With so much homework material it is clear why art critic Waldemar Januszack wrote that he was ‘enjoying the show for five hours’ – I must confess I only managed a measly three.

-Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt

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