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A Sense of Perspective: The Crucial Role of Architecture in Painting

A subtle and sophisticated exhibition at The National Gallery challenges the notion of architecture’s background role in painting, vividly revealing the importance it held for the artists of the Italian Renaissance

Building the Picture brings architecture to centre stage in Renaissance paintings. Many commentators and observers have for far too long considered painted buildings mere backdrop or supplement to the ‘main’ action of figures. As the curators − Amanda Lillie of the University of York and Caroline Campbell of the National Gallery − themselves point out ‘by looking afresh at buildings within paintings, treating them as active protagonists, it becomes clear that they performed a series of crucial roles’. The exhibition more than proves their thesis that architecture in paintings was a ‘powerful tool to move and influence the spectator’, ‘to seize our attention and magnify’ the meaning of pictures.

This subtle and sophisticated exhibition is filled with painted and drawn visual delights in both well- and little-known works from the National Gallery’s own collection, augmented by some perceptive loans from other British collections. The paintings range in size, in medium, and in date and are juxtaposed so that they work both individually to engage the viewer and together to weave a series of intriguing narratives. Visual components and cues in particular works are brought to the attention of visitors through brief but informative panels and labels. The curious can, at their leisure, delve deeper into the many different ways in which Renaissance painters made use of architecture via the rich resources of Amanda Lillie’s exemplary online exhibition catalogue, in which she has been ably assisted by a team of experts (


Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486, turns on the division and extension of interior and exterior space, with Gabriel’s divine intervention mediated iconographically through the architecture

This exhibition offers much to viewers of all kinds − from the general public to experts in the field, from those whose primary interest is in painting to those who are engaged by architecture. This awareness of potential audiences, and of the insights that different viewpoints can bring to what might seem an esoteric topic, is exemplified by five specially commissioned short films (also viewable online) in which a historian of modern art (TJ Clark), a film director (Martha Fiennes), a cinematic games director (Peter Gornstein), a cinema historian (John David Rhodes), and an architect (Peter Zumthor) give ‘contemporary perspectives on imagined architecture and how closely the modern arts of design parallel those of Italian Renaissance painters’.

The only disappointment is the exhibition’s location in the Sunley Room and that the exhibition’s entrance is also, in effect, a busy and distracting corridor to other parts of the Gallery. It is a shame the National Gallery hadn’t accorded this important exhibition a better location and much better signage to bring it to visitors’ attention (the number of people enjoying it at any one time would seem to support a popular interest argument).

The exhibition is divided into four sections − ‘Constructing the Picture’, ‘Entering the Picture’, ‘Place Making’, and ‘Architectural Time’ − and within this overall division there are additional sections highlighting particular aspects of these themes. For example, under ‘Entering the Picture’, comes ‘Interiors’ where the visitor encounters a juxtaposition of two wonderful depictions of St Jerome in his study (by Vincenzo Catena and Antonello da Messina), with insightful comments provided on visual details and how the painted architecture might have been interpreted in relation to St Jerome’s translation of the Bible. Some paintings of the same or related scenes are divided between categories − such as the birth of Christ and his adoration by the three Magi under ‘Architectural Time’ and its subdivision the ‘Desire for Ruins’. This strategy allows the visitor to explore a range of different responses and uses of architecture in relation to the same subject matter. It is also a clever way to instruct viewers on how a painting can be looked at in different ways and on different levels − from composition to iconography − so we learn how a single image might contain multiple layers of reference and meaning.


Architecture and painting merge as a window becomes the frame for Antonello da Messina’s St Jerome in his study, c1470

Alongside all the imaginary architecture on display, the curators remind us how important it is not to forget the role of real places both for the creation and the staging of Renaissance paintings. They do this from the very beginning of the exhibition with reconstructions of Domenico Veneziano’s Carnesecchi Tabernacle, painted in situ on a building in 1430s Florence − via a map, via an 18th-century print showing the painting in its physical context, and via a full-size reproduction in a niche above the entrance to the exhibition. Dramatically framed through an arch below this niche, we are drawn into the exhibition by Lorenzo Costa and Gianfrancesco Maineri’s stunning Virgin and Child with Saints, with its own internal framing of the Virgin and Child by a richly decorated, classically inspired, barrel-vaulted arch.

Building the Picture is a ground-breaking and important exhibition. It shows the best of what can be achieved by intelligent collaboration between academia and museums with high-level research informing and enriching the experiences of the viewing public.

Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

Where: The National Gallery

When: Until 21 September 2014

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