This short exhibition at the National Gallery explores the role of architecture in the painting of the Italian Renaissance, with focus on the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting aims to show how architecture was inherently bound up with the work of many artists. The rooms of the exhibition are themselves laid out and divided by arches and columns, as if to illustrate the point.
The exhibition emphasises the multidisciplinary nature of art during the Renaissance: for instance, Michelangelo was a sculptor before designing buildings. Many paintings took architecture as a starting point. Most paintings were designed for specific spaces, such as Domenico Venziano’s “The Virgin & Child Enthroned” of 1435-43, which was designed to fit into a niche in Florence’s Carnesecchi Tabernacle.
Architecture was particularly present in annunciation scenes, in which it was common to divide Mary from Gabriel and any others present by use of walls. An example of this is Duccio’s “The Annunciation” of 1311, in which the two appear to belong in their own “frames” within the picture. This division was intended to mark Mary out as special.
Another kind of picture is “Saint Jerome in His Study”, a work from around 1510 by Vincenzo Catena. The architecture here is welcoming and open, as if inviting the viewer to step into the picture. Perhaps this represents Saint Jerome’s work of making the Bible accessible through translation.
Another series of works explores paintings that evoke the concept of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, such as Sebastiano del Piombo’s “The Judgement of Solomon”. Other images of the 5th century Saint Zenobius, Bishop and patron saint of Florence, invoke the architecture of the city to help locate his miracles in real places. Finally, a selection of Nativity paintings set in ruins showed how the setting symbolised the ruin of the old order.
This short but free exhibition is certainly worth a look if you are in central London with a bit of free time to spare.