Saint Jerome had a pleasant working environment. A well-lit, spacious L-shaped desk with generous storage space, beautiful views of the coastline, a (sleeping) pet lion and even a pair of slippers to hand. His bench looks hard though, and is it a bit low? This is Venetian artist, Vicenzo Catena’s Jerome, painted in around 1510. Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome from 35 years earlier, also seems comfortable. He has a loggia as well as a row of windows, plenty of shelving and better seating. But the lighting is not as good, and his lion is awake and growling. The two Jeromes are hanging side by side in the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, as part of Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, the final episode of the gallery’s Renaissance Spring trilogy. Saint Jerome has not always fared so well and these two depictions are unusual in assigning him such agreeable surroundings: more often than not during this period, he was given cramped, dimly lit digs in which there was hardly room for his halo, let alone the lion.
The exhibition seeks, in the words of the curators, to put the “background into the foreground”, focusing on the architectural settings of a group of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian paintings, mostly drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, but supplemented with a handful of guest appearances from around the country. Architecture in paintings, as opposed to architectural drawings, is uncharted territory and there has never been a similar exhibition in the United Kingdom or abroad. Yet now this show has been put on, it seems such an obvious topic, with so many Italian paintings of the period set in some sort of built-up milieu. And in a neat nod to the subject matter, the Sunley Room does not currently look much like the Sunley Room, and has been rebuilt as a labyrinth of passageways and squares, with each section devoted to a separate sub-theme of the exhibition. There is even a mock-up of a Florentine street corner, complete with overhead tabernacle, blessing visitors as they pass through the display.
The early fifteenth century saw a fundamental stylistic shift in painting in Italy: gone were the piles of weightless figures tottering next to spindly, geometrically-suspect buildings that might topple at any moment; and in came solid, three dimensional people positioned in, on or aside coherent, sturdy and classically-inspired constructions. Perspective had arrived and artists such as Masaccio looked to mathematical principles in order to place objects in real space and make backgrounds recede into the distance. 3D effects were being simulated on 2D surfaces.
Except that Building the Picture is not about this great artistic leap and do not expect, when visiting the exhibition, to receive an art history lesson in the basics of Italian Renaissance painting. Instead matters are taken to the next level. The artists have mastered the new style; they can produce paintings imbued with classical motifs which make geometric sense – and there are plenty of one-point perspectives, chequered paving stones and receding architectural lines on display to prove it, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Judgment of Solomon (1508-10) included. It is what these painters did with this architecture and the active role it played in their pictures, which is at the heart of the show.
Buildings provided artists with a powerful compositional tool and structures were used to divide and organise figures and scenes. But there was nothing new here, and medieval painters had applied much the same tactic, even if their gothic creations had more in common with houses of cards than limestone and marble. In Duccio’s The Annunciation (1311), Mary and the angel Gabriel are separated from each other by means of a frail arched colonnade; in 1486 when Carlo Crivelli tackled the same subject, the protagonists are again divided by architecture (now made from heavy-duty stone), although Crivelli has gone so far as to build a wall between Mary and the angel. There is, however, no such separation between the viewer and the Virgin – this was a devotional piece intended to involve rather than exclude the beholder – and through an opening in the wall of Mary’s house, unlike Gabriel, we can see her in all her glory.
Architectural backdrops were also used as an aid to the narrative, a way of charging the atmosphere and creating a heightened level of tension. In 1461 Domenico Veneziano painted a scene from the life of Saint Zenobius, Florence’s first bishop. It is a gruesome episode, involving blood, guts and the (near) death of a child. The painter places his characters in a reconstruction of the Florentine street, Borgo degli Albizzi, and although Veneziano’s background was not an exact replica of the road, it was similar enough that it made the death of the child into a seemingly real event and, as such, the blood of any parent run cold. On both sides of the action, which unfolds in an airy central space, pack Florence’s tall urban structures, compressing the scene and intensifying the moment. The effect of the stony backdrop to Andrea del Verrocchio’s Ruskin Madonna (1470-5) is similar. Here a ruined structure stretches out behind the Virgin and her baby; they are alone, it is quiet, and the atmosphere is eerie. Rather than safely indoors as she is normally found when adoring the infant Christ, Mary is outside and exposed to the elements, which include sprouting weeds and threatening clouds. There is a sense of foreboding to the picture achieved through its unusual setting, and the effect is intense.
There was no such thing as a blank canvas (or, indeed, panel or wall) in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy, metaphorically, if not literally speaking. The painter’s world was one of constraints: the constraints of the patron, of the subject matter, of the work’s purpose, and of stylistic trends. Saint Sebastian had to have his arrows and Mary Magdalene her hair, jar or skull; a patron (and often his extended family) could expect to make a cameo appearance among the crowds of a fresco; and a mid-fifteenth century robe that was too flowingly fourteenth century, a buttress that was too gothic or a Last Supper with too many added monkeys were off limits. It was from within these boundaries that an artist had to make his mark. Of course there was room for movement: time period, composition, lighting, characters and dress might all be varied, as could a picture’s architectural setting. Although by the 1430s painters in Italy tended not to venture far from classically inspired structures and motifs, it was here, with brush and paint as bricks and mortar, that the artist became the designer. And if many of their painted buildings resemble those in contemporary Italian cities – the cityscape behind Botticelli’s Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius (1500), for instance – just as many were the painters’ flights of fancy: Sassetta’s flamingo pink palace and Crivelli’s golden triumphal arch, for example, were nowhere to be found in fifteenth century Italy.
The exhibition includes a row of scenes set in Solomon’s Temple, an ancient place of worship in Jerusalem for which no direct archaeological evidence survived. Without an established formula as to how the temple should look, its appearance was left to the discretion of the painter and the results are varied. While one opted for a Greek-cross lay out, others preferred the traditional column/ pediment arrangement. There is even a tiered version which creates an effect not unlike a wedding cake. Similar variations on a theme crop up in the nativity scenes on display. A Bramantino Adoration of the Kings (about 1500) has been hung alongside a small Adoration of the Shepherds (1490-93) by Ercole de’ Roberti. The setting of the two pictures is the same, yet the structures are opposites: Ercole’s wooden shack is the big bad wolf’s dream, while no amount of huffing and puffing is going to disturb Bramantino’s solid marble.
This is a small exhibition, but somehow it does not feel that way, perhaps because of the care with which it has been curated, perhaps because the message it seeks to deliver is big. The curators hope that the show will transcend the boundaries of the Sunley Room, encouraging us to reconsider the way we look at all paintings, not just those which are part of this temporary display. Building the Picture runs until the early autumn and there is no admission charge, thereby sparing us from the familiar moans and groans of those who object to paying to visit what might ordinarily be seen courtesy of the government. For its size, there is a good deal of information to absorb, as well as a full online catalogue. And because it is a freebie, you would be well advised to visit it a couple of times, initially with an eye on the captions as well as the pictures, and ultimately with your full attention on these once familiar paintings which, with this new perspective, begin to look quite different.
To coincide with and complement the exhibition, five short films have been made which consider real and imagined architecture from a contemporary standpoint.