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.
Saint Jerome in his Study, Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London
Saint Jerome in his Study, Vincenzo Catena probably about 1510, © The National Gallery, London
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. Continue reading