Architecture’s idealised role in renaissance art is more disturbing than idyllic
After the terrible vicissitudes of Hell and the long slog up Purgatory’s alp, Paradise seems – dare I say it – a little boring
As a child I always had a problem with representations of heaven. What kind of place would it be and where would we live? I settled on an endless grid of huts in an arrangement that would have satisfied Hilberseimer. After all, it had to be very generalised, typical and, well, eternal. Any knots, blemishes; any trace of the particular would have been worn away by the endlessness of it all. Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy will have experienced some of the same problem. After the terrible vicissitudes of Hell and the long slog up Purgatory’s alp, Paradise seems – dare I say it – a little boring. Midway through it all we long to be back in the dubious embrace of Francesca da Rimini.
I encountered some of this challenge going around the collection of Early Renaissance paintings featuring buildings in the National Gallery in London. With the exception of the odd excursion to Carthage, Mycenae or Florence, the great majority of works depict a northern Italian fantasy of a Romanised Holy Land. In genre scenes depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, Life, Death and Deposition of Christ the architecture has to do the job of establishing an idealised elsewhere-everywhere outside time within which the stiff hierarchies of eternity can be disposed. Given the almost ubiquitous presence of the Virgin Mary, the order of choice is Corinthian to emphasise her femininity and purity. We are brought into an architectural realm that is invariably impressive but rarely touches that part of us that longs to be situated or at home in a place.
The painters use architectural elements like arches, colonnades and drapes to create frames, thresholds and spatial recession. They make a now-and-always world set apart from the messy flow of people in time. In one painting, a Virgin and Child perch on a patch of grass in front of a ruined temple forecourt as if they would instantly age and wither if they stepped onto the cracked pavement.
The conceit of an architectural form creating a place outside time allows the painters to experiment with the powerful effects of perspectival recession, centralised framing and manipulated parallax. The House of Mary, the Stable of the Birth of Christ and the Temple in Jerusalem are treated as stiff set pieces for exercises in architectural propriety and formal virtuosity. Few examples break the mould. There is a tiny wooden primitive hut by de’ Roberti whose woven wattle screen would have touched Gottfried Semper. In Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings he depicts an overblown stable, perhaps a ruined basilica. A tottering keystone appears to be just about to brain an oblivious Virgin and Child sitting beneath. It hints at the troubled mind behind his blithe assemblies.
The Angel of the Annunciation has been waylaid on the street by the local bishop to discuss his architectural model of a new plan for the town. There is something of the oily mandarin about him
My favourite painting is Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation. It is almost deliberately unlovely. How can so much skill be put into making an image with so little to like? Everything leads back to the odd aperture in the wall through which the Holy Spirit penetrates the sanctuary of this grown-up child’s home. She is not really beautiful, but resisting and shrinking away as adolescents are inclined to do. As the frightening little dove shoots down a laser line of light to intimate the Immaculate Conception, we, the viewers, are allowed to pull back a curtain and peep into the neat room with its flat, unruffled bed and secretly witness this terrible incursion. Across the street a small girl, exquisitely dressed, but without any natural grace, peers into the opening made by the descending dove. Meanwhile, the Angel of the Annunciation has been waylaid on the street by the local bishop to discuss his architectural model of a new plan for the town. There is something of the oily mandarin about the Angel. He appears to be dispatching a tiresome task before getting down to the serious business of town planning. The architectural model has a strange presence. It seems to contain the Virgin’s house, the street, arch and city wall that we see in the painting. The juxtaposition of the men on the street and the transfixed girl in the darkened room underline the sense of an awful event happening in plain daylight. The architecture is everywhere, framing, separating, supporting, distancing, enveloping and penetrating. The highly rendered surfaces of stucco, tapestry, peacock’s wing and strange fruit battle it out with a relentless perspectival recession. It is exquisite, indifferent, even slightly repellent.
It is only when we get beyond the different painters’ fascination with a generalised Roman idyll that the buildings take on an inviting aspect. When they depict the ordinary vernacular of Italian towns, the status of the architecture changes. It becomes an active participant in the human drama. Veneziano depicts a miracle in a street in Florence. A widow is crying for her dead son and the everyday buildings around catch up her terrible plight. The street seems to draw in to a circle of gazing and mourning; the buildings become a ring of grieving faces. In the Annunciation by the Master of the Judgement of Paris we see a flat chested, girlish Virgin, alert like a startled deer, intertwined with the ordinary world of her house and garden. The painted stars on the ceiling of her room and the exquisite foliage in the hedges all suggest a woven world of small things, of particulars. This domesticity even appears to stay the terrible messenger with his burden of love, death and a lifetime of grief.
One of the best-known paintings to architects will be Antonello’s St Jerome in his Study. It seems to touch on some longing in designers, a world within a world, a human scale microcosm. Look closely and the scene speaks less of ease. The steps are too steep, the chair is heavy and concedes little to comfort, the bookstand is rather remote for comfortable reading and the shelves are lumpen. The intimacy promised by the image gives way to a formal staging. Our eye wanders away across the gloomy recesses of the church surrounding his study. Perhaps it stands for the bible that he is translating. It is a cold and forbidding place. In the painting beside this one, Catena depicts St Jerome. He has pulled off his slippers and tucked himself into a corner of a room where light falls in from a window and he peers closely at his work. Everything conspires to situate him at his task. If these two rooms are bibles, I know which one I would like to live by.
Níall McLaughlin is an architect
Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London. To 21 September 2014