Building the Picture, London
Sebastiano del Piombo, "Judgement of Solomon," 1506-11, oil on canvas (unfinished)
© National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Building the Picture, London

This compact examination of how Italian artists tackled architecture demonstrates that buildings played a more important role in 14th- to 16th-century art than previously thought.

“Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting”

Exhibition of 40 paintings and drawings

The National Gallery, London

April 30 – Sept. 21, 2014



“Building the Picture” is about the bit of an Italian Renaissance painting that often seems to be jostling with the figures for pictorial space: the architectural background. In fact, as curators Amanda Lillie and Caroline Campbell convincingly demonstrate, buildings played a far more important role in 14th- to 16th-century art than you would think. Usually planned before everything else, with the aid of the new technique of perspective, they added a sense of three-dimensionality to the painting. Arches, doorways and thresholds encouraged a “visual journey” into the picture space. Architecture also helped in telling stories by articulating a complicated narrative, which might often involve multiple time zones. Given the job, for example, of depicting “Saint Zenobius Bishop of Florence Restoring to Life a Widow’s Son Killed by an Ox Cart in Borgo di degli Albizzi, Florence,” as Domenico Veneziano was in a painting shown here, you probably would use all the help you could get.

Spread across four small rooms and containing just forty paintings and drawings, this compact exhibition examines how Italian artists tackled both real and imagined architecture, using as examples works by Duccio, Crivelli, Botticelli and lesser known Renaissance masters. Most of the paintings are from the gallery’s permanent collection, but there are a few interesting loans. These include at least two works of exceptional quality, Sebastiano del Poimbo’s monumental “Judgement of Solomon” from the Bankes Collection at Kingston Lacy, National Trust, and the charming “Ruskin Madonna” by Andrea del Verrocchio from the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

In fact, in my opinion it’s worth going to see this show (admission is free) just for the “Judgement of Solomon.” The painting has a curious history. William Bankes bought it in 1820 on the advice of the poet Lord Byron, under the impression that it was by Giorgione; years later, someone inconveniently pointed out that it was, in fact, “only” a Sebastiano. This caused a tremendous fuss, and the picture was hidden away for many years; even nowadays it’s seldom exhibited. Painted around 1506-11 and more than 10 feet wide, it’s not quite finished: the baby over which the two women in the picture are arguing — the dramatic focus of the Biblical story — isn’t added yet, the only indication as to where Sebastiano intended it to go being the raised arm of the executioner on the right. Behind this figure, in the background, the ghostly outline of a man on horseback can be faintly descried. The surrounding space, a weird amalgam of at least three different architectural schemes, is disconcertingly lopsided, as if the painting had been cut down on the left side (although technical analysis suggests that it hasn’t). The overall effect is odd but strangely compelling, like a half-remembered dream.

To accompany “Building the Picture” the National Gallery has produced its first ever fully digital exhibition catalog; I’m told there are no plans for a printed version. Produced in partnership with the History of Art Department at the University of York, it includes pretty much everything you would expect from a conventional catalog: scholarly essays with footnotes, a vast bibliography, and reproductions of the exhibits, zoom-able in the case of those owned by the gallery itself. Nor do you have to linger at the show to see the five short films by “contemporary practitioners and thinkers,” talking about architecture in a fairly entertaining way (you wouldn’t think, for example, that the paintings of Antonello da Messina have much in common with the films of Douglas Sirk, but apparently they do). According to Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, the online catalog will be “permanently accessible on the National Gallery website, where it can be read and enjoyed by a very wide audience.”

Does all this, I wonder, signal the end of the traditional book-format catalog? Only time will tell, but my hunch is that it doesn’t. The digital option works pretty well for didactic little shows like “Building the Picture,” but for a permanent record of major exhibitions, such as the National Gallery’s current “Veronese” blockbuster, you hanker for more substantial fare. There’s life in that trusty old workhorse, the doorstop-sized exhibition catalog, yet!

Nick Marlowe

Nick studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. His interests include breadmaking, touring historic battlefields, and trying to get above D4 on the flute (maybe it's time for the piccolo). He lives in Teddington, England.