Five hundred years ago, 15th-century Italian artist Ercole de' Roberti painted a tiny nativity scene on a wooden panel. It pictures an unusual stable shaped like the portico of a grand Italian church, but made of willow fencing and freshly cut slender tree trunks, some crooked, some with bark still on.
Sheltered by the rough-hewn portico, Jesus lies in an impromptu willow manger that resembles a fruit box. It feels as if you could build this imaginary rustic building, and it is so carefully thought out and minutely painted that it seems real. It hints at the transubstantiation of ordinary matter — here, into the church itself. That's a lot for a humble building to convey, but it does. The architecture plays a powerful part.
When you look at a Renaissance painting, how often do you take in the architectural setting? For the first time, the National Gallery is devoting an exhibition to this subject, using 40 paintings and some sketches by great artists including Duccio and Botticelli. While these pictures are based on biblical stories, they are mostly set in vibrant Italy. The believable architecture draws in the viewer, making the stories spring intensely to life.
Setting the stage
All figurative paintings have a sense of place. Even a portrait set against a plain background feels like it was done indoors, because our minds automatically put people into stories, and stories contain houses, towns, streets and buildings. So when 15thcentury painters used their incredible skills to create detailed interiors, churches, palazzi, piazzas and ruins, they act like stage sets for a play.
At the time, artists and architects were closely linked. Brunelleschi — who designed the Duomo in Florence — started out as a goldsmith, while Michelangelo began as a stone carver and fresco painter. Painters had the skill to paint all manner of architectural structures.
Two paintings show detailed street scenes. The first, from about 1442, shows Saint Zenobius restoring life to the dead son of a howling widow in the Borgo degli Albizi in Florence. A group of onlookers gathers. Both sides of the sun-drenched street are lined with realistic casa and palazzi, 15 on one side, fewer on the other, with the church of San Pier Maggiore at the end. From the white, stoneclad buildings, tiled and timber pantiled roofs reach far over arched windows to shade them from a broiling midday sun. This is probably how these houses, with their stone string courses and precisely drawn windows really looked, and the artist, Domenico Veneziano, was the first to set this miracle where it was thought to have happened.
Fifty years later, Sandro Botticelli reworked the same story in a type of simultaneous action painting showing three miracles of Zenobius in different settings. To the left is an airy, imaginary shrine; to the right, a deep, solid arch, through which you can glimpse a street very like Veneziano's. In the middle, an imposing grey stone palazzo acts as a backdrop to the miracle of the widow and her son. Constructed of fine blockwork, it is probably Palazzo Corse-Horne, which was built around this time. This dignified house, with its huge arched timber door with heavy iron rings, its high grilled windows on the lower floor, and open, shuttered windows on the first, gives substance to the incredible event taking place outside. The occupants may stay out of sight, but you bet they are watching from behind those shutters.
Two paintings, both of St Jerome in his study, show domestic interiors. The first, finished in 1475 by Antonello da Messina, shows the saint, oblivious to the world, reading, up on a wooden dais, in a comfy curved chair, his shoes kicked off on the tiled floor below. In cupboards beside him, the things he needs are strewn higgledy-piggledy: books, bowls, candlesticks, a flagon of wine or water. He is so oblivious to the world that he might be on an ark, set by the artist inside a bigger, stonearched, ecclesiastical setting. All the minutely drawn architectural details are believable: the wood, stone, joining, panelling, groining and vaulting. It is as if one could walk to the gardens beyond, like Jerome's tame lion shown wandering happily off to the right; while on the wooden step leading up to the saint's dais, a tiny tabby cat snoozes safely. At the front, a peacock and quail trot along a step towards a brass water bowl.
The second St Jerome, from 1510 by Vincenzo Catena, without the soaring arched architecture of the earlier one, is more of a close-up, but the theme is identical. Marvel at the detail of the joinery of the cupboards, some open, some shut; of the marble and wood desk; and particularly at a beautiful green-painted stool, surely done from life. Again, all the simple comforts of domestic bliss are here, as Jerome reads contentedly, his bare toes peeping out from his robe. Fast asleep in the foreground, the lion is oblivious to a quail sauntering an inch from his nose. The setting brilliantly establishes the indifference of the scholar to worldly concerns, particularly in his haphazard housekeeping.
Building the Picture runs until September 21 at the National Gallery, WC2. Free entry. Visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk for details.