Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, National Gallery, London – review

In Carlo Crivelli’s “The Annunciation” the Archangel Gabriel, watched by onlookers peering from archways and staircases, alights in the street outside Mary’s splendidly ornate Renaissance town house, its loggia topped with potted plants, an oriental carpet thrown over a parapet. A peacock’s feathers flutter above the doorway opening on the praying girl.

An extensive urban vista, brilliantly evoked in brick, stone, marble and dribbled mortar where a battlemented wall has been repaired, emphasises the oddly public dimension Crivelli brings to this intimate spiritual moment. On a bridge a man reads a papal message delivered by carrier pigeon – a witty contemporary counterpart to the Annunciation, and the reason for this picture’s existence: it was painted to celebrate Pope Sixtus IV’s granting of self-government to the citizens of Ascoli Piceno on the feast of the Annunciation in 1482. The architectural mise en scène balances exquisitely the religious and patriotic demands of the commission.

Building the Picture is part of the National Gallery’s Renaissance Spring season. It complements the museum’s celebration of Veronese, Renaissance painter par excellence of decorative schemes in marble and stone, and focuses on conversations between architecture and art at a time when classical ideas of symmetry, proportion and rhythm were transforming cities.

Architectural frameworks determine composition – allowing the first centralised rendering of the “Adoration”, in Botticelli’s 1470 tondo; anchoring the conflicted figures in Sebastiano del Piombo’s “Judgment of Solomon” – and enhance narrative. The compressed perspective of the receding street in Domenico Veneziano’s “A Miracle of St Zenobius” heightens the desperation of the mother, her face wan and angular as the sharp, sun-bleached buildings.

Andrea del Verrocchio’s “The Virgin Adoring the Christ Child” places the Madonna against beautifully denoted antique ruins, representing a Roman temple that allegedly collapsed at Christ’s birth – symbolising the new religion’s triumph over the pagan but reprised here as classical buildings usher in a new Renaissance sensibility.

Until September 21,

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