Dr Amanda Lillie, University of York


This project uses an exhibition at the National Gallery in London to explore the fictive architecture which became a strategic and conspicuous feature of Italian Renaissance painting. Most historians of this period of Italian art have focused on the figure, and those who have studied pictorial space have tended to concentrate on mathematical perspective. A new study of the buildings and architectural frameworks created within images entirely changes the way we perceive these paintings. The exhibition and research project ‘Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’ addresses a fundamental question: what does architecture do for painting? It investigates how and why fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italian artists not only incorporated buildings in their work, but often took an architectural approach to painting. The exhibition is designed around 5 themes:

1) ‘Building the picture’ investigates the ways in which architecture underpins painting. Rather than being something added on or subordinate to the rest of the image, an architectonic approach often structures the whole painting at the initial planning stage. In setting out the composition, painters designed the architectural framework first, constructing a space and placing figures within it, as the technical evidence of underdrawing, incised or ruled lines and pin-holes often demonstrates.

2) ‘Inhabiting the picture’ explores the ways in which inner frameworks create the illusion of pictorial space.The way in which we visually enter and inhabit the picture greatly depends on architectural devices: frames and portals that invite the spectator into pictorial space, streets and piazzas through which we imagine strolling, or deep perspectival passages and barrel vaults that direct us inexorably to a vanishing destination. Certain architectural frameworks were favoured to make virtual buildings accessible to viewers: façades were opened up to create cut-away views, and the advantages of the loggia or portico were explored. It is painted architecture that creates an entry to the image which is virtually built by the painter.

3) ‘Place making’ is an essential part of painting as the subject and the story need a location for the action or event. Architecture very often creates the place, whether it be real or imaginary, foreign or local, a city square or street, a church, monastery, stable or palace, an exterior or interior.The subtle characterisation of place plays a key role in visual story telling and is often achieved by architectural means.

4) ‘Architectural time’ investigates how painters imagined and constructed a time for the visual narrative. Although we might expect a straightforward rendering of, say, ancient buildings in a mythological subject, notions of history are often confused or complicated by hybrid architectural inventions, so that architecture in painting might seem at first to establish a time, but on looking more closely, a clear sense of period often collapses or is destroyed.

5) ‘Fantasy architecture’ explores what painters can do that architects cannot, displaying the power of the painter to create what could never be built. Extravagant buildings held a special appeal for artists, patrons and architects themselves, as the aesthetic principle is allowed to rule over the practical in a way that would never be possible in real structures. This section is about architectural desire: exhibiting unachievably complex or structurally impossible designs, dream-like colours and materials including bronze capitals or priceless coloured marbles, and surprising or grotesque decoration.

The project will also generate a program of scholarly and curatorial events and publications, including a website with an online catalogue, pod casts, and inventive digital reconstructions; a pre-exhibition conference session to explore the field; and an international symposium and student workshop during the exhibition period.



Dr Amanda Lillie

National Gallery page

RCUK Gateway to Research