Until now, representations of architecture in panel painting, drawings, frescoes, and intarsia have been relatively understudied, and further investigations are warranted, explains Professor Sabine Frommel.

What is painted architecture? Can you explain in detail?

In accordance with long-standing tradition, specialists in painting primarily focus on figures, gestures, colors, and expression, while historians of architecture study monuments and the projects from which they emerged. The field of painted architecture is an exciting area of research and holds the promise of garnering important insights and a greater understanding of the evolution of architectural typologies and languages.

In what era did painted architecture develop? Who were the artists?

This development is especially significant during the Renaissance and beyond, when artists who expressed themselves in several different genres moved with ease from one area to another. Andrea Mantegna, Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio, Bramante, Raphael, Baldassarre Peruzzi, and Piero da Cortona were planners and building architects that painted fictive constructions, while artists without any practical experience, such as Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, Domenico Beccafumi, or Nicolas Poussin, made graphic reconstructions of classical typologies and also explored architectural theory.

Was there a particular theory or training that the artists followed?

Painted architecture served as a kind of laboratory for new building types and styles, inventions of imagined cities, often difficult to translate into marble, stone, or wood, which were produced by applying the principles of Vitruvius. Ten books of Architecture, the only written source from antiquity Already during the mediaeval period, mainly in the works of Giotto and his successors, classical monuments such as Trajan’s column or a paraphrase of the Septizonium were used as architectural backgrounds in order to situate biblical scenes of the newly formed Christian religion in the authentic context of late antiquity. In one of the scenes that features the Assisi Cathedral, Giotto depicts the ancient temple of the city, emphasizing its classical tradition, and, in this sense, painted architecture contributed to the legitimization strategy. Since the beginning of the 15th century, this art form has benefited from the invention of central perspective, which gave more coherence and realism to the architectural space and settings, and the growing interest in architectural treatises. In 1485, Lorenzo de’ Medici supported the publication of Leon Battista Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria in which the famous humanist tried to approximate the principles of Vitruvius with contemporary conditions and requirements. Although written in Latin, it became an important source of reference, which architects and painters could also access in the volgare.

Why did painted architecture style become so important during the mediaeval to Renaissance eras? Can you elaborate in painted architectural examples?

Painted architecture was even used to give artists' greater expression and self-confidence: in one of the scenes of the cloister of Monteoliveto Maggiore, Sodoma represents himself in elegant clothing in front of the axis of a sumptuous Corinthian temple. He becomes the protagonist rather than Saint Benedict, to whom the cycle is dedicated, and in this way the painting underscores his classical education, which became indispensable for acquiring commissions from illustrious patrons.

Themes like the ideal city and religious subjects such as the Adoration of the Magi and the shepherds, or the centralized church as a model for the renewal of sacred architecture, show us how such heterogenous topics influenced painted architecture and favored innovation. In the Martyrium of Saint Christopher, Mantegna designs a piazza whose buildings are provided in the hierarchical manner of the Vitruvian orders, from the wooden pergola up to the elegant Corinthian of the colonnade of a public building. The three famous panels attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo and held in Berlin, Urbino, and Baltimore give an idea of the vision of the urban structure planed on a checkerboard pattern as an expression of a rational and strongly controlled system of government. In the first one, conceived at the end of 1480, the viewer resides in a classicizing vestibulum of an elegant palace and looks to a wide, straight street framed by elegant constructions.

The suggestive perspective gradually narrows to reveal a harbor, perhaps Naples, since the architect designed a magnificent palace there for Ferdinand of Aragon, also provided by a sumptuous Vitruvian vestibulum. He may have been inspired by Perugino’s impressive spatial rendering in the Handing of the Keys to St. Peter at the Sistine Chapel: a huge piazza dominated by a centralized church flanked by triumphal arches. In the famous panel from Urbino, probably conceived about 1505, the circular church, corresponding to Alberti’s ideal of a sacred building, is erected at the crossing point of four streets. The polychromic incrustations of the cylinder, such as the design of the palaces, reveal both Florentine tradition and recent research of the High Renaissance. The third panel was probably designed around 1513/1514, after the triumphal return of the Medici to Florence following their exile and the election of Giovanni de’ Medici as Pope Leo X. The triumphal arch in the background is flanked by the Colosseum at the left side and a variation of the Baptistery of Saint John on the right. It seems that it ties to the hymn of Florence, the new Rome—a striking expression of the new and powerful dynasty. The checkerboard pattern is wider than in the other two panels; an empty space between the two huge flanking palaces also reflects the centralized authority and self-celebration.

The topic of the idealized city will inspire Francesco Salviati, Domenico Beccafumi, Paris Bordone, and Tintoretto within the framework of biblical themes, combining antique and recent typologies in settings that are organized like theatrical stages. Representations with a strong narrative potential and are psychologically charged by interrelationships between fictive construction and dynamical groups of figures develop simultaneously with abstract architectural images. Paris Bordone is the main representative of this trend, a kind of l’art pour l'art exploiting the theatrical scenographies of the Second Book of Sebastiano Serlio, published in 1545 (Paris). The tendency of the idealized reconstruction of the antique city will culminate in Poussin’s painting of the Rape of the Sabine women (Louvre), dominated by a classical forum with an Etruscan temple, drawing directly upon Vitruvius’ descriptions and inspired by graphical reconstructions of antique monuments by the architect of the Cinquecento.

What were the most important themes for artists to create?

A highly significant topic of painted architecture is the Adoration of the Magi, or Adoration of the Shepherds, subjects particularly appreciated by the Medici. Artists exploited the theme to show classical structures but reduced them to ruins in order to illustrate the victory of Christian religion over pagan tradition. Sandro Botticelli, in his painting held in the National Gallery at Washington from around 1481 emphasizes this point, which refers to Vitruvius principles, particularly in the structural connection between the roof truss and the gable of the façade. A striking testimony is Leonardo’s Adoration (Uffizi), preceded by two drawings. In the first one held in the Louvre the Holy Family is gathered in front of a hybrid construction that combines a primitive setting of tree trunks and branches and an elegant order of blind arcades, as if he had in mind Vitruvius’ concept of the progressive evolution of building types. In the drawing of the Uffizi, the ruin of the temple is accentuated, and workers seem to be in the process of repairing it, probably to provide shelter.

It seems that Leonardo also used a double iconographical strategy in the case of the two parallel ramps that lead onto the substructure, which recall not only the temple of Claudio, represented also by a drawing of Francesco di Giorgio, but also the famous villa that Lorenzo de’ Medici was planning at the same time at Poggio a Caiano. In this sense, Leonardo’s fictive construction can be understood as an homage to this powerful patron. In a much different way, the Vitruvian myth of the origin of building types is illustrated by Perugino’s Adoration. The trunks and branches of the early representations transform gradually, first into wooden supports and beams, then into pillars of stone with bases and capitals carrying arcades and cross-ribbed vaults. In this way, he created a kind of baldachin that could be easily expanded and adapted by his workshop to meet different narrative and pictorial space requirements. Although during the High Renaissance the popularity of the theme decreased, a drawing by Giovan Francesco Penni (Louvre), probably after Raphael, elaborates the topic in a very pertinent manner: a simple wooden house, a kind of shed for the Holy family in the foreground, the façade of a wooden temple behind, and on the left side an elegant architectural feature of the giant order with Corinthian half-columns.

How did religion play an important factor in painted architecture themes? Which artists were more successful in reviving antiquity or biblical scenes in their works? Can you elaborate?

Studies of the new features of the Christian church, which combined the temple of Solomon and antique models, stimulated artists and patrons to make new inventions. A comparison between the centralized church of the Marriage of the Virgin of Perugino (Caen) and his pupil Raphael (Milan), conceived in the first years of the Cinquecento, reveals the strong progress of classicizing architectural patterns. The octagonal feature of the first one ties still to the cathedral of Florence, varied in the Delivering of the keys to Saint Peter in the Sistine Chapel, while the younger artist creates a perfect unified polygonal building with a surrounding portico whose monumentality is strengthened by the further distance from the eye of the viewer.

The innovation of church architecture is also a main theme of the School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura, the library of Julius II, commissioned by him in 1508. Plato and Aristoteles started their triumphal walk at a Doric triumphal arch in the background, crossed the main space crowned by a mighty cupola, and are shown moving towards the stairs to a large vestibulum in the foreground. The architecture evokes Bramante’s project of the centralized basilica of Saint Peter of 1505, which Raphael skillfully combined with features of theatrical scenography. On this impressive stage, the more illustrious representatives of antiquity and their modern successors meet, talk, and discuss as if no time separates them. Instead of the rational geometric space realized by Raphael, who was himself a great architect, this design is a kind of collage of fragments, which emphasizes the movement of the figures, their actions, and their great range of expression.

It is perhaps the most striking artistic testimony of the Italian Renaissance that the direct and intimate relationship between classical heritage and the contemporary period is illustrated in such an evocative manner—a creative relationship whose aim is to discuss, to assimilate antique models, and even to surpass them. Some years later, Raphael, in the fresco of the The fire in the borgo commissioned by Leo X and located in one of the next rooms, follows the political strategy of pacification of the Medici pope. Here the artist juxtaposes architectural testimonies of Greek antiquity, the Carolingian period in which the episode took place, and his own time. In the foreground, surrounded by ruins of sumptuous classical temples, Aeneid flees the burning Troy with his father on his back, an allusion to the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. Some large steps lead to the background where, in front of Saint Peter, conceived in an imaginary style of the ninth century, Pope Leo IV extinguishes the fire with his blessing. The loggia di Benedizione forms an elegant serliana, a triumphal motif from late antiquity assimilated by Bramante, placed on a rusticated socle such as his spectacular Palazzo Caprini (1501).

The relationship between the architectural fragments and the movements, gestures, and expressions is even bolder and more dramatic, as in the School of Athens. The high quality of the architectural details reveals the artist's extraordinary knowledge of classical heritage, enriched by the inventory which Leo X had entrusted to him. After the death of Raphael in 1520, his pupils Giulio Romano and Giovan Francesco Penni continued their work in the Sala of Costantino, where the Conversion of Constantine shows a precise archaeological reconstruction from the quarter near the Ponte Milvio, along with the mausoleum of Hadrian and August, the Meta Romoli, the cirque of Nero, and the pyramid close to Saint Peters. Concerning the Donation of Constantine and The Baptism of Constantine they represent the basilica of Saint Peter’s and the baptistry of San Giovanni in Lateran in an idealized form, in keeping with the rules of Vitruvius. Antiquity is interpreted in a more and more “scientific” manner, and successful artists were called upon to master the field of archaeological and philological research. But subsequently, artists would also seek new effects. In the Fall of the Giants at the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, challengers are shown buried by Jupiter's lightning under the fragments of collapsing architecture. On the other hand, representations of building sites, connecting to a long tradition since the Middle Ages and often illustrated in a very detailed way, such as in the case of Sodoma in the cloister of Monteoliveto Maggiore or Piero di Cosimo’s “Construction of a Palace” (Sarasota), bestow complex meanings such as prosperity and positive visions in the spirit of enterprise for future buildings.

What makes painted architecture significant during the Renaissance?

The painted architecture of the High Renaissance provided a vast repertoire of patterns and meanings which achieved a most significant afterlife, primarily after the “Sacco di Roma” when the artists moved to other regions, particularly to the Veneto, Genoa, or to France. Models coming from the architecture treatises would become more and more important, first with Serlios’ Fourth Book (Venice, 1537), followed by Palladio’s Quattro Libri di Architettura, benefitting from the course of migration beyond the boundaries of Italy. Such a process, in which local traditions, specific cultural and political exigencies of patrons as well as authentic techniques and esthetical ideals, would transform the models and reveal their capacity for the renewal of painted architecture over time and even today.