As a tour guide in the Rome and Vatican Museums, I can show visitors some of the most famous artworks depicting variations of painted architecture.

I remember first learning about painted architecture during my undergraduate degree program of the History of Art & Architecture at DePaul University in Chicago. I had the most incredible Art History professor, who brought the masters of the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque to life during her filmstrip and overhead projector presentations.

My second experience studying architecture occurred during my graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I pursued training in historic preservation in one of the most important architectural cities in the world, Chicago’s skyscrapers. In addition, I completed an internship and worked in a small private museum in which its founder, the late Mr. Richard Driehaus, established the prestigious Driehaus Prize at the University Of Notre Dame.

The Driehaus Prize is awarded to a living architect whose work embodies the highest ideals of traditional and classical architecture in contemporary society and creates a positive cultural, environmental, and artistic impact. One of his favorite quotes...

The artist in this social context must not be a simple artisan, but rather an intellectual prepared in all disciplines and all fields.

(Leon Battista Alberti)

Calling on my training in all aspects of architecture, I am passionate about interviewing prominent scholars who have made vast contributions to the study of art and architecture.

Thus, it is a great honor for me that Professor Sabine Frommel is taking time to answer some questions regarding a lesser-known aspect of the study of painted architecture found in works by Perugino and Raphael in the Vatican Museums.

This past summer, from June 28 to September 15, 2023, in the Vatican Pinacoteca, there was a particular painting on temporary display that was never seen by the public, depicting one of the most extraordinary foreshortening perspectives of sepulcher all ‘antica taken frontally and with the lid partly open. It is a painting that hangs behind the pope during visits by heads of state: Perugino’s Resurrection (1499). Yet another work by Perugino is in the Sistine Chapel, The Delivery of the Keys (1481–1482), in which you have commented that Perugino is one of the “most brilliant connoisseurs." Can you elaborate further?

Perugino has been interested in painted architecture since his first works. A striking example is the “Miracle of the Snow” (the miracle of the founding of Santa Maria Maggiore with a fall of snow on August 4, 352), conceived about 1472, which originally belonged to a predella of an altar dedicated to the virgin. The scene is dominated by a central perspective, and in its background, behind the plan of a church in the form of a Latin cross, a portico with arcades evokes the Ospedale degli Innocenti of Brunelleschi in Florence. On each side, the groups of figures in the foreground are linked to classicizing monuments: on the left, a column and a tempietto, both symbols of the virgin, followed by a palace in Florentine style; on the right, an arco quadrifrons crowned by a pediment. When Perugino integrates buildings from the Quattrocento into the idealized image of Rome in late antiquity, he acts no differently than other artists of his time. The aim is to bring the scene closer to the believer through local quotations and, at the same time, to honor the great architectural achievements of the time and their patrons.

Sometimes it is also national pride that motivates the artists to place the scenes in their own context. In 1486, Perugino opened a bottega in the Tuscan capital and entered into competition with the leading painters like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, or Filippino Lippi. Thanks to the committed Maecenaticism of Lorenzo de' Medici, the dense intellectual atmosphere characterized by Neoplatonism, as well as architects such as Giuliano da Sangallo, who became more and more familiar with antiquity, and, finally, the growing role of architectural treatises in the tradition of Vitruvius, these painters were able to represent monuments and ruins from antiquity. Perugino chose his own path and developed a “standardized architecture” easy to adapt to the different themes, belonging primarily to the religious sphere: pillars support arches and vaults according to a baldachin (better baldachino or canopy???). These open structures increase the spatial depth, give the scene a realistic impression, and offer a wide variety of positions for the figures. Depending on the characteristics of the scene, these systems could be extended at will, which was also easy for the staff in his large bottega to handle.

The sober language of this architectural features seems to be inspired by recent projects like Giuliano da Sangallo’s portico of Villa Medici at Poggio in Caiano or Francesco di Giorgio’s courtyard of Palazzo della Signoria in Jesi. In the painting of the Torlonia altar (Rome, Villa Albani) of 1490/1491, a triptych, three naves, obeying to a strong central perspective, extends across the whole foreground. The pillars form an orientation marker for the position of the figures. The crucifixion in the upper center caused the artist to depict the “Annunciation” in two parts: the virgin on the right side and the angel at the left kneels in porticos kept in the same prosaic style and are linked by a far-vanishing point. A stressing testimony of the relation between the architectural support and the human body accordingly to Vitruvius’ concept is Perugino’s Saint Sebastian (Louvre) from 1495: the figure leans against a column, a symbol of the martyrium, placed in a portico whose pillars are adorned by grotesques, discovered recently in the Domus Aurea.

It is interesting to compare it with Mantegna’s representation of the same martyr (Louvre) about 1480, where the architecture of Roman antiquity is represented in a more authentic and suggestive manner. Incoherent fragments of a monumental touch symbolize the downfall of paganism and the victory of the Christian religion. The saint stands at a slight angle in a more dynamic position, and the image of the column as an allegory of the human body is emphasized by the detailed Corinthian capital. Perugino’s contact with Luca Fancelli, the architect responsible of the monuments of Leon Battista Alberti Mantua, whose daughter he married in 1493, could have strengthened his interest in classicizing patterns. In the “Martyrium of Sebastian” in Panicale from 1505, the portico is characterized by pillars provided by pilasters inspired by Roman amphitheaters and crowned by a huge triangular pediment of an antic temple. Since 1494, young Raphael made his first experiences with painted architecture in the bottega of Perugino and should become the most inventive interpreter of this art.

I often find myself sitting directly across Perugino’s Donation of Keys in the Sistine Chapel while I wait for my clients to visit the Sistine Chapel. This fresco depicts Roman antiquities of two of Constantine’s arches, an Umbrian landscape in the distance, an octagonal temple building covered with a Florentine-style dome, figures on the foreground, and others further back in movement. Classical antiquity and the Bible were the most significant sources of inspiration for painted architecture. Why?

According to St. Matthew (16, 13–10), the scene takes place in Caesarea, a Roman town on the Mediterranean coast between the present-day cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Christ announces that he wants to build the church on this rock and hands the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the apostle. In Perugino’s fresco, the scene is represented in the foreground and accompanied not only by the Disciples of Christ but also figures of the own time: on the right side, we can recognize the painter himself and the architect of the Sistine Chapel. Thanks to a strong perspective in the shape of a checkerboard, the main scene guides to the opened portal of the church, a symbol of the Christian community that dominates the fresco. An octagonal building provided by protruding vestibules with pediments in the main axes is crowned by a dome modelled on that of the cathedral in Florence. Meaning in Renaissance painting is highly complex, so it is possible that Perugino intended to evoke also to the dome of the rocks in Jerusalem, the oldest Islamic sacred building (consecrated in 691). The octagon surrounds a rock there, over which the dome rises; four entries open in the axes. Prints of the building were known at the end of the Quattrocento, and often Christians believed that the monument was identical to the Temple of Solomon, the main prototype of Christian sacred architecture.

The relationship becomes even more obvious when we remember that the Sistine chapel is drawn according to the proportion of the temple Salomon described in the Old Testament (Book of Kings). As you observed, the church is symmetrically flanked by two triumphal arches according to the arch of Constantin at the Forum Romanum. Again, several levels of meaning interpenetrate here. Caesarea was a Roman foundation, and architecture from the late Roman Empire fits with the historical context. But the side-by-side of Florentine and Roman topics also reflects the political events of the period. Lorenzo de’ Medici pursued a strategy of reconciliation with those who had supported the “The Pazzi conspiracy” of 1478, which also included the pope Sixtus IV. To show the supremacy of the Tuscan culture, Lorenzo made him invite the more important painters active in Florence. So, the cupola of the dome of Florence is a metaphor of the power of the Medici, the wealth and splendor of their city, and a symbol of the renewed sacred architecture of the Renaissance.

In this sense, the painting expresses the topic of “Firenze Nuova Roma” (Florence as New Rome), as it also appears in panegyric literature and poetry and as it will be again interpreted in the panel of the ideal city (Baltimore), conceived probably by Giuliano da Sangallo at the beginning of the pontificate of Leon X (Giovanni de’ Medici, the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico). The strong perspective of the “Donation of Keys” implicates a strongly rigorously coordinated hierarchy of perception, which guides the eye of the watcher and permits to the artist to insert in the middle ground the scenes with the "payment of the tribute” and the “attempted stoning of the Christ”, using the technique of the coincidence of episodes which happened at different moments, developed by medieval painters.

On most occasions, before I arrive at the Sistine Chapel, I also take clients through the Raphael rooms to view The Dispute and the School of Athens. One work shows three levels of figures that appear to be hinged on a vertical axis, which brilliantly demonstrates both an earthly and celestial vanishing point technique. The School of Athens, on the other hand, cleverly uses a perspective restitution where a triumphal arch was designed in plan and elevation. The arch was then translated/transformed into a three-dimensional model. Would you say that Raphael surpassed his teacher Perugino in the pictorial space of painted architecture?

Rafael is by far the most famous artist, and when the Alte Pinakothek in Munich dedicated an exhibition to Perugino in 2011/2012, it was called "Perugino Raphael's Master," as otherwise it would not have attracted enough visitors. But I’m not really convinced that is question of “superiority” is the best method to understand the specific character of an artwork. Such works are anchored in a precise historical moment, and during the Italian Renaissance, they owe a lot to the ideas of humanism, scientific progress, and the expanding of the horizon by the discovery of distant cultures. It’s exciting to see masterpieces, but the discipline of art history is full of unresolved issues that could contribute to a better understanding of the burning questions of our time. Exhibitions are great opportunities to develop more complex problems, for instance, about transmission processes, the possibility of assimilating new influences and principles in a particular environment, or the barriers that resist this. Like Giuliano da Sangallo, the personal architect of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Perugino was an important pioneer of the High Renaissance, but he didn't succeed in making all the achievements his own. He became quite repetitive in his last creative period.

His “Marriage of the Virgin” from about 1502 (Caen) and Rafael’s version from 1503 (Milan, Brera) are a stressing example of the progress reached by the younger. Both are tied to the “delivery of the keys” of the Sistine Chapel, but Rafael emphasizes the depth of the pictorial space and thus strengthens the distance between the group of figures in the foreground and the church. In contrast to Perugino, the building is visible as an entire volume, including its dome, and rises on a high, stepped base. Instead of the octagon with the protruding vestibules, Rafael depicts a polygonal volume resembling a circle, surrounds it by a portico, and conceals the transition to the tambour by volutes. So, he creates a suggestive expression of the ideal of perfect centrality and a coherent architectural organism. Furthermore, he loosens the strict symmetry of Perugino’s painting by moving the protagonists in the foreground, who are less rigid, more mobile in their positions, and have a more intense psychological expression. Some years later, in 1509–1511, the architecture of the “School of Athens” goes far beyond the function of a monumental background and forms a space in with the protagonists are acting like in a theatrical scene. After having crossed a triumphal arch, Plato and Aristoteles walk straight ahead under the dome towards the arm of the Greek cross.

They will soon arrive at the large vestibule provided by steps. This idealized meeting between the most important thinkers and researchers of Greek antiquity and leading figures of their own time, immersed in intense debates right now, finds adequate architectural expression in a classical building type designed according to the principles of the High Renaissance. Rafael translates skillfully Bramante's project for the reconstruction of St. Peter's from 1505, a Greek cross inscribed in a square, into a more complex spatial structure to serve as a stage for the numerous individual episodes. So, the painted architecture becomes an essential carrier of meaning and participates directly in the dialogue between of the two eras. The antic models are reminiscent of the centralized system, the dome, and coffered barrel vaults, while the pendentives and a complex rhythm of pilasters and niches are conceived in the spirit of the achievements of Bramante and his school. The ancient tradition is also evoked by the fact that this sumptuous temple does not serve liturgical functions but is dedicated to encounters and debates.

Action and architecture form an inseparable unit, as one will hardly find them a second time, even with Rafael. In the Disputa the axis of symmetry constitutes a solid backbone, and the vanishing point coincides with the altar and the sacrament that continues vertically with the Holy Spirit, Christ, and God. Architectural fragments are here limited to mere accessories that allude, not without a bit of biting humour, to the never-ending building sites of Julius II. On the left side, behind the figure representing Bramante leaning on a railing, is the construction site of the Vatican loggias, which had not yet extended beyond a few bays after Julius' death. On the right side, Sixtus IV stands in front of the pillar fragment of the nave of St. Peter's that metaphorically represents the construction of the new church. The frescoes of Rafael in the Stanze reflect an important laboratory that one can fully appreciate, walking from one room to another and discovering the artistic development of the master, experimenting always new ways to make dialogue about the glorious past of antiquity and the Golden Age of his own time, succinctly expressed by means of painted architecture.