After the Medieval ages, originating from Florence came the Renaissance age from the 14th to the 16th Century. Deriving from the French word that means “rebirth”—it indicated the revival or reconnection of artists and poets with the style of ancient Greeks and Romans.
Starting with literature, Renaissance was quickly adopted by the other visual cultures all around Europe as well as elsewhere. The Medici Family, who owned one of the most flourishing banking institutions in Europe were passionate patrons of the arts and gave commissions to the artists, architects and philosophers to promote ideals of beauty, truth, wisdom and religion in the world.
The Renaissance period saw artists and architects like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Palladio, Alberti among others working on a philosophical mission to bring harmony, order and beauty in buildings and urban spaces. With notable architecture, even its representation was met with a new frontier—from flat two-dimensionality, Renaissance artists focused on new techniques that closely resemble reality.
With the development of linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi, Renaissance artists used it to demonstrate and enhance architectural principles and compositions. Moreover, Roman and Greek architecture were predominantly expressed and explored in multiple paintings, with exquisite attention to composition and detail.
Many scenes from Renaissance paintings focus on the urbanscapes and grand architectural gestures, providing almost a realistic impression with its invention of depth and spatiality.
Drawing inspiration from the Bible, these paintings often depict reconstructed spatiality or offer to provide historical evidence.
This period was meant to introduce idealistic standards that addressed humanist principles such as dignity, calm, beauty and harmony in urban spaces. Based on austere geometrical principles, the architecture features impressive porticos, arcades and colonnades.
Using depth and framing, Architecture in renaissance paintings created a conceptual space and sequence by creating layers to give the narrative multidimensionality and completeness.
The construction behaved like an ontological boundary, a framing device that organised the subject of the painting making it more coherent and centred.
Moreover, architecture played an important role in the orchestration of the paintings, making spatiality, a part of the spectacle—directing behaviour and performance of the space.
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, known for its use of light, colour and anatomy also features linear perspective, drawing the attention towards Jesus, the main subject with beautiful architectural detailing of a coffered ceiling, doorways and windows framing the composition. While The School of Athens by Raphel painted in the Stanza Della Segnatura boasts the force of Architecture.
The architecture shown in the painting was inspired by the work of Bramante, who did help Raphael with the architectural aspects of the painting. From vast arches to niches, Raphael introduced magnificent detail and depth with the use of size and space variations, edging, overlapping and colour changes.
All these techniques were realised fully by Michaelangelo. Especially seen through his work in the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling of The Sistine Chapel has impeccable use of space that is broken into 33 zones and each represents a story or a moment.
In the central nine panels, Michelangelo has painted the story of Genesis and they immediately capture the eye of the viewer entering the Sistine Chapel. He uses the bulk of the space to paint pivotal scenes such as the Drunkenness of Noah, the interaction between God and Adam and the Sacrifice of Noah.
What is more interesting to see is the way he fits stories into smaller triangular spaces towards the sides. It is his domain knowledge and wise allotment that appeases the religious viewer. More architectural are his use of light and colour.
Furthermore, he creates the sun, a golden, glowing ball lighting the whole image. In the surrounding panels, the figures are sat on bright, white marble seats. Because of this the frescoes are very lightly lit and the bright, brash tones stand out against pale creams and pastel colours. One can see more of the same in The Last Judgement.
More obvious architectural elements can be seen in paintings that use Renaissance architecture. The Presentation of the Virgin by Titian is one such example. The rows of Ionic columns that frame the inside of the church’s interior help us understand the ‘establishment’ of the times.
To further create some perspective layers are added by the stairs that divide the space in the foreground and background. The set up clearly helps us understand the virgins predicament. Fra Carnevale uses these techniques in The Birth of the Virgin as well. By dividing spaces inside and outside, it helps create narrative structures, as well as architectural details, push the paintings to indicate performativity and interactivity.
The skill of the artist comes through when he blends these so well such that these demarcations become invisible yet evident. It shows us the role of architecture as a framing device. What filmmakers nowadays call the mise-en-scène.
The Renaissance paintings not only used architecture as a framing device but also acted as a canvas for some of these paintings which adorn ceilings and walls of famous buildings. Moving away from being a mere embellishing device, these artworks unfold the physical, analytical aspects of space.
The Renaissance period set in motion, discoveries that changed the way one viewed the world, with its mathematical and scientific exploration—we continue to draw inspiration. With its great sense of awareness about personal responsibility, knowledge and philosophy, Renaissance fostered values of creativity and foresight. These works were ahead of their time in terms of sensibility, making them a perfect crossover of art and architecture.
- “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Analysis.” Artble, July 19, 2017. https://www.artble.com/artists/michelangelo/paintings/sistine_chapel_ceiling/more_information/analysis.
- “The Beautiful Intersection of Art and Architecture in Renaissance Painting.” Arch2O.com, April 25, 2020. https://www.arch2o.com/beautiful-intersection-art-architecture-renaissance-painting/.