Conjuring up fantastic towers and non-existant cities, painters across the centuries have created a dream architecture of gaudy, improbable, and often psychologically revealing buildings. They are mansions of the imagination, as if the expansiveness of such imagination could be limited to simple digs or a non-descript hovel.
Next to the human face and figure, architecture has been the most common subject matter in Western painting for two thousand years. The reasons are many, but ultimately the architect must find a client before he can build, and his imagination is inevitably tempered by practical considerations. The artist is free to build as he likes; he may design as many mad palaces or impossible cities as his heart desires.
In Western painting we encounter a significant number of works which do not represent actual places but imaginary structures or cities. These are what Shakespeare called “buildings of my fancy”. Until well into the Renaissance era such symbolic buildings and ideal cities were the rule rather than the exception. No one expected the representation to be a mere replica of the real thing.
In the above painting, Nazareth is transformed into a Northern Italian city of beautiful vistas and perfect perspectives where its patron saint might reasonably cross and negotiate with the Archangel Gabriel for a blessing for the town, symbolized by the model in his hands.
The number of architectural fantasies is greatly increased by the paintings which nominally depict something else: in many religious and mythological pictures the artist were clearly more interested in the scenery than in what was supposedly their subject. Biblical events were traditionally shown in impressive architectural settings. The home of the carpenter Joseph in an Annunciation might be represented as an Italian villa of lavish elegance; the stable of Bethlehem in an Adoration often expanded into a palace, albeit a dilapidated one. Renaissance artists both north and south of the alps too pleasure in architectural imagery which became even bolder in the Baroque period, which was the golden age of fantastic architecture.
Above, Albrecht Altdorfer imagines a marvelous fairy-tale palace, a veritable primer in High Renaissance arcades, pilasters, volutes, and domes- as the setting for Susannah’s encounter with the elders of Babylon, painted in 1526. But the artist, Regensburg’s great landscape painter and city architect, appears to be more interested in the meeting of god-given nature and man-made monument than in the lusty tale of the Apocrypha. The narrative is but a detail in the greater drama of architectural exuberance.
Above. Views of actual cities are a tradition in Italian painting, and no city has held a firmer grip on the imagination than Venice has. Vittore Carpaccio still had the city of the doges on his mind when he painted this “Legend of Saint Ursula” in 1495, allegedly depicting a departure of an English prince at left, and at right his arrival in Brittany, home of his bride.