Just a little fix-me-upper

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.

"The two remaining paintings of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder appear to embody an anticipation of a multiplicity of tongues in the same way that art historian Louis Marin describes Thomas More’s Utopia as having an “anticipating, but blind, judgement.”1 In other words, More’s Utopia and Bruegel’s Towers are not conventional representations of a realized vision, but rather they can be understood as a process where a utopian ideal is yet to be discovered. The utopian discourse that is present in the works of Bruegel and More allows a modernizing sixteenth-century society to represent itself critically to itself, thus becoming useful to its audience by enabling a kind of problem solving capacity to think through the emerging social, political and cultural changes. Bruegel’s paintings are clearly translating a biblical story into a ‘speaking picture’ by depicting a ziggurat-like tower reaching towards the heavens, yet at the same time they appear to be doing something more by recreating an event, albeit a mythical event, and its consequences."... read more: http://bronwenwilson.com/SpaceUtopiaRepresentation.pdf

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.

Carlo Crivelli. Annunciation. 1486. To celebrate the noble themes of the Holy Bible, Renaissance painters sought to create imaginary architectural backgrounds which would be worthy of their subject, but uttelry false, similar to Jesus being blue eyes and blond with pale skin. Here, Crivelli sets the scene with an opulent townhouse, richly furnished even to a special opening in a frieze above the window, so that the dove of heaven can enter the Virgin's room without having to access the front door. image: http://sharonkgilbert.com/?m=20091210

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.

"Just as most of his contemporaries Altdorfer painted normally religious scenes, but probably he was much more interested in landscapes which in many cases dominated his compositions. This painting is similar, there is an impressive castle and big trees and a turbulent sky. The figures seemed to be toys. In the foreground there is Susanna washing her feet. And on the left hidden in the bushes are the two elders peeping. So the whole story is present, but the real interesting things are without any doubt the castle and the sky. " read more: http://pakway.wordpress.com/category/paintings%E2%99%A5/page/2/

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.

"Canvas No. 4 of the series of nine large paintings "Stories from the Life of St Ursula". The Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims, signed and dated 1495, is the largest painting in the cycle and actually contains six different episodes of the legend. To the left Ereus takes leave of his father; to the right of the pennant, on top of which the banner is shown blowing in the wind, we see the betrothed couple at their first meeting, as they take their leave from Ursula's parents, as they board the twelve-oared sloop and then the ship; to the left we see the ship again, its sail billowing in the wind, and the inscription MALO is rather like a foreboding of the tragic fate that lies ahead for the pilgrims. In the most natural way all the various moments of the story follow on each other without interruption, within the carefully constructed composition. Within this unitary space, the free and varied vibration of the lighting makes even the smallest details totally plausible, created as they are by brushstrokes of unfailing precision. This kaleidoscopic pageant also contains very realistic elements, such as the two towers of the Knights of Rhodes and St Mark of Candia, probably modelled on woodcuts by Reeuwich illustrating the Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam by Breydenbach that was printed in Mainz in 1486; Carpaccio has placed these two towers on the steep slopes of the hill protected by walls, towers and castles. While the English city is surrounded by an impregnable set of walls and towers, on the other side of the canvas the city in Brittany stretches out totally defenceless, built along the water's edge, full of buildings with elegant marble facades. These are clearly reproductions of the palaces that Codussi and the Lombardo brothers were building in Venice towards the end of the 15th century and which were rapidly changing the appearance of the city. ..." read more: http://www.azerbaijanrugs.com/mp/vittore_


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.




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