Exhibition - Building the Picture - National Gallery (2014)

The National Gallery, London, 30 April - 21 September 2014

Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting was shown at the National Gallery, London, from 30 April to 21 September 2014. 

The exhibition was developed through the research partnership between the University of York and the National Gallery and was co-curated by Professor Amanda Lillie (University of York), Dr Caroline Campbell (Curator of Italian Painting before 1500 at the National Gallery), and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral student Alasdair Flint.

This was the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.  Architecture within paintings has often been treated as a passive background or as subordinate to the figures. This exhibition demonstrated how, on the contrary, architecture underpinned many paintings, and was used to design the whole picture from the very start.  It aimed to increase visitors' appreciation and understanding of some of the most beautiful and architectonic paintings by Italian masters such as Duccio, Botticelli, Crivelli and their contemporaries. Visitors were encouraged to look in new ways at buildings depicted in paintings, and to investigate how artists invented imagined spaces that transcended the reality of bricks, mortar and marble.

Building the Picture was a free exhibition and attracted 180,892 visitors (see the National Gallery's annual review for 2014-15, p.67.)  The exhibition was made possible by an AHRC-funded fellowship awarded to Professor Lillie in 2013, which also funded the production of the award-winning online catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, as well as five filmed interviews with contemporary cultural figures. These interviews address the interaction between painting and architecture:

  • Architect Peter Zumthor: Real and Imagined Buildings
  • Film historian John David Rhodes: Entering the Picture
  • Video-game cinematic director Peter Gornstein: Virtual Environments
  • Art historian T J Clark: Strange Space
  • Film director Martha Fiennes: Nativity

Listen to Caroline Campbell talking about the exhibition in Episode Ninety One of the National Gallery Podcasts, and Amanda Lillie in Episode Ninety-Three.

Professor Lillie presented a seminar about the exhibition in December 2013, in conjunction with Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein (University of York), who co-curated the National Gallery Exhibition Strange Beauty, also held in 2014.

A post-graduate conference, Beguiling Structures, was organised by Alasdair Flint with two York colleagues, James Jago and Livia Lupi, and held at the National Gallery to complement the exhibition.


The exhibition was widely acclaimed, including the innovative online catalogue.  Rave reviews were published, among others, in:

  • The Wall Street Journal: 'The thoughtful visual guidance through these varied works makes for an exhibition that will likely inform viewers in subsequent visits to Renaissance paintings in other shows and museums […]I was especially struck by this show as a matrix that might well have a life beyond its London display […]This exceptionally interesting and beautiful London exhibition merits attention as a model worthy of emulation' 
  • The Sunday Times: 'this is the way forward: the new way of collecting, the eco way — not by spending zillions on new pictures, but by getting to know what you already own much better.'
  • The Guardian: 'Providing such a sharply focused lens over a broad cross-section of Renaissance works, […], the exhibition has a transformative effect on the rest of the gallery.[…] Building the Picture helps to opens our eyes to why these stage sets matter, and it might just change the way you look'.
  • The Observer: 'All great exhibitions have the power to change the way we think about one or more artists. Not many change the way we think about art itself. But that is the rare and surprising achievement of Building the Picture'
  • The Burlington Magazine (September 2014, No. 1338 – Vol 156, by Fabrizio Nevola): 'Building the Picture offers a valuable survey of the role of architecture and perspective in Renaissance art, and this is all the more the case on account of the innovative decision on the part of the Gallery to accompany the show with an online catalogue. Its great value is that all the research that underpins the exhibition is made freely and permanently available in a series of well cross-­referenced essays and catalogue entries […] the online catalogue will make a lasting contribution; with five short films – also available online – […] these resources will also help to open up the research to a wider and younger public.’
  • Apollo
  • Building Design - BDOnline, by Paul McGrath: 'sublime', 'wonderful, exquisite', 'let us hope this is the beginning of further scholarly research'.

Main image: Building the Picture exhibition banner with 'Saint Zenobius Bishop of Florence restores to life a widow's son in Borgo degli Albizzi, Florence' by Domenico Veneziano (c. 1442-1448); tempera on panel, 28.6 x 32.5 cm © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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