An Architect-Painter Builds a Temple and Poses a Paradox

OFTEN I've passed this painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, glanced at the extraordinary, elaborate architecture, but hurried on. Somehow this 15th-century Renaissance painting didn't fit my notion of the comfortable, straight-on view with which the Florentine artists of the early Renaissance ``constructed'' their paintings. But the architectural quality of the work would not leave me. Here is a painting, called the ``Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,'' that seems to be so much more about the temple than about the Virgin.

Before us, filling the panel, is a luminous white marble triumphal arch, replete with colored marble columns, richly ornamented with low-relief sculpture. This represents the fa,cade of the temple.

Beggars wait outside the wide-open arched doorway, where Mary, Anna, and their women companions pause. According to legend, Mary was taken to the temple to live at age 12 by her mother, Anna. Pairs of brightly clothed and capped men walk and chat nearby, and move freely through the church. Outside the side door a man and his dog walk along a street near some houses. A handsome gray hound guards the boundary of the picture at the lower edge. Inside the spacious church, a beautiful multicolored marble floor, marked off in squares, helps measure the distance to the altars, where multipaneled Venetian altarpieces are placed. Tall gray shafts of columns - perhaps of the famous pietra serena sandstone of Florence - march along, sustaining the upper wall of windows that illumine the space. Beyond the first four columns, a tramezzo, or midway divider, separates the public space from the more private area at the far end.

Somehow this painter knew the newest ideas in architectural design. He knew that in Florence in the 1420s, Brunelleschi, the first Renaissance architect, had invented this kind of interior with columns of ancient design and low side aisles, based in part on the form of the ancient basilica or law court. But our painter went further than Brunelleschi, and added the Roman basilica's ``tribune,'' or wide niche, which he outlined in pink (perhaps the popular red stone of Verona), that shouts to us from the far end of the church.

He also knew that near Florence, in Rimini, the first Renaissance designer to write an architectural treatise - one of the most influential books in the history of architectural design - had added a triumphal arch as a fresh fa,cade for an older church, which he called a temple, in 1450.

But our artist could do more with his brush to enrich the surface of his triumphal-arch fa,cade with low-relief sculptural scenes, inlays of colored marble, and precisely ``chiseled'' examples of those enthusiastically sought parts of the ancient architecture.

With 15th-century spontaneity, he mixes parts of different classical ``orders,'' all placed reasonably and drawn with a light, accurate touch. Crisp ``flutings'' (grooves) of the ``pilasters'' (flattened columns) run vertically just behind the free-standing, colored column shafts.

Who was this painter, and what led him to make such a picture?

I learned first that, like so many treasures in our museums, this ``Presentation'' is actually only a fragment, part of a larger whole. It is one-third of a composition, the left ``wing'' of a three-piece altarpiece. The right ``wing,'' now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts the ``Birth of the Virgin'' in a beautiful, more homelike building.

That explains the off-centeredness. The right ``wing'' in the Met is equally asymmetrical, as in a mirror reflection. When all three parts were originally joined, the ``Presentation of the Virgin'' on the left and the ``Birth of the Virgin'' on the right together told the stories of Mary's childhood and balanced each other.

Next, I discovered that it was no ordinary painter who made this piece, even though his fame is not enough to give him a place in textbook surveys of Renaissance art. The artist, a Dominican brother, Bartolomeo Corradini, called Fra Carnevale, was an architect. He had been a pupil of the well-loved mid-15th-century painter Fra Fillipo Lippi, in Florence, as the slender blond figures, drawn in a linear manner, show. He had absorbed the lessons of a Venetian painter in Florence, Domenico Veneziano, with his light-filled colors.

But this Fra Carnevale had an eye for architecture. He would later be listed among the architects and engineers employed by the Duke of Urbino in the little duchy where the altarpiece was painted in 1467.

Fra Carnevale was not unique in being a painter-architect. None of the Italian Renaissance architects were trained professionally, including the great Raphael, who grew up in Urbino. And Bramante, who launched High Renaissance architecture in Rome in the early 16th century, was also born near Urbino, trained as an artist, and, according to a 16th-century biographer, avidly studied first the paintings of Fra Carnevale.

As a painter, Fra Carnevale could try things that an architect's patron might not easily build. Painting the delicate, expensive sculptural parts of the building, he could design freely without the constraints of budget. Like the literary scholars who were rediscovering and translating the Latin and early Christian texts, Fra Carnevale employed the Roman ``vocabulary,'' ancient architectural forms, to make vivid Mary's life at the time of the ancient Romans, even if the garments are 15th-century.

The modest architect-painter, Fra Carnevale was quite up to date. But his painting is more than an echo of the newest inventions in nearby towns.

Fra Carnevale's architecture is arresting because it embodies a paradox and a challenge that still address architects today.

The paradox is this: Brunelleschi's and Alberti's ideas on architecture, though taken from ancient sources, literally do not fit together. While Fra Carnevale paints Brunelleschi-type columns that carry arches, Alberti writes that arches must rest only on squared piers as parts of the wall; columns must bear a flat beam. And, indeed, the arches in Brunelleschi's system derive from medieval practice. Furthermore, Alberti's horizontal triumphal arch fa,cade does not fit on a basilican church with low side aisles.

Yet Fra Carnevale combines the two systems. Possibly he did not know Alberti's criticism, for although Alberti later often visited Urbino and the Duke owned Alberti's book in manuscript, Fra Carnevale may not have had access to it in 1467.

In any case, through the vertical format of his painting and close view of the fa,cade, he is able to clip off the troublesome top and sides where the interior would join the exterior. The limits of the painting save him from the crisis that actually faced building committees and patrons at the time.

Fra Carnevale's challenge to his contemporaries and to future architects is enough to make us pause with Mary and Anna, and reflect how two systems, based on love of the same sources, can work together gracefully.

Perhaps the renewed ``ancient'' triumphal arch signifies triumphant Christianity, for the Angel Gabriel greets Mary on its upper cornice, and Mary-with-Child meets her cousin Elizabeth in the bas-relief over the left side arch. Perhaps the basilican church, taken from the ancient law court's form, stands for the law given in the Old Testament.

This idea of a time ``under the law,'' followed by an era ``under grace,'' was common in Renaissance painting. Fra Carnevale would then be showing the possibility of fitting the two together congruently, even when the systems literally do not meet at every point.

But in any case, the design challenge of making meaningful connections between the interior and exterior of a building faces designers today: Those called upon to design the shell of a skyscraper whose interior will be partitioned by others; those asked to put an eloquent shell on a campus science building whose interior is worked out by engineers.

Fra Carnevale's engaging image shows that the problem is not new. His painting suggests to the viewer that unexpected solutions and compromises are possible to the designer who thinks as flexibly as this painter-architect.

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