The use of architectural models in paintings, frescoes and drawings: an open field of research

Prof Sabine Frommel 

Models, that were conserved in churches, palaces or public buildings, had an afterlife, that is almost unstudied. A lot of painted architectural representations in pictures, drawings and inlays seem connected to them, because it would have been easier to assimilate models in reduced scale into an illusionistic space than using the drawings and sketches produced by observing realized buildings. Furthermore, the model permits different perceptions of space and volume: one can look at it from various points of view and appreciate it from below and above, frontally or diagonally, and so choose the best angle for the two-dimensional representation. One can even move the model into another light setting to rediscover some of its specificities. The painter can decide to document it faithfully or to use it for further invention or variation. In any case, he can check precisely the effect of volume and space and fit it in a convincing way to the painted episodes and its figures.

Painted models could also refer to architectural competitions – where an important number of models had been produced – which invited artists and citizens to opine about new architectural patterns and debates. After the winning project had been announced, the others lingered around without purpose. The owner could collect their model to recycle the materials, but in other cases anyone could take it away and make other use of them.

Taddeo Gaddi, The presentation of the Virgin in the temple, (Paris, Louvre), 1332-1338

A painted model allowed the artist to evoke an event in a precise geographical place, or to represent a new construction or restoration. It is also possible that painter-architects referred to their own projects. For instance, the church presented in the drawing of The presentation of the Virgin in the temple from 1332-1338 (Paris, Louvre) of Taddeo Gaddi resembles an architectural model in scale. The internal space – both structure and volume – are clearly visible and allow an excellent understanding of the whole  edifice. It seems to be linked to the competitive climate in Florence during this period and could refer to a project proposal for Santa Maria del Fiore: it may be that the painter aimed to eternalize his proposal and feign a place among the eventual participants.

Perugino, The hand-over of the keys to Saint Paul, Rome, Città del Vaticano, Chapel Sixtina, 1481-1483

Painting offered also a suitable medium to experiment with centralized churches, a favoured subject during the Renaissance. The buildings in Perugino’s The key handover to Saint Peter (Sixtine Chapel), the Betrothal of the Virgin of Raphael or the circular church in the centre of the ideal city of Giuliano da Sangallo (Urbino) seem to be painted according to an architectural model, referring perhaps to projects drawn by these artists. Sangallo conceived a similar project for a mausoleum about 1504, and it seems that there was a complex process of mutual assimilation between drawing, model and adoption in painting.

Marco Marchetti detto Marco da Faenza, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti present to Cosimo I the model of San Lorenzo, (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Cosimo I), 1555-1572

Representations of models could also assume a political significance. The tapestry of Dante Squilli according to drawings of Stradano shows Lorenzo de Medici beside the model of his Villa at Poggio a Caiano, discussing it with the architect Giuliano da Sangallo. The patron, the duke of Tuscany, wanted to remember the culture of his illustrious ancestor – a significant promoter of the renewal of architectural typologies and patterns – and the important tradition of the dynasty.

Domenico Cresti da Passignano, Michelangelo presents to pope Paul IV the model for the achievement of the building and the cupola of San Peter (Florence, Casa Buonarotti), 1619

Another theme that was highly appreciated, also for official programs, was the festive presentation or handover of an architectural model from the architect to the patron, like Brunelleschi and Ghiberti present the model of San Lorenzo to Cosimo the Elder (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio) or Domenico Passignano’s Michelangelo presents the model of Saint Peters of Paul IV to (Florence, Casa Buonarotti), Giambologna Buontalenti presents the model of the façade of the cathedral of Florence to the Grant Duke Francesco de’ Medici (Museo degli Argenti). In such cases it symbolizes in an emphatic manner the qualities inherent in every architectural project:  prosperity, future and esprit d’entreprise. The models shown in such paintings often were lost. Sometimes they don’t correspond to definitive version of the project and allow us to understand previous states of the projects. These various testimonies have never been taken into consideration in a coherent manner and are suitable for deepening our knowledge of the function of architectural models in the modern period too.


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