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Provincial currents in Renaissance design

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A Renaissance Enigma: Art and Fantasy at an Italian Court At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2 until 12 September

When Wolfflin and Gombrich fabricated the seamless arc of Renaissance historiography which for so long shaped perception of the period, they covered up many countercurrents which undermined their story. But those countercurrents could not be ignored for long; with diligent scholars worrying away at the fabric it started to crack, and now is so fragmented that scarcely any Renaissance historian will still treat the episode as a whole.

One of these countercurrents is the subject of an exhibition at the Soane Museum. For three guineas Soane bought the Album of the North Italian Master - not then so called, because Berensonian nomenclature of awkward artworks didn't come in until the early twentieth century. Indeed, in 1891 when Baron Henry von Geymuller investigated the 68 vellum-page volume of highly coloured designs, he pronounced it to be the work of Bramante. He explained its provincialities and occasional cack-handedness as deliberate hieroglyphics, rather than - thanks to the painstaking work of curator Lynda Fairbairn - what they are now recognised as: the attempts of a Lombard craftsman to make sense of the principles of Renaissance design and representation.

This master craftsman probably worked on the great model for Pavia cathedral at the end of the fifteenth century, when all the big names came to Milan - Pavia was the summer seat of the Sforza court - to work out how to complete the embarassingly Gothic cathedral. The master probably overheard Leonardo et al discussing ideas, and tried to translate them into designs in this album. It would then have been passed from hand to hand in the workshop.

Its attractive pages contain the sort of sketches which architectural students might do on study tours to Northern Italy; a capital here, a base there, a colonnade yonder. Some have a curiously distended sense, as if what Alberti conceived as a church facade might be dovetailed into a cabinet front. Careful in detail, the drawings lack an overall conception. But that in itself shows how far the principles of Renaissance design worked their way into the tier of people who actually made the buildings and ornaments. If Leonardo's sketch books establish the ideas, here is a minor but significant step in how they worked their way, through strata of divided labour, into buildings.

That in turn adds a small footnote to the overturning of the traditional view of the Renaissance; divided labour and craft played a key role. Its achievements lay not just in the sensibilities of genius.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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