Painters across the centuries, the millennia, have always conjured out of their imaginations, fantastic towers and cities which do not exist. Sometimes a product of the subconscious, and sometimes a liberal artistic freedom, these artists created a dream architecture of the gaudy, the improbable, and often the psychologically revealing in their depictions of architecture. For some reason, the imagination seems to spawn certain delusions of grandeur in the form of stately mansions, than that of the humble abode. Home sweet home. At one time architecture and art were often coupled together. The list of painter-architects and architect painters is substantial and includes Michelangelo and da Vinci.
Painting imaginary structures and cities is what Shakespeare termed ” buildings of my fancy”, in Coriolanus and King Lear. Until the advanced stages of the Renaissance, symbolic cities and ideal buildings were the norm. No one expected the representation to be a mere replica of the actual structure. Readers of the fifteenth-century “Nuremberg Chronicle” did not seem to fret that the same woodcut appeared five times in the same book, labeled Mainz, Bologna, Lyons, Naples and Aquilera, or that another picture of an imaginary walled city pretended to be Damascus, Perugia, Siena, Mantua and Ferrara.
The number of architectural imaginings is inversely related to their nominal depiction. In many religious and mythological representations, the artists appeared far more involved in the scenery than an attraction for the subject matter. Biblical events were traditionally presented in luxurious architectural settings; very few humble villas and modest stables.
Above: In a less worldly time and place, Flemish primitives solved the problem of making the remote stories of the Bible real by transporting them to the familiar, if equal imaginary ideal of the local landscape. In Memling’s depiction of the Passion of Christ, 1470, a fifteenth-century vision of stepped gables and Gothic tracery represents the ancient city of Jerusalem. Only the onion domed tower at right, and the distant scene of Jesus driving the money changers from a temple vaguely resembling the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the left center, reminds the viewer that this is the distant Levant.
Like a medieval mystery play, the narrative unfolds through the winding, congested streets of the town; the squares and courtyards are arranged as separate but related stages on which the Passion story can be enacted. Drawing on techniques from the brilliant miniatures of the previous century, Memling uses arched doorways and windows to frame each incident, frequently stripping away whole walls to reveal an interior scene. This balanced composition, this lack of any central event-the Crucifixion is all but oblivious on the horizon- subordinates the story to the decorative aesthetic of the architecture and gives the painting an almost playful and merry effect. Also participating in Memling’s canvas- no more anachronistic than the Flemish setting- are his wealthy patrons, the Italian representative of the Medici family in Bruges Tommasso Portinari kneeling in the corner at far left and his wife at far right.
In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me
I have spent my life
Seeking all that’s still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me
In the book of love’s own dream
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me
In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me ( Attics of My Life, The Grateful Dead )