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Episode 91

The National Gallery Podcast

Spring-cleaning at the National Gallery, a sharp-toothed Venetian sea monster and the impossible buildings of Renaissance art.

10 min 36 sec | May 2014

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start this month with the latest exhibition in our 'Renaissance Spring' – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting. It’s often assumed that the buildings in 14th to 16th century Italian paintings are simply backdrops to the action or exercises in perspective. But there’s much more to it than that - as Leah Kharibian discovered when she met up with curator Caroline Campbell just before the show opened. They spoke about one of the exhibits: Sassetta’s 'Saint Francis renounces his Earthly Father'. In this panel from a 15th century altarpiece, the saint’s father has just dared Francis to chose between a life of wealth in the family business or a life of poverty in the Church. Caroline continues the story. 

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: He said that Francis had to give up his worldly possessions in front of the Bishop of Assisi and I think that he expected that his son would never do this, but Francis does it and that’s what’s represented in this painting. We see his clothes being removed by the Bishop, he’s sort of sitting, really almost in the Bishop’s lap, as if the Bishop’s robes are surrounding him, showing that the church is now taking him and he’s a son of the church not a son of the world and in the other part of the picture, to the left, we see Francis’s distraught father, who really didn’t believe that his son would do it and is showing his distress by holding out his arm and is being physically restrained by a companion behind him from coming and reaching forward and grasping his son back. It’s a very physical representation of this separation.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: It’s an absolutely cracking story, but it would be really hard to imagine it working as well as it does in this picture without this extraordinary pink building that sort of frames the action. Could you tell me about it?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: Yes, this pink structure is a series of arcades, something we call a loggia, but basically it means a series of arcades which are open to the elements and this absolutely makes the picture because Francis’s father, his arm is just in line with one of the pillars or columns of this arch, so we see the separation between Francis’s father’s business-like mundane, temporal world and the spiritual world of Francis. We can see that this physical separation is happening, encapsulated in the building as it were.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: What’s absolutely great about this picture, and I believe so many of the works that you’ve got in this exhibition is that these are somehow impossible buildings – I mean, there’s no building that’s this pink or scaled in this way – there’s something wrong with the scale. And yet it’s completely compelling, you really want to inhabit the world that this creates. Why is that do you think?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: Well, I think it’s because the architecture in these paintings is intended to make you want to enter and to come in and many of these paintings were devotional in nature – they were intended as a way of starting a spiritual exploration and when people in the fifteenth century are wishing to enter into a story, they think about entering the space and I think that’s what a lot of these pictures do. So you look at the story of Francis, you imagine yourself almost as Francis and you’re encouraged to do that because the architectural space in which this story is set, is so habitable and so beguiling and it leads you in. It’s wonderful, if you look to the very back of this weird, strange screen that Francis is standing in and his father is outside, there’s a man in blue praying in front of windows with gold. So you’re seeing not just Francis and his conversion, but where – if you follow him and what he’s doing – where you will end up. And you realise that’s what this picture is intending you to do. It’s intending you to pray, to be devout and to worship, and it’s the architecture that really makes that message completely believable and also very, very natural.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Caroline Campbell. You can find 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' in the Sunley Room until mid-September. Admission's free.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): The National Gallery is a big building - and it takes a big team of cleaners behind the scenes to keep it spotless. Take a walk through the gallery beforeit opens and the rooms are full of people sweeping and hoovering... making sure you won't be distracted from Leonardo by litter or Degas by dust. The priceless nature of the building's contents however, mean the chance to give a room a really good, deep clean - to hoover the walls and the high ledges near the ceiling - comes around far less often, and only on the rare occasions when a gallery is completely empty of paintings. Cathy FitzGerald went along to meet the man in charge of giving Room 46 the treatment.

KEVAN STEWART: I’m Kevan Stewart, I work for DOC cleaning. We have the cleaning contract here at the National Gallery. I’m the alterations site manager and I’ve been here for 23 years.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Been at the National Gallery for 23 years?

KEVAN STEWART: Yes, yes, boy to man.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So what’s the cleaner’s-eye-view of the National Gallery? What do you see that the rest of us don’t?

KEVAN STEWART: Um, chewing gum. You find a lot of it underneath the benches. All the dust… we call it ‘human DNA’.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Human DNA?! And where tends to catch the dust?

KEVAN STEWART: It’s all the ledges, specially the high-level ledges which are the most difficult. I say, this has all been vacuumed – they’re using vacuums sucking it all up – but you see it’s that thick it’s just falling away…

CATHY FITZGERALD: And it’s just because actually the opportunity to clean rooms only comes around every now and again, doesn’t it?

KEVAN STEWART: That’s right, yeah – it’s just waiting for the opportunity. When I know things are closing down and things are happening I often ask, you know, I sort of say like ‘be a good idea if we can get in there and do the….’

CATHY FITZGERALD: … do the high stuff’

KEVAN STEWART: High stuff’.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Are you a house-proud cleaning manager?

KEVAN STEWART: I am. I do get annoyed when something’s been cleaned… you know, they’ve just finished cleaning something and then we go away and a contractor comes walking through with dusty, dirty boots. I think you just get frustrated…

CATHY FITZGERALD: … 'cause you want it to be nice…

KEVAN STEWART: … I want it to be nice, yeah. I want it to look clean, I want it to look good, I want people to as well as enjoy the paintings, enjoy the buildings, you know.   

CATHY FITZGERALD: Yeah, it’s a beautiful building.

KEVAN STEWART: It is a beautiful building. I want people to walk away and think ‘ooh, that’s a nice and clean building’. It’s just pride in what we do. You know when people ask me where I work and say ‘the National’, they say ‘Aw, that must be good, all those famous paintings’. I say, well you don’t really notice ‘cos I’m there working.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Well, I guess also you’re probably not noticing what’s on the wall because you’re noticing what’s on the floor.

KEVAN STEWART: That’s it, that’s it. I’m looking at the floor, not the walls [laughs].

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Kevan Stewart.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to 'Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice'. Critics and visitors alike have been raving about this once in a lifetime gathering of masterpieces by the great 16th century Venetian artist. They’ve been struck by his theatricality, his cast of thousands and his exquisite use of colour. But it turns out we should also credit him as a special effects designer. Curator Carol Plazzotta explained why when she took Leah to see Veronese’s depiction of the mythological hero Perseus rescuing the princess, Andromeda.

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Well, the three main 'dramatis personae' if you like are this beautiful princess chained to a rock, a dashing hero swooping in from the sky and an amazingly hideous sea-monster emerging from the sea. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now why is a princess chained to a rock – tell me?

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Well, her mother, rather rashly, claimed that she was more beautiful than all the sea-nymphs, the 'Nereids'.   

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Oh that’s a big mistake.

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: That was a big mistake and so Neptune decided to have his revenge by sending the sea-monster to plague their kingdom.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And so the king has to give up his daughter and that’s Andromeda. 

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: That’s Andromeda.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But this sea monster who really seems to be the bit of star of the show… he’s absolutely phenomenal. I mean he could really give a sort of modern action movie special effects team a run for their money, don’t you think? He’s got this huge gaping mouth, huge teeth, but this fantastic fin with sort of talons on its back.

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Yes, I think Veronese has been very, very brilliant and inventive with the monster. I think that the mouth is like a rat with the little rodent teeth at the front. But these talons are marvellous and the other fin actually emerges from this roiling sea. So many animals are combined in that one. And I also love the red eye, the glistening eye that looks up in terror.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And do you think it's because Venice was obviously the heart of a sea-faring empire that perhaps Veronese was picking up on those tales of ‘here be monsters’?

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Definitely. You only have to go to Venice and look up at the churches and the palaces there to see all sorts of… they’re teeming with sea monsters actually. Half mermaids, mermen and more. Half elephants, half lions, all combined with fish. And then you cross the Rialto bridge and find the fish market. I think that’s exactly what Veronese himself has done, is walk round his own city imagining all the horrors that could come out of the deep and then he’s sort of put them all together in this wonderful concoction.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: There is something so wonderfully cinematic about the way which Veronese’s handled this: the lighting, the way Andromeda sort of turns into shadow and the way that Perseus seems to twist into the light. It’s absolutely brilliantly imagined.

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: It really is. It’s like a sort of tableau. Short of having cinema or theatre I think Veronese’s kind of come up with the next best thing and he’s thrown all his imagination at it.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Carol Plazzotta. 'Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice' is sponsored by Credit Suisse and due to close in a few weeks time on the 15th of June. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

If you're visiting, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays.

That’s it for this episode - until next time, goodbye!