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Architectonic Capriccio


Hans Memling (1430ca-1494) Scenes from the Passion of Christ


In his essay on Hans Memling’s The Passion of Christ, a panel dating from the 15th century analyzed in the attempt to illustrate the work’s narrative qualities, Van den Berg (1999:32) distinguished several different “urban scene picture types”, such as: typography, vedute, panorama, window, urban pattern, urban landscape, urban fragment, architectural capriccio, rebus, imaginary cities and urban narrative. This essay will explore three images from the style of architectonic capriccio, with the aim of tracing its use throughout art history, commenting on the imaginary spectator roles the images invoke as well as the aspects of the city that are ‘thematised, affirmed or critiqued’ by the images (Van den Berg, 2013:3).

According to Van den Berg (1999:32) the images from the type he describes as ‘Architectural Capriccio’ usually employ “fantasy combinations of historical buildings”. Art works however usually poses a number of motifs from the different scenic types within them; Van den Berg (1999:37) explains that image types’ “evolution as distinct picture types did not begin with Memling, though the Renaissance evidently saw the burgeoning of several special genres of painting”.

The images that will be explored in this essay with reference to the image type described as architectonic capriccio are: Hans Vredeman de Vries’s (1526-ca 1606), Arme Lasarus en die ryk man / Poor Lazarus and the wealthy man (1590s), Paul Bril’s (1554-1626), The Campo Vaccino with a Gypsy Woman Reading a Palm (1603) and Carel Willink’s (1900-83), Landschap met omgevallen beeld (1942).

Visual Representations of the scenic image type: Architectonic Capriccio


Figure 1: Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526-ca 1606), Arme Lasarus en die ryk man / Poor Lazarus and the wealthy man (1590s)

The first image under scrutiny, a 16th century painting by Hans Vredeman de Vries, concerns the biblical tale of Lazarus and the rich man, found in Luke 16:19-30. The story told in the religious book is one of earthly wealth and poverty leading to heavenly riches and hell respectively. The rich man, who has had a good life, goes to hell after death for not helping the poor. The poor Lazarus, who was tormented with illness in life and begged outside the rich man’s door, died and found himself in heaven, by Abraham’s side. The moral lesson that is taught by this parable is that one should help one’s neighbors and not trust in riches to secure one’s place in heaven.

According to Heuer, (2009:1-2) “The writer, artist and architect recorded in the Leiden archives as one “Hans Vredeman de Vriese”  is (was)…arguably the most prolific Netherlandish print designer of the sixteenth century”. The artist, who had been active in Amsterdan, Antwerp and Prague, Peru, is said to have shipped his publications on architecture and vision to England, Spain as well as Mexico by 1600. He devoted his career to the production of imaginary architecture and was also a “painter, architect, rhetorician, perspective theorist, festival dancer and draftsman” (2009:back-cover blurd).

What is so captivating about this work, other than its sheer mastery of perspective, which reveals an entire city and surrounding landscape’s character in one scene, is the narrative value of every aspect of the image. The rich man, portrayed on the top flight of stairs, outside his house, stands amidst the rich pillars of his double-story abode with a full view of the city around him and the bordering mountains. The poor Lazarus lies at the bottom of the flight of stairs, surrounded by dogs, his view barred by the rails and walls of walkways and buildings. The social status of these two characters is revealed by their physical placement within the image.

The city de Vries has created is fantastic, with large-scale structures of gothic and oriental design interspersed with classical style architecture. The view of mountains and labyrinthine courtyards makes it even more idyllic. An imaginary city has been sketched in which life’s starkly contrasting individuals live out their lives as though caught in a perpetual biblical story. The reason this scene might be categorized under ‘architectonic capriccio’ is because of its use of a combination of architectural styles and natural scenery and the consequential creation of a fantastic world.


Figure 2: Paul Bril (1554-1626), The Campo Vaccino with a Gypsy Woman Reading a Palm (1603)

According to Krén and Marx (2013:1) Paul Bril was a Flemish landscape painter whose works “bridge(d) the gap between the fantastic 16th century Flemish Mannerist style and the more plausible, idealized Italian landscapes of the 17th century”. Born in 1554 the artists settled in Rome around 1575 where he painted frescos and views of Rome for the tourist trade. He also painted marine scenes and became famous for his small easel paintings (ibid.). Krén and Marx also state that the painter assimilated characteristics of both Elsheimer’s and Annibale Carracci’s landscape paintings.

Bril’s use of ancient roman ruins in landscape scenes makes his images fantastic. He paints not only modern (for the 16th century) buildings among these ruins, but also fills the landscape with people from different walks of life and different eras. These people, reminiscent of the crowds of a small town, are going about their daily tasks, interacting and doing business with one another. Animals also roam free amidst the crowds, with rolling hills and forestry stretching away into the distance. The juxtaposition of ruins and landscape, people and animals make this scene a maze of life, a capriccio or prison of movement interspersed with fantastic and ancient, mythic architecture.


Figure 3: Carel Willink (1900-83), Landschap met omgevallen beeld (1942)

The last image under scrutiny in this essay is Carl Willink’s Landschap met omgevallen beeld (fig.3). According to Wikipedia (2013:1) Albert Carel Willink was a Dutch painted who referred to his style of painting as ‘imaginary realism’. He was encouraged by his father to paint and studied medicine and architecture, which led him to the Staatliche Hochschule in Berlin. His earliest painting style was expressionistic, after which he adopted the more figurative style of Picasso and Léger (early 1920). Later in the 1920’s he developed a style of magical realism close to the metaphysical painting style of Giorgio de Chirico.

This Willink painting (fig.3) shows a scenic landscape devoid of human beings but left with the remnants of the artistic sculpture tradition of an ancient civilization. A paved road leads away from the centre of the work across the hill and out towards a mountainous realm peaked with snow and shouldering heavy clouds. The statues of Greco Roman style look out toward the mountains on the left, with those on the opposite side of the road fallen or removed, as if the encroaching weather has destroyed them. A scene of lost civilizations, fragmented ruin and a steady process of the dematerialization of solid structures is provided. The human-less void of the scene makes it seem unreal and dream-like, as if the ancient path leading on into the image, is really a mirage or a symbolic road into the wilderness. There is no hint of a settlement or human presence in the distance, only the degrading remains of a far distance civilization, leading away into nothing.

Imaginary Spectator Roles

According to Van den Berg (1997:87-88) recurrent features of the typiconic image format “stem from a cluster of image powers commonly associated with certain cognates of perspecting and surveillance”. Viewers who truly engage with images take on these roles in order to imagine themselves a part of the created imaginary world of the scene. He then continues to state (1997:88) that images of the ‘scenic’ tradition presumably project onto viewers the roles of ‘sightseer’ and ‘prospector’, allowing viewers to adopt these personae whilst engaging with the images. Other examples of viewer roles he mentions are: initiate, admirer, accomplice, beholder, amateur, voyeur and caretaker roles. These can all be categorized according to the artistic worldviews that existed within the historical circumstances of the kinds of images produces (1997:87). The sightseer and prospector roles were spectator roles prevalent in the ‘scenic’ worldview, which is the typiconic tradition under scrutiny here.

The spectator role that is inspired by Hans Vredeman de Vries’ painting (fig.1), is that of the sightseer. A fantastic view of the imaginary city of Lazarus and the rich man is provided, with an outlook not only of a corner of the outskirts of the city, but also the natural landscape around it that stretches away into the far reaches of the image to conjure up a truly evocative combination of elements. The inhabitants of the city are shown walking about, with the rich man and Lazarus posing in their biblical roles and others going about their duties, rushing one way or another. The viewer’s vantage point in this image is situated at a height more or less parallel to that of the rich man and he/she consequently seems to be afforded a holistic view of not only the city but also the story of its inhabitants, as provided by in the biblical tale on which the painting is based.

The imaginary spectator roles conjured by Bril’s fantastic landscape (fig.2) are both the sightseer and prospector. Though it is known that Bril made paintings for the tourist trade in Rome, inviting sightseers and tourists to the city with his works, his images are also interspersed with livestock, ruins and fantastic views that make a viewer draw near to investigate it. Images and nostalgia conjured by the ruins put the viewer in a mythic realm of imagination and exploration, whereas the mundane routines of the different inhabitants of his landscapes make the viewer participate in a kind of daily routine and trade, becoming one of the crowd.

The spectator role implied in the Willink painting (fig.3) Landschap met omgevallen beeld is one of a sightseer, which might even be extended to that of a dreamer or visionary. The mythic road in the image is empty of pedestrians; if indeed it was used that would have been ages ago or else the fallen statue would have been removed. Nature seems to be reclaiming the hill on which the mythic ‘monument’ is laid. Two statues remain of a hinted number of four or more, and these statues are themselves being eroded. The ominous clouds and snow-capped mountain peaks hint at stormy weather ahead, which might further damage the human structures. The scene is one of solitude, even the end of all civilization, with only the most enduring of its structures remaining, made of hard materials, which will also decay in time.

The spectator of the scene (fig.3) feels like the lone survivor on earth, the privileged and yet isolated individual who is left to walk the path of history and recollection alone. The sights that are left to see are devoid of human life; only nature remains, with her beauty laid bare from the vantage point of the high road. The eroding statues seem lacking against the majestic natural landscape, however their grandeur, supported by the legendary quality of the ethos which hailed them, makes them the only worthy human remnants for such a grandeous natural home.

Aspects of the City

Aspects of the city that are explored in de Vries’ painting (fig.1) include: the outreaches, the labyrinthine courtyards, the bordering natural landscape as well as the inhabitants’ continuous movements. Everyday individuals are portrayed, from not only rich but also middle class and poor backgrounds, living out their lives oblivious of the moralistic challenge before them. The biblical theme of the setting, as well as the fantastic quality of de Vries’ city put the spectator in the privileged position of knowing that all the subjects’ actions are being scrutinized by a spiritual authority. Perhaps this is a critique of city life in general, especially seeing as the city, due to its teeming with people of different walks of life, affords many opportunities for moral tests. De Vries might be pointing this out to spectators, especially those who might relate to the rich man, or even the passers-by (witnesses of the suffering of the poor beggar, Lazarus).

Another point that de Vries might have intended to make with his work might be that all life on earth, in real cities, is paralleled by a kind of spiritual existence in which actions have moralistic undertones and we are all measured-up and tested for salvation. The themes of poverty, wealth and morality are used to sketch an event that might take place every day, in a spectator’s own life, but that has spiritual consequences for all involved. The aloofness of certain classes of people is critiqued and is warned against in both the parable and the painting of the rich man and Lazarus. The city merely forms the backdrop against which their lives are lived and their actions tested for the next life.

Aspects of city life that Bril comments on with his painting of The Campo Vaccino with a Gypsy Woman Reading a Palm (fig.2) are the crowd itself and its daily routines. Bril puts his crowd in a fantastic landscape, making them mythical inhabitants and symbolic representatives of their specific trades, actions or depictions, just as the ruins become symbolic representations of the civilizations that have passed through the fantastic landscape. Perhaps Bril uses this created mythic space to critique the everyman’s process of passing through cities, telling city-dwellers to adopt a new perspective on life, seeing as cities are fated to become reduced to remnants, only to be inhabited by new generations. The ruins themselves become reminders of the swiftness of life’s passing. The mythic inhabitants of his landscape are like transients, moving through, inviting the viewer to do so too.

Themes explored by Bril (fig.2) include time, vagrant lifestyles, pastoral existence, trade and commerce and mythic history. The most prominent of these is the passage of time and the movement of human life through that impalpable element. City life is reduced to life in a quasi-town made up of memories of previous cities. The crowd knows that life is fleeting and that it is fickle to erect other monolithic structures, which will eventually decay.

The aspects of the city that enjoy attention in Willink’s painting (fig.3) are indeed the very aspects that define the city and its inhabitants by embodying what it they are not. The image is of a lone road leading away into the wilderness, decorated by stone guardian statues that have been, are and will for a long time be eroding. Nature seems to be reclaiming the ruins of human habitation. The only hint of human presence in the scene is the stone structures, once erected by human hands what could have been ages before.

A possible critique Willink might be posing with his painting is not so sore aimed at aspects of the city, but on the process of a city’s creation and destruction, which is after all natural and inevitable. Willink seems to hint that nature alone will remain when human life has ended and that even its ruins will be broken down eventually – nature will reclaim those areas that were once the sights of human life. The themes of desolation and solitude are prevalent in the painting, just as are the themes of natural or idyllic beauty and grandeur. Ruins, symbolizing history’s past civilizations, are used as a metaphor for all human architecture and life; they are in fact all that remains of the city – what once was the lifeblood of interaction within the population past is now a single vein leading into wilderness. The themes of time’s inevitable passing and the eerie disquiet of a desolate dream reign, reminding the viewer, just as Bril had also done in the opposite way (fig.2) of the swiftness of human existence.

In Conclusion

The three images in the architectonic capriccio style contain similar combinations of human structures with natural majestic landscapes. Older building styles are infused with new in the first two paintings (fig.1&2) whereas the last painting (fig.3) juxtaposes man-made structures with a complete void. All of these images therefore tell of the passage of time and the coming of a new life, new generations of people or the end of all civilization. Nature encroaches to reclaim her habitations and time seems to be the sure master of all construction and destruction.

The city in itself is not so much emphasized as is the life in the city, the kind of lifestyle of city inhabitants or the long-lost memory of them. Morality, spirituality and myth intermingle to create a sense of transience, myth and dreaming. The viewer experiences a journey into the imagination, into a mythic city or the memory of cities that forces him/her to rethink life and its meaning. The city becomes the tool for reminiscence, the vehicle for memory. The state of the city, for example ruin and decay or infusion of historic styles, tells the viewer about the state of civilization or of the mythic and real realms related thereto.

The style of scenic portrayal here discussed is undoubtedly my favorite because it draws on imagery that surpasses reality and subverts that reality to an overwhelming sense of time. Time indeed becomes the conquering element of all the process of life. Fate and myth, which have become meaningless in our day and age, are reinstalled to their proper place in society. De Vries, Bril and Willink have evolved, in my opinion, into philosophers and prophets, whose critique about society is more crucial to the understanding of life than any other science. Only a unified style, comprised of the art and architecture of innumerable ages, can achieve such a critique, with so enthralling an effect.



  • Anon. 2013. Wikipedia: Carl Willink. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carel_Willink [accessed: 10 October 2013]
    • Heuer, Christopher, P. 2009. The City Rehearsed: Object, Architecture and Print in the worlds of Hans Vredeman de Vries. Routledge: London & New York.
    • Krén, E. & Marx, D. 2013. Web Gallery of Art: Bril, Paul (b. 1554, Antwerpen, d. 1626, Roma). http://www.wga.hu/bio_m/b/bril/biograph.html [accessed: 10 October 2013]
    • Van den Berg, D. 1997. Picturing Urban Scenes (p115-119). Department of Art History: Bloemfontein.
    • Van den Berg, D. 1997. Acta Academica 29(3): 86-128: Picturing urban environments in the scenic tradition. Deparment of Art History: Bloemfontein.
    • Van dan Berg, D. 2013. KGK 324 Architectonic Capriccio Power point. University of the Free State: Bloemfontein.
    • Van den Berg, D.J. 2001. Image [&] Narrative: Spectators in Jerusalem: urban narrative in the scenic tradition. http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/illustrations/dirkvandenberg.htm [accessed: 19 September 2013]



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