A holiday is always an opportunity to step back, see things from a new angle and get some perspective; but not often in so literal a sense as on a recent trip to Rome.
A few steps through a church door (one of the many, many such doors you pass in the endlessly rewarding streets of Rome’s historic centre), on a whim of exploratory curiosity, afforded one of the most inspiring and surprising moments of a trip already packed with highlights.
The Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola may be moderately well known, but it was new to me and certainly not up there with Rome’s more famous attractions – nor even its more famous frescoed ceilings (we couldn’t ‘stand’ the Sistine Chapel queues…). It is, however, a lesser-known gem which should not be missed and is pleasingly free and without queues.
The moment you cross the threshold the sense of space is exhilarating and your eye is immediately drawn upwards (do not attempt this church if you have a bad neck). Andrea Pozzo’s frescoed ceiling is breath-taking from the first glance thanks to its sheer scale and vibrancy of colour. However, the full impact reveals itself on more prolonged inspection once the deception is fully understood. What Pozzo has achieved here is an incredible feat of perspective.
What appears to be an impressively lofty vaulted ceiling, opening up into celestial skies, is in fact a trompe-l’oeil, painted onto a modest curved ceiling. The architectural elements Pozzo portrays are stunningly convincing, as is the sense of height, and it takes some time for the skill of what has been achieved to sink in.
A few steps further into the church and Pozzo has another ace up his sleeve… the soaring dome and cupola that you notice upon entering are gradually revealed to be another ingenious deception. This is in fact a fictive architectural space, ‘constructed’ by Pozzo on a 17m wide flat canvas. Even once you get your head around the fact that the dome is merely a trompe-l’oeil painting, it is still almost impossible to grasp that the surface is entirely flat.
Construction of a dome and cupola was originally proposed for this space; however, funds ran out meaning that they were never built, and this was Pozzo’s solution. Both the nave and ‘dome’ frescoes were painted in 1685 in the illusionist style popular in the Baroque period, using the techniques of perspective: di sotto in sù and quadratura.
Two marble discs in the church floor indicate the best places to stand to view the nave ceiling and the dome to appreciate the full effect of the trompe-l’oeil. Perversely though, one of the greatest pleasures is to walk away from these points and find an angle where the effect does not work, as this allows you to appreciate the mathematical precision with which it is created and see the slanted angles of the painted lines across the ceiling.
What Andrea Pozzo demonstrates here is that physical spacial limitations (and in some cases financial limitations!) do not have to limit the space that is perceived, and that a great artist or designer can think beyond the physical to create space in the eyes of the viewer. Where architectural space falls short, the mind can fill in the gaps; and all it takes is a little perspective.
By Connie Jackson Brown