The art of illusion, or trompe l’oeil, as it is more commonly known, presents a scene in order to fool the viewer into mistaking it for reality. The artists of illusion shared the concern of the mainstream of Renaissance artists in presenting scenes as realistically as possible. Both used the rules of perspective and direct observation of nature to render figures and objects on a flat surface as threedimensionally as they could. However, the use that realism was put to marks the major difference between the two types of artists.
The Renaissance artists were primarily interested in creating compositions that, with the use of perspective, would visually illustrate harmony, proportion, and unity; while the illusionists were intent on creating deliberately deceptive glimpses of reality. In so doing, the illusionists undermined the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance. The realization on the part of the viewer that he or she had been fooled, was a disruption and an intrusion of the sense of harmony that was valued in Renaissance art.
The earliest examples of the art of illusion occur in the paintings of architectural elements that surround the frescos in Medieval churches. It was not until Masacchio painted the Trinity, 142728, that architectural illusions appeared within paintings. In Masacchio’s work, the illusion of a barrel vault ceiling behind the figure of God complements the design of the interior of the space that houses the painting.
Illusions of columns and loggias and other architectural supports and details were painted on two-dimensional wall surfaces to enlarge existent interior space. Further, illusions of architectural structures served a practical purpose when lack of funds or expertise precluded placing an actual dome in the transcept of a Renaissance church or when plasterwork for a ceiling proved more expensive than a painted illusion of such decorative work. In one case, the architect Donato Bramante, 1444-1516, was faced with the impossibility of providing space behind the choir in the S. Maria presso S. Satiro, Milan, 148386. He had been commissioned to remodel the church along more modern Renaissance lines. He constructed an architectural illusion of space which appears to be three or four times deeper than it is in actuality, thus satisfying the demands of the style of the times by the use of illusion.
Along with having a practical function in the early Renaissance, illusions could also visually enhance the ideals of the humanists. In 1476, Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, commissioned Baccio Pontelli to create a vision of a humanist world in a small library in the ducal palace. The work, which covers all four walls, was done in decorative wood inlay or intarsia. The illusion of shelves and partly open cabinets filled with all the paraphernalia of the ideal man of the Renaissance; the mathematical and scientific instruments; the statues and armor of antiquity; and the references to art, music, and the drama all were considered to be a perfect vision of the humanist ideals. That the illusion was not entirely successful, as a trompe l’oeil work, was not overly important. The stagelike setting of the library, with its appearance of humanistic ideals, was of more importance than the illusionistic effects.
What is interesting about the intarsia work is its parallel to Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Castiglione was a member of the court from 150408 when Guidobaldi, the son of Federigo da Montefeltro, was Duke of Urbino. Castiglione was so inspired by the wit, intelligence and charm of the duke and duchess and the other members of the court that he wrote, in the form of a series of dialogues between those members, the Book of the Courtier. The book was finished in 1516. It was in part a handbook on how to create for one’s self a persona to fit the model of a perfect gentleman or lady, as well as a memoir of the ideal life at this court.
The courtier’s purpose in life was to be of service to his Prince in war, diplomacy, letters, art and music. His charm was revealed not in the struggle and mastery over difficulties, but in the apparent gracefulness and facility with which he accomplished the objectives of his prince. The expression ‘sprezzatura’ denotes this ability to male difficult things look easy. “That was the essence of the desired effect of sprezzatura, that double duplicity which transformed nature into art and art into the appearance of naturalness” (Partridge and Starn, p. 23).
Though forty years separate the intarsia work in the library at Urbino and the courtier’s public entrance into the world, they both share the idea that the appearance of naturalism is more important than reality. Both the library and the courtier are in some sense theatrical. They touch upon real life, but transform it into a creation that has the appearance of reality, yet which is lifted to a higher, more dramatic and exquisite plane. The courtier is a man of letters, well versed in the arts and sciences and in classical antiquity. If he were to stand in the library of the ducal palace at Urbino, he would add to the intarsia scene a sense of completeness. He would add the human element that would not destroy nor disrupt the illusion but would instead enhance it and make it more believable.
One of the first painted illusions in which a trend away from either practical or aesthetic considerations can be noted, and in which an attempt is made to replace those considerations with artificiality for its own sake, is the ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, painted in 1473 in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua by Andrea Mantegna. Here, because of the nature of the illusion, a comic scene of people staring down into the room from a window in the roof, the original purpose of trompe l’oeil effects to harmonize painting with architecture has begun to lose meaning.
Later in the seventeenth century, illusionistic art moved further from the ideals of humanism and became a vehicle in which to show off the perspective skills of the men who painted this type of art. Itinerant artists called quadraturists travelled through northern Italy and Austria, decorating the churches and palaces with spectacular trompe l'oeil visions of earthly and heavenly splendor.
It was not until the Counter Reformation that the Jesuit order in Rome was powerful and wealthy enough to commission and select the artists to decorate their churches. Previously they had to rely on the patronage of the wealthy, who commissioned and paid for work completed in the church. When the Jesuits had the opportunity to exercise their own choice in the selection of artists and art work, they chose a quadraturist artist, Andrea Pozzo and others like him, to decorate their churches. In doing so, they added a new twist to the use of trompe l'oeil.
“Go and set the world aflame.” Thus spoke S. Igantius the founder of the Jesuit order to his disciples. This pronouncement sounds a discordant note—for what has it to do with the Renaissance understanding of religion? “For the Christian mystic, Christ is the mediator, and only by feeding on Him can one taste of God. In these Renaissance writers the Christian note is muted, though never definitely denied, and the door is thereby opened to pass from Christianity, not to irreligion but rather to universal religion” (Bainton, p.87).
In choosing subjects for paintings in their churches, the Jesuits emphasized Christ’s suffering. They preferred scenes of the martyrdom of saints, scenes which focused on all the gory detail. The constant theme of Jesuit decoration was the impact on this world of the forces of the next world. This theme was in contrast to the Renaissance theme that man could make an impact on the world, turn it into a symphony of geometry as Piero della Francesca had, or turn himself into Castiglione’s perfect courtier.
Andrea Pozzo, a lay brother of the order, was commissioned to paint illusionistic scenes in the transept and on the vaulted ceiling of the S. Ignatius church in Rome in 1680. The most striking display of perspective skill and the oddest is the painted corridor that leads to the rooms that S. Ignatius occupied in his life time. Trompe l'oeil depends more than realistic art on the viewer’s being stationed in a specific spot to experience the illusion to its full effect. Other viewing stations create radical distortions. Yet this illusion in the corridor which Pozzo created for the Jesuits is located in a space that is meant to be walked through. The dizzying experience of negotiating such a corridor must in itself be spectacular. It is possible that the Jesuits found the trompe l'oeil art work an excellent illustration of the idea that the senses can’t be trusted to reveal true knowledge and thus added the new twist to the use that illusionistic art could be put.