All is Not as it Seems

by Danilo Brunetti

Rome is a sorceress, who tricks the eye of the observer with deceiving visual effects and surprising optical illusions. It’s enough to sharpen one’s sight (and imagination) to realize that the city possesses an innate baroque desire to amaze, a fancy that often translates into authentic optical jokes able to impose a virtual reality on the tangible one, which only seems easy to comprehend.

Take the famous gallery of Palazzo Spada, attributed to that magician of architecture, Francesco Borromini: it consists of a colonnade just eight meters long, but due to an extravagant and very well studied forced perspective, it seems significantly longer than it is while the tiny statue at the end of the gallery seems larger than life.

Another optical wonder, located in the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, is the fake dome painted onto a circular canvas by Andrea Pozzo  in 1685. To fully appreciate the incredible illusion, visitors must stand on the yellow marble disc near the end of the nave. The vault fresco (all 750 square meters of it) is also the work of Pozzo, a genius at optical illusion. The work is dedicated to the mission of the Jesuits throughout the world and deceives the eye with the foreshortening technique, a trick that expands the depth of the painted sky and appears to double the height of the ceiling. 

One of the most striking aspects of Roman baroque decoration are the illusionistic frescoes, often true masterpieces of imagination and virtuosity. The vault of Palazzo Farnese offers a spectacular example: the various mythological scenes—like in a conjuring trick—are presented as fake paintings (they’re even framed) applied to the ceiling and so well simulated that they are easily confused with the real architectural elements. Similarly, the vault decoration of the central hall of Palazzo Barberini—the work of Pietro da Cortona—hypnotizes the gaze with perspective foreshortening and grandiose dynamism to the extent that the sense of space and gravity is distorted. Everything seems to be pulled upwards, from the rotation of the figures to the visual snares of vaults that seem to break through the ceiling. No less impressive is the vault of the Church of the Gesù, painted by Baciccia. The whirling of angels’ wings and floating clouds attract the gaze upwards, and the vault collapses in a blaze of scientifically studied light and bright colors.

Through the famous Keyhole of the Priory of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine Hill, people line up for hours to admire a view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, which seems closer than it actually is, thanks to the landscaped garden on the other side of the door. And across town, if you drive down Via Piccolomini in the direction of St. Peter’s Dome, you’ll encounter a strange optical phenomenon: due to a slight inclination of the ground and a frame of trees, the dome appears to shrink on the horizon as you approach it. 

The colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, conceived by Gianlorenzp Bernini to represent an embrace for all humanity, is made up of two colonnades on either side, both with a quadruple row of columns. Stand on one of the two marble discs placed in the pavement of the piazza (about midway between the obelisk and each of the fountains), and the columns of the three external rows disappear behind those of the internal curve. As if by magic, only one row of columns remains visible. In reality, a simple mathematical equation makes it possible: an increase the diameter of the columns from the internal row to the external one.

The so-called win churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo, finished by Bernini and Carlo Fontana, seem identical at first glance: in truth, it is an optical effect, because the first has a circular plan while the other an elliptical one. And last but not least, the superb staircase of Palazzo Barberini is another masterpiece of Borromini, who reveals his passion for theatricality with a daring helicoidal design that gives the spectator a disturbing sense of vertigo.