Friday, January 15

Scratching the surface ...

This week's Theme Thursday is "Surface". See the link further below for more participants.

When is a surface not a surface? ... When Renaissance inspiration converts it into a spectral interface between painting and architecture, dissolves a ceiling into thin air, balloons a flat fresco into a celestial nave.

Bruce McAdam. For a very high resolution reproduction of the ceiling fresco click here.

I should explain ...

There is a church in Rome, the Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio (Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius), which tends to be overlooked by most visitors and sightseers. This is understandable enough, given the many marvels offered by the Eternal City. I happened to stroll into Sant'Ignazio late one afternoon, on my way from the Fontana di Trevi to the nearby Pantheon, both of which are certainly on everyone's must-see sites.

And there, quite unexpectedly, I beheld a wondrous illusion created by the painter Andrea Pozzo in the late 1600s applying the perspectival insights, techniques and discoveries pioneered years earlier by Brunelleschi and other Renaissance giants. Pozzo painted a huge fresco (diameter of 17 meters) on the nave ceiling depicting the apotheosis of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. As a painting it will not rival the Sistine Chapel as a masterwork, but the effect it creates is outstanding.

There is a red circle on the floor marking the ideal vantage point for experiencing the full illusion. When you first enter the church and see the enormous fresco, the images are flat and somewhat distorted, but as you approach the red disk everything rises and rounds into place, the columns stand up, the angels and other figures float upward and the sky seems to soar endlessly away, the surface magically dissolved.

The embedded video below explains and captures some of the illusion, better than the photos do:

Along with everyone else in the church at that time, I spent a good while shuffling back and forth, trying not to bump into the others as we gazed upward, converging on and then stepping back from the spot from where the last vanishing point of all vanishing points vanished, spellbound by the eerie rise and fall of the columns, the angels alternately ballooning and deflating and the sky opening and closing to the heavens. Another even more curious video might well have been a view from the ceiling of the gawking tourist, all eyes fixed upwards, as we moved to and fro in fascinated rings around the visual magnet on the floor.

So if you have never been there, I recommend a visit to Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio next time you are in Rome. It won't take long and it is easy to sandwich in between the weightier wonders of that magnificent city. And no matter how compelling the illusion may seem, remember ... you'll only be scratching the surface.

Click here to see what other assuredly more inspired TT participants have had to say on this week's theme.


  1. yes this is so amazing, isn't it? I've read about this before and would so love to see it. Thanks for the video link too.

  2. Glad you liked it, Mmm. By the way, the video is the 4th of 7 videos titled "Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion". They are all well worth a look. If I didn't refer to them in the post it probably is because I want to use them in future posts as well. I personally enjoy reading about Brunelleschi and his work on perspective. That is basically what the videos are about.

  3. Sweet. I love cathedrals. Worked one into my "Exodus Lost" fiction...

    I wish I'd have known about this one before I wrote that... I totally would have used the vanishing points as some sort of plot device.

  4. This was a sublime space. My own photos are disastrous. Thank you for taking me back there.

  5. That's pretty cool - so James Cameron wasn't the first to think of 3D!

  6. It's bigger on the inside, fabulous! I want to see it in person.

  7. Wow, I love this TT post and I am simply taken in with your blog. The header is perfection and the 'kept near the pillow' books contain favorites by Joseph Campbell and Homer. I must know more about you and will be visiting often.

    I was in Italy this summer and had no idea about this church existed. I hate to think that I probably walked right past it as I did visit those other more famous sights you mentioned.

    Fantastic post and grand blog you have here.

  8. I've seen that ceiling. It really is amazing how our eyes fool us, isn't it! And how artists learn to create those illusions.

  9. Thanks, Gary for you kind words, and hello to all of you who have commented. I am away from home for a few days and can't write much for now ...

  10. Thank you for sharing this with us!
    I have been in Venice, but not in Rome (yet). What an amazing ceiling! Since I am a painter, my wondering s if the painters who painted these ceilings in a style with so much detail, developed neck or back problems. Have you heard anything about that?

  11. What an extraordinary feat. The video is very helpful. It does seem quite a shame that this is missed by so many who visit Rome.

    As for me, it's not a wonder at all that I missed it, given that I spent exactly one afternoon sightseeing in Rome at age 19 before catching an over-crowded plane to Tel Aviv. Let me tell you running through St. Peter's in 30 minutes, with a cursory glance at the Sistine Chapel is not my idea of taking it all in. Must go to Rome again.

    I love these moments spent here at the pillow learning new things from you.


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