Trompe-l’Oeil: Tricks and Treats

Indeed, “The Ligurians did not invent trompe-l’oeil, but they adopted it and made it their own.” (David Downie) One of my favorite forms of indoor-outdoor adornment, good trompe-l’oeil is truly a treat. The fanciful, fairy-tale-happy whimsy that this artful trickery affords Ligurian architecture — and in such an abundance of imaginative instances — is one of the region’s many unique charms that ensures my perpetual return.

Camogli Camogli

Pronounced trum ploy, trompe-l’oeil — the art of “tricking the eye” — has been around since antiquity. While earlier examples have been lost to the ravages of time, trompe-l’oeil murals dating to the first century A.D. from Pompeii and Ercolano (Herculaneum) do exist and are the oldest available works in this ancient art form. But for those seeking modern fun with faux, the best place to appreciate trompe-l’oeil in situ is undoubtedly Liguria, where it was perfected during the Renaissance.

Palazzo dei Rolli, Genova

Trompe-l’oeil remains popular throughout Liguria and over the border into the French Riviera for its imaginative use of color: cheerful colors in a kaleidoscope of rich reds, pinks, peaches, and greens that fade over time and exposure to the sun into more delicate, subdued, and muted tones. The effect is sublime but romantic as it may be, a pure love of beauty is not the primary reason that trompe-l’oeil continues to flourish in this picturesque corner of Northern Italy.

Lerici Camogli

Regional heritage laws dictate that buildings of historic significance be maintained and decorated in a particular way, and it is for this reason above all others that Liguria’s signature craft remains the art of trompe-l’oeil and fresco painting: “After a lifetime or two, just when they have reached their peak of weathered complexity, they are stripped of their mortar and re-frescoed, much to the chagrin of those who prefer a sun-washed patina.” (David Downie)

 Campo Ligure

So, on your next visit to Liguria and towns stretching down as far south as Sarzana or going the other direction into France and cities like Menton, Villefranche, or Nice, be sure to look up — a lot. Whether you’re touring one of the grand UNESCO-protected Palazzi dei Rolli in Genova or wandering the winding streets of Camogli, take stock of the painterly illusions that abound all around you. Trompe-l’oeil is a regional treasure — a skilled art that takes years to master and in Liguria is practiced by fine artists with classical academic training. Behold and enjoy this living, lovely decorative art.

Images courtesy Marisa Allegra Williams

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