Look Again! Eye Trickery on the Italian Riviera

Beautifully painted facade on a house near Camogli known as ‘trompe l’oeil’ (trick of the eye)

The Italian Riviera is one of my favorite places on earth. Beginning from Genoa and running south along the coastline to Portovenere, small towns along the way are a delight to explore. Camogli, Nervi and Santa Margherita are a few of the exceptional little villages that delight and charm. But they have another unique attraction that is most outstanding. Many of their houses and villas are painted with gorgeous exterior decoration. Caught up in this fascination with illusion, I spent a good amount of time seeking them out.

Painted on window embellishments on a busy corner in Camogli

While walking through the maze of streets in these villages just this last September, several tall narrow houses caught my eye as being especially ornate. When I looked closer I was stunned to realize that some of the upper story windows were actually painted-on. Other houses had painted-on shutters, window frames, fancy stencil work around windows and even flowering window boxes. I had never seen anything like this before, and so I needed to investigate.

I researched further and found that corner stones were often painted-on where there weren’t any, washing lines full of clothes and even birds nests up high near the roof. Unbelievable, yet so detailed that it was difficult to tell what was real.


There are interesting historical ways of thinking in these communities that have made a tradition of decorative illusionism. Since the Renaissance, painted illusions creating optical tricks were popular especially in northern Italy. The Ligurians in particular used cosmetic exterior decoration on their facades to create an illusion of beauty.

Many of the houses in Liguria were built tall and narrow because of space restrictions. Several share exterior walls and remain attached in a continuous line. But the Ligurians have a reputation of being a pragmatic people, so by painting on windows, shutters and all kinds of adornments, they were able to dress up their homes without the added cost. They knew just how to dazzle the eye with charming appeal by elegant artistry.

Painted-on cornerstones and window decor
Painted-on cornerstones and window decor

This top row of windows could be painted-on. The use of shading created incredible 3-D effects that makes it difficult to know for sure.

Painted windows that delight the eye
embellished windows that delight the eye–are the top shutters real? I suspect not. Notice the painted balustrade below the windows.

It’s not unusual to see painted garlands gently hanging below a roofline, colorful ribbons over doorways, arches, porticoes, and curlicues. Like a blank canvas, the houses were bedecked and embroidered in the most attractive styles. I never saw two that looked just alike.

Camogli--what is real and what is not?
Camogli–windows with curtains and red flowers are all painted on. (This is not my photo credited to Creative Commons)

Evidently trompe l’oeil was first used by the ancient Greeks and then by Roman muralists. During the early Renaissance, false frames were painted depicting still life or portraits spilling out of them, and window-like images were painted on walls and ceilings that appear as actual openings.

Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874

These two paintings, for example, depict the same effect as the house facades do. By using innovative painting techniques, a flat surface comes to life by creating a sense of depth, and the eye is tricked. Notice the little cherubs standing on the rim and the faces gazing downward. The bucket balancing on the pole is very effective.

Even the frame is painted to complete this visual effect of the boy crawling out of the frame. By looking at these examples of trompe l’oeil, it begins to explain how these house facades particular to the Italian Riviera are achievable.

To this day, as I re-visit Camogli and the other surrounding villages on the Riviera, I gravitate to any charming house gaily decorated and take a closer look. And sure enough, those painted-on windows, cornerstones, curlicues and embellishments are truly exquisite.

Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows
Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows- This photo is NOT of a building in Camogli, but in Paris. However, it is a great example of embellishment that looks real.

Related Article:

*Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Baroque Rome

Eye Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Rome

Wandering the maze of streets in Rome is a favorite pastime of mine. I can’t seem to resist finding what lies around the next corner and I am often surprised by something unexpected or beautiful. On a recent late afternoon of meandering, I stepped through an archway and into the courtyard of the Palazzo Spada. I glanced through a window on the left and became suddenly transfixed. Through the office room and into the courtyard beyond I saw a long row of columns with a distinct statue at the end. I had seen this before, but where?

















Years ago, I had seen a photo on the back page of a magazine I had found in the lunchroom at work. It was Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery. I found it striking to look at, so I took it to my art history instructor. She was stunned to read about it and told me she had never known of it before. I left her with the magazine and next day it was discussed in class. I hadn’t seen or thought much about it since.

With growing excitement, I realized that I had stumbled upon Baroque architect Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery inside the Palazzo Spada. Encased in a little garden of Seville oranges, it appeared as a long white colonnade with a dazzling gold ceiling. At the end was the single statue of a Roman soldier. Overcome with excitement, I dashed around the corner, paid my admission, and entered the tiny courtyard.

What is so amazing about this colonnade and statue is that Borromini created it with trickery in mind! He used optical deceit to create an illusion of depth that doesn’t really exist. The illusory depth suggests somewhere around 114 feet, yet in actuality, it is only 29 feet deep. And the magnificent warrior at the end? He is only three feet tall! Diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create a visual illusion.

 * The full scale...the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the column grow shorter.
The full scale…the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the columns grow shorter.

A small group of us gathered around, simply amazed at the optical illusion set before us. I recalled the fact that curiosity dominated the art world during the early seventeenth century, and that artists and architects applied great effort to dazzle viewers and outshine the wonders of nature by ingenuity. Borromini’s forced perspective gallery is a brilliant example of such ability.

The Illusion is Shattered...by putting a normal size person next to the statue
The Illusion is Shattered…by putting a normal size person next to the statue































Cardinal Bernardino Spada bought the Renaissance palace in 1632 and hired Francesco Borromini to embellish it shortly afterward. Borromini, a rival of famed architect Bernini, created his perspective among other modifications in one year.

Facade of the Palazzo Spada
Facade of the Palazzo Spada and the archway that I walked through
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the Palazzo
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the palazzo, Borromini’s perspective can be seen through a window/room to the left. The entrance to the museum is straight ahead through the second archway and to the left.




























Arches in the Palazzo courtyard
Arches in the palazzo courtyard
Palazzo Courtyard
Niched statues on the upper portion of the palazzo Courtyard




















I left that evening with a new understanding of perspective and how easy the eye can be tricked by optical illusions. Francesco Borromini was known for using this style of architecture in his buildings, including St. Agnes in Agone on the Piazza Navona. Here he constructed the facade with a concave front so that when you stand directly in front of it and look up, you can see the dome which appears much closer than it really is.

Below, I have included a short video of the perspective gallery that I found on YouTube. It gives a clear overview of this clever form of architecture that is very fascinating.

Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion