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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.