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  • Writer's pictureRadomir Kobryn-Coletti

How the Trompe L'oeil can Save Architecture

The phrase Trompe L'oeil derives from French, literally meaning "trick of the eye" and is used in architecture as an optical illusion to create the sense of three dimensionality on a surface. It can be a powerful tool to create the feeling of space inside rooms, especially helpful in tight and cramped settings but also as an exterior motif for a building's façade.

Above we see an elegant use of the technique from the Italian artist Carlo Marchiori inside his home. There is the illusion of a doorframe leading to another room, various views, stonework and even a spider's web.

Trompe l'oeil greenhouse pottery room orangery at Cape Cod home of Rachel 'Bunny' Mellon

At the historic Cape Cod home of Rachel 'Bunny' Mellon, heiress and horticulturalist (also landscape designer at the White House under the direction of Jackie Kennedy) we see a fantastic trompe l'oeil in the illusionary painted decoration of gardening equipment and the gilt iron framing towards the ceiling, alluding to the idea of a historic glasshouse/orangerie/conservatory.

Lyon France trompe l'oeil building streets art mural

The technique can also used with much amusement on the exteriors of buildings, not unlike what we might define today as 'street art' or a 'mural'. These façades in Lyon, France stay certainly true to the French definition of Trompe l'oeil, "to deceive the eye". Even the roof tiles here are fake.

The First Trompe L'oeil

The specific term Trompe L'oeil originates with the artist Louis-Léopold Boilly, who used it as the title of a painting he exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1800. However, the origin of the trompe l'oeil technique itself dates back thousands of years ago to Ancient Greece.

In the ancient story, two of the greatest painters of the day, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, were competing against each other to determine who was the more skilled artist. Zeuxis painted a picture of grapes so realistically that birds flew down to try to eat them. Amazed, Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to pull aside the curtain of his painting so that he could judge his work. Zeuxis then realized that the curtain was actually a painted illusion (trompe l'oeil) and thus through this very deception, that Parrhasius had won the contest. The story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius has been used throughout history to illustrate the power of art but it also serves to remind us that although we may think we know something, there is often more to it than meets the eye. It is in essence, the first known example of the trompe l'oeil.


The Romans also used the trompe l'oeil as a way to decorate walls, particularly in the form of murals that depicted scenes from mythology. A typical trompe-l'œil mural might depict a window, door, or hallway, intended to suggest a larger room. In the town of Boscoreale, a set of ancient archealogical discovery sites near Pompeii, (also preserved from the eruption in 79 A.D.) we see an excellent use of the trompe l'oeil in a Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor.


The middle ages/dark ages of Europe saw little use of the trompe l'oeil because the art and skills of perspective drawing were almost completely lost.

It was almost a thousand years later after the fall of the Roman Empire into the early Renaissance that we see a re-emergence of perspective in the painted arts, and following this, the use of trompe l'oeil remerging.

It has been said that the Italian Renaissance began when the artist Cimabue attempted to brush away a fly from a painting, only to discover that the fly had been painted by his apprentice, Giotto di Bondone, who had surpassed him. According to Giorgio Vasari in his book Lives (1550), the lifelike insect stood in stark contrast to Cimabue’s idealized figures, which were in the popular Byzantine style. To Vasari, this fly symbolized more than just Giotto’s skill and artistry; it was the moment that marked the start of the Italian Renaissance, and the move towards realism and the development of illusionistic techniques. A use of the trompe l'oeil not seen since Ancient Roman times. This story of Cimabue and Giotto is also very similar to a that of Zeuxis and Parrhasius as previously mentioned. It could be suggested that through the continuation of this mythology Vasari was showing the revival and rediscovery of the achievements in classical antiquity. Thus, Giotto's fly stands as a metaphor for an important principle of the Renaissance, the renewal of perspective and illusionistic techniques in art.

Following the Renaissance period, trompe l'oeil became popular among the upper classes, who used it to ornament their palaces and villas. During this period, trompe l'oeil was used to create realistic illusions of landscapes, sculptures, and other works of art. In the 17th and 18th centuries, trompe l'oeil was used in a variety of settings, including churches, theatres, and public spaces. In the 19th century, trompe l'oeil reached its peak in popularity. During this period, trompe l'oeil was used extensively in interior design, and even in architecture, to create realistic illusions of grandeur.

In the Villa Maser designed by Andrea Palladio, we see another trompe l'oeil in the Sala dell'Olimpia, painted statues, a cartouche, columns and vistas. The owner of the villa Daniele Barbaro commissioned artist Paolo Veronese in 1560 to provide these interior frescoes.

A very common version of the trompe l'oeil is found in the domes and ceilings of churches. Famous examples include Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel and the masterpiece ceiling of the Sant'Ignazio Church in Rome, by Andrea Pozzo, (seen below) completed in 1694. Also known by the Italian term di sotto in sù, meaning from below, upwards,

The use of illusionary perspective painting in ceilings and walls was a common artistic device employed all across Europe from Villas and Palaces such as Versailles, the Hermitage and in the Schönbrunn Palace as seen from Prince Rudolf's apartments, with murals painted by Johann Wenzel Bergl.

So how can the Trompe l'oeil help us today?

Having fallen out of fashion in the 20th century, we seldom see the use of illusionistic decorative art, and yet there is more reason now than ever before to use the trompe l'oeil to transform our city streets and interiors.

1. Beautify ugly street façades.

Across the world, urban cores have dead spaces and ugly walls. This makes for an eyesore and stoppage to an otherwise continues theme. Often these vast and ugly spaces are the result of buildings tore down next door, or they were simply never built properly to begin with. The French artist Patrick Commecy has spent a lifetime doing a wonderful job of restoring and beautifying public spaces through the trompe l'oeil.

2. Create 'space' in tight interiors.

For many in the world who live in apartments, the use of the trompe l'oeil can be perfect to create a sense of depth and space. Where it may seem unaffordable to commission an artist to paint murals, it is relatively easy to buy and install wallpaper art or hang a large print.

3. Decorate and create ornamentation on a tight budget.

In a ceiling, whether it be arched or flat, there is a decorative technique known as a 'coffer' or 'coffered ceiling'. Below is an example of one. You'll see the intricate carpentry, mouldings and painting required to complete one.

The above example of a coffered ceiling would be an enormous cost for the average person. However, below we can see through the use of the trompe l'oeil, by simply painting or wallpapering the pattern to the ceiling, the resemblance of a coffered ornament still remains for a fraction of the cost.

4. Trompe l'oeil as street art entertainment .

Either as a mural or on the footpath, the use of optical illusions in street art is a sure way to guarantee amusement and entertainment. In many suburban areas it could certainly be used to brighten up an otherwise banal and monotonous place.

In summary, the trompe l'oeil is a forgotten but incredibly useful tool of art, architecture and design, improving interiors with the sense of extra space, beautifying the façades of buildings, adding incredible ornament on a very economical budget and creating points of interest for communities in the form of street art. In the spirit of the Renaissance, through rediscovery of this time tested technique we can save architecture and design, bringing back delight and attraction to exterior and interior spaces.

Written by Radomir Kobryn-Coletti

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