Illusionistic Painting Technique, Trompe L'Oeil Ceiling Fresco Murals.

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The Apotheosis of St Ignatius
(1691-4) San Ignazio, Rome. One of
the great religious paintings of the
17th century and arguably the
greatest Quadratura mural ever,
by Andrea Pozzo.

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What is Quadratura?
History and Development
Famous Quadratura Paintings
Other Painting Techniques

What is Quadratura?

In fine art, the term quadratura describes a form of illusionistic mural painting in which images of architectural features are painted onto walls or ceilings so that they seem to extend the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space beyond the confines of the actual wall or ceiling. Although the term can apply to the illusionistic "opening up" of walls, it is mainly associated with Italian church fresco painting, notably that of the Baroque era. A particularly inspiring form of Christian art - and a key feature of the propaganda campaign of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (c.1560-1700) - this pure type of quadratura - unlike other less formal variants of trompe l'oeil architectural art, like di sotto in su ceiling decorations - relies heavily on 17th-century theories of linear perspective but produces a more complete form of Gesamtkunst (total art) uniting architecture, painting and sculpture.

Allegory of Divine Providence
and Barberini Power (1633-39)
Pietro da Cortona's amazing
fresco mural painting on the
ceiling of the Gran Salon
Palazzo Barberini, in Rome

The Assumption of the Virgin, ceiling
(1526-30) Cathedral of Parma, Italy.
By Correggio. A simply awesome
piece of Renaissance Biblical art.

History of Quadratura

Relatively common in ancient Rome, this type of trompe l'oeil painting was resurrected by the Early Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna during the latter half of the quattrocento (15th-century), and attained its apogee during the era of Baroque painting in 17th-century Rome. The technique of Quadratura requires exceptional visual-spatial skills, and a mastery of linear perspective. Furthermore, the full impact is generally only visible from one vantage point.

As a result many painters employed quadraturisti - specialist quadratura designers - to assist them in the decorations. The rather unsavoury Italian Agostino Tassi (1578-1644) - Artemesia Gentileschi's controversial assailant - was one of the top quadraturisti active in Rome during the early Baroque. He created the illusionistic architectural setting for the famous Aurora fresco (1621-3, Villa Ludovisi, Rome), which was painted by Guercino (1591-1666) for Pope Gregory XV's nephew Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Even the great Venetian fresco painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) collaborated occasionally with the outstanding quadraturista Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna (c.1688–1766).

Other illusionistic painting techniques associated with quadratura, include foreshortening and its extreme sub-type di sotto in su (Italian for "seen from below"), both which were developed during the Early Renaissance in Italy. The two leading pioneers of these trompe l'oeil techniques were Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) and the idiosyncratic Melozzo da Forli (1438-94). Influenced by their older contemporary Piero della Francesca (1420-92), both men were renowned for their skill in illusionism and perspective: Mantegna, for such works as the oculus in the Camera degli Sposi frescoes (c.1465-74, Ducal Palace, Mantua); Melozzo da Forli for works like his Ascension fresco (1478-80) for the dome of SS Apostoli in Rome.

Famous Quadratura Paintings

High Renaissance

High Renaissance quadratura decoration is exemplified by the Sala delle Prospettive fresco (1517) at the Villa Farnesina by the shy genius Baldessare Peruzzi (1481-1536); and the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1530), a daring fresco painted on the underside of the dome of the Cathedral by Correggio - a work which was studied closely by Italian Baroque artists. The extreme foreshortening of the figures and the clear deliberate lighting create a feeling of utter weightlessness. For more about Correggio's impact, see: Parma School of painting (c.1520-50).


Mannerist illusionist quadratura is illustrated by the Villa Barbaro frescoes (c.1561) at Treviso by the Venetian Mannerist painter Paolo Veronese (1528-88).

NOTE: See also the Farnese Gallery frescoes (1597-1608) completed in classical style by Annibale Carracci.


Masterpieces of Baroque architectural illusionist painting include: the Assumption of the Virgin (1625-7) on the underside of the duomo of the church of S. Andrea della Valle, by the High Baroque master Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647); the Palazzo Barberini frescoes (c.1633-9), including the fabulous Allegory of the Pontificate of Urban VIII - at the time, the largest fresco in Rome - by the versatile Pietro da Cortona.

Among the greatest paintings ever and certainly the finest example of Baroque quadratura decorative art, is The Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius of Loyola (1691-4, San Ignazio, Rome) by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). Painted on the 95-feet high ceiling of the Jesuit church in Rome, the massed figures soar into the heavens in a stunning glorification of the Jesuit Order.


Exemplary works of 18th century Rococo quadratura include: the Palazzo Labia frescoes (c.1745) in Venice, the Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1750-3) in Germany, and the Apotheosis of Spain fresco (1763-6) on the ceiling of the throne room at the Royal Palace of Madrid, all by the Rococo artist Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), aided by Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna (1688-1766).

Other Painting Techniques

For more illusionistic painting methods, see:

The application of light and shadow to suggest volume in figures.
The handling of light and shadow for dramatic purposes.
Monochrome underpainting or stand-alone grey monotone painting.
The use in oil painting of imperceptible variations in tone.
Using layers of paint to create a crusty texture on surface of a painting.
Not a technique, rather the Renaissance concept of overall design.
The painting equivalent of disegno.

• For architectural terms, see: Architecture Glossary.
• For more about painting techniques, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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