In Venetian art

Virtual reality is not illusory

When it comes to three-dimensional effects in art we talk about space that exists just as “real” space does. As there are different spatial dimensions and space is a mental concept, virtual space just appeals to another dimension. If we cannot enter some space with our body, we can enter it with our mind, or soul. 

In other words, it is real. Emotionally and intellectually, very real.

I have always been fascinated by artists creating a third dimension starting from a simple piece of white canvas, or a brick wall, a wooden ceiling or a floor. Simply void, that space lies longing to welcome the third dimension which gives a sense of reality. 

You may end up holding a blade and cut through that challenging two-dimensional canvas, just like Lucio Fontana. His gestures created a dark wound in the plain space inviting you to think of a different space. Or is it only a cut?

Lucio Fontana. Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1965. Idropittura su tela. Venezia, Fondazione Solomon R. Guggenheim, Donazione, © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano by SIAE 2016 / Ph. David Heald

It’s just a matter of perspective!

Venice is a city where the concept of perspective was known soon after it got theorised in Florence in the early 1400s by Filippo Brunelleschi. But it took many years till it was appreciated. In 1488, when the Pesaro family hired Giovanni Bellini for a triptych in the Frari church, they made what at that time was considered a very innovative choice.

Giovanni Bellini, The Pesaro Altarpiece, 1488, Frari church, Venice

In the same years, the façade of the Scuola Grande San Marco in campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo was remade using marble slabs in a very clever way to create the effect of a columned arcade. All 3D, in 1495. It had to be impressive then.

Marble façade of the Scuola Grande San Marco in campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1495

The entrance of the Scuola Grande San Marco in campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, marble façade.

The fun part is that both works leave us breathless even today.

A mathematical concept for virtual space

Perspective however is first of all a mathematical or geometrical concept. 

If you reproduce an object along a line of sight keeping in mind that the smaller its dimensions, the further that object will look, then the object acquires a third dimension and the effect of space deepening increases. 

Apparently, it is not just a matter of how the object is represented. The point of view of the observer who remains outside the art work matters, too. Actually, the painted scene is scaled according to the viewer’s eye that remains outside the art work. 

Virtual as creative

And you can play with it. Oh yes. Who said proportions must be “exact”? You can foreshorten, turn something tiny into gigantic. Be creative. As space is also the realm of imagination.

Virtual architecture or painted architecture

A lot of the painters that excelled in this art especially when applied to architecture, were architects themselves or worked at close contact with them. Sebastiano Serlio, Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi, just to mention a few.

Paolo Veronese and painted architecture

Paolo Veronese collaborated with Andrea Palladio at Villa Barbaro in Maser, near Asolo. He left us some of the most amazing art in this sense there.

The Olympus Hall in Villa Barbaro in Maser near Asolo, Fresco by Paolo Veronese – Wiki Commons

The dog in Villa Barbaro in Maser near Asolo, Fresco by Paolo Veronese – Wiki Commons

But not just. Anything painted by Paolo Veronese is strictly related to the space around in a constant dialogue between painted art and architecture. If you visit San Sebastian church in Venice and you are lucky enough to climb up to the choir area, then you will see the martyrdom of this saint. Split in two separate scenes: the archer stands on one side of the church’s nave and the saint being hit by the arrows is on the opposite side.

The Baroque age

In the 17th and 18th centuries in Venice this concept developed into a specific art, called in Italian “quadratura” in regards to turning ceiling surface three dimensional. It would be a mistake though, to address this art as purely decorative. Illusionistic ceiling painting in Venice features amazing art. The best-known art works are in the ballrooms (see my blogpost, but also in churches, theatres and casinos.

The church of San Pantalon

Giannantonio Fumiani worked for twenty years at the Church of San Pantalon in Dorsoduro (1684-1704). The ceiling of the church covering 443 square meter is composed of 44 pieces of canvas all linked together with an incredibly theatrical effect.

Towards the altar, detail of the ceiling of San Pantalon in Venice, oil painting by Giannantonio Fumiani, 1684-1704

When sitting on your pew, when you are meant to pray, you lift your nose and there you see the saint accepting the martyrdom like a white lamb, opposite Emperor Galerius dressed in red purple. Angels fly in the middle where the sky is open and wait to accompany his soul to heaven.

Jesus supported by angels by Giannantonio Fumiani, The martyrdom of San Pantalon, oil painting, 1684-1704, Venice.

I imagine the priest feeling upset with the devotees looking up instead of looking at him during the service. But if it helped to be a better Christian, I guess, why not?

The church of Sant’Alvise in Venice

Similarly in the church of Sant’Alvise in Cannaregio, you can see a nearly 600-square meter fresco covering the whole ceiling. The artists, Pietro Antonio Torri e Pietro Ricchi, combined emphasised verticality with a very complex architectural composition. In the central blue sky, angels fly among beautiful clouds in mystical rupture.

The frescoed ceiling in the church of Sant’Alvise in Venice,

The church of Sant’Alvise in Venice with the nuns’ area,

These gigantic trompe-l’oeil effects had a specific purpose: attracting devotees, possibly induce them to leave more offerings while appealing to their religiosity and sense of charity. 

The Bru-Zane Casino in Venice

However, art in Venice in the 17th and 18th century is definitely more theatrical than it used to be in the Renaissance. It is as if the love for theatre would be present in all social aspects. In other words, artistic 3D effects attracted people to church as they attracted them to a show or to the opera or a casino.

One of the most interesting casinos or “ridotti” in Venice is the one where nowadays the Palazzetto Bru-Zane Foundation regularly arranges concerts of romantic French music, the Bru Zane Casino:

Palazzetto Bru-Zane, Internal staircase with frescoes, Courtesy of Marco Zordan, Venice

Restored in 2009 by Marco Zordan architects’ studio, the casino built at the end of the 17th century has reacquired its original function. It features illusionistic architecture in several of its rooms, including the library and exceptionally the flight of the stairs, as well. When Marino Zane commissioned to Ferdinando Fochi his “pleasure” space, the illusion of the frescoed architecture had to work when looked from the bottom upwards and viceversa.

A dream for future Venice?

Known for their painted scenography and audacious perspective, theatres in the 1600s in Venice were privately run and open to different social classes.

The theatre at San Cassiano opened in 1637 and it was the first time someone paid a ticket to watch the show. It meant theatrical entertainment could be a business. 

Keeping the stage separate from the audience as was common in Italian theatres, it used illusory perspective, mobile painted scene-sets, elaborate machines to keep that audience strongly engaged. It was a space that seemed to be borderless. 

The theatre was demolished in 1812, but there is a project to reconstruct it:

It would be the only Baroque theatre existing in the world. One could eventually enjoy the Baroque theatrical and musical tradition. I know. High water in November 2019. At a time when theatre in general has been strongly hit by Covid-19. Am I talking about an unrealistic project? Probably so, but I like keeping our hearts open to dreams. Dreams that can help a sophisticated and intellectually greedy tourism to re-start in Venice. Dreams to turn real, of course…

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Recommended Posts
Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    Such an interesting…and optimistic article. In the meantime, your wonderful virtual tours are keeping the endless cultural attractions of Venice open to anyone willing to join you on them.

    • Reply

      Thank you for leaving your beautiful message! The subject of the article was inspired by some comments regarding the “unreality” of my virtual tours or webinars. I thought it was fun to get back to the concept of perspective and to the theatricality of some baroque art, as it was pervading all sorts of Venetian social architecture.

Leave a Comment