The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome is the site of one of the greatest trompe l’oiel paintings in the world. The fact that it is a ceiling fresco makes it all the more remarkable.
The church, dedicated to Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, was built between 1626 and 1650. It is a church in the Baroque style, and originally served as a rectory for the nearby Collegio, Romano.
St. Ignatius is filled with masterworks of art, including a wonderful group of sculptures by Alessandro Algardi, Magnificence and Religion (1650), as well as several paintings by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). Pozzo was a Jesuit brother, who took up painting after studying literature at the age of 24.
St. Ignatius contains Pozzo’s most significant masterpieces. His frescoes created illusory perspectives of the dome, the apse and the ceiling. These works were painted between 1685 and 1694, and define the High Roman Baroque style.
These works were painted decades after construction of the church was completed. Arguments with the original church funders prevented the installation of the planned dome, so, Pozzo created the illusion of one instead. When viewed from inside, it appears you are looking up into an oval ceiling. In fact, there is a brass plaque set into the floor of the nave at which the viewer is meant to look upwards. The lofty vaults and statures are not real … only painted illusions.
Nothing that you see in the accompanying photograph is real – not the windows, not the curve of the roof, nor the columns and pillars.
The picture, the Apotheosis of St. Ignatius, celebrates the missionary spirit of two centuries of global preaching by Jesuit explorers and missionaries. The painting is quite majestic and is a remarkable work of art in its own right, as well as a visual trick.
Years later, Pozzo used his literary training to write a two-volume book on perspective for artists, Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum (1693 and 1698), which he illustrated with 118 engravings. This is one of the earliest artist/architect manuals in the Western Canon and remained in print well into the 19th Century.
If you are planning a trip to Rome, do not overlook Sant'Ignazio.