May 14th 2013

Staff Postcards

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Every April, staff designer Charlie Caldwell (you may remember him from my blog post about architectural model building) joins his partner, Scott Finn, in Italy where Scott heads up Auburn University’s Department of Architecture Study Abroad Program.
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On his sojourn this year, Charlie’s painterly eye was caught by some of Rome’s more deceitful architectural masterpieces. Here are a few of his correspondences:

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18 April 2013

Good Morning!

“Virtual Reality”

One of the most intriguing aspects of Roman architecture is it’s theatricality. The line between reality and illusion is constantly shifting.

One of the best places to see that in all its glory is at the Church of Saint Ignatius just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon. The nave of the church has one of the grandest painted ceilings of the Baroque painted by Andrea Pozzo. It gives the illusion that the architecture of the church continues up into a painted infinity in which all the inhabitants of heaven have turned out to welcome the arrival of St. Ignatius who is floating up from the very space in which we stand. Meanwhile, personifications of the continents to which the Jesuits have brought the gospel sit on the cornice with their feet dangling over the edge. (Its simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying especially if you have any fear of heights.)

At the crossing of the nave we are presented with a different sort of illusion. What appears to be a view up into the dome of the church is actually a meticulously constructed perspective rendering painted on the flat ceiling. I asked a Roman architecture professor why the dome was never built, “Did they run out of money?” “The Jesuits,” he replied, “do not run out of money!” The generally accepted explanation that he offered was that a powerful aristocrat in the neighborhood objected to the proposed dome because it would block the views from his palazzo. He persuaded the Jesuit Brothers, by means of a generous contribution, to alter their plan.

I said that I thought it a shame to lose the dome, a model of which is displayed prominently within the church. “Well, it might not have been such a loss for the Jesuits as we might imagine. To the Baroque mind the painted illusion was considered a kind of wonder and an acceptable substitute. For them, if you could represent architectural space convincingly on a painted wall – then it was accepted as real. Sort of like the way we accept CGI in films. For them seeing was believing.”

Now that I think about it that could have been the motto for the artists of the Counter Reformation – “Seeing is Believing.”

Your correspondent in Rome, Charlie

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2 May, 2013

Why Won’t Someone Open Up A Window?”

That’s the first song in the Broadway Musical “1776.” The chorus answers that question by singing, “No, no, no, too many flies, but it’s hot as hell in Philadelphia!” Rome in summer is just as uncomfortable, but the answer to that same question might be, “Because that window is only painted on the wall.”

Rome is a city full of painted windows, inside and out. They are frescoed onto the walls of churches and palazzi to complete the design where a real window is not feasible. Sometimes the functions of the rooms behind the façade don’t correspond with the need for symmetry and regularity on the outside. Sometimes the need for a window on the inside is blocked by some obstruction on the outside. It’s all part of the Roman process of building and rebuilding and building new buildings on top of old buildings. The solution to the problem -paint it!

Roman painters are so skillful that most of the time I don’t even notice the trick, but when I begin to look closely painted windows begin to show up everywhere.

Your correspondent in Rome, Charlie

1 comment

  1. Thanks Charlie. My brain can’t wrap itself around that deceitful dome. Amazing. Also find the comment “the Jesuits don’t run out of money” both amusing and troubling.

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