Art History Terminology: trompe l’oeil and di sotto in sù

When studying Western Art History  it is easy to be bombarded with a sea of complex terminology, often with a clear visual meaning and a vital place in art scholarship. So, for my own benefit, and to keep my mind fresh I will go through the jargon I can uproot from my memory.

Trompe l’oeil is a painterly technique used to create the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. I associate it with dramatic Baroque interior frescoes, designed to trick the eye and create the impression that the walls expand beyond reality, depicting some fantastical scene of a Utopian paradise or even heaven itself.

Di sotto in sù is similar to Trompe l’oeil, meaning ‘seen from below’ it refers specifically to ceiling paintings. This method was developed in fifteenth century Italy and can be seen frequently in churches, a fitting location for such a visually arresting style, which in a holy space would likely inspire the spiritual fervor of all who entered.

Bridal Chamber by Andrea Mantegna

We could not discus  these artistic techniques without referencing one of the earliest and most famous examples. The Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber) was painted between 1465 and 1474 by Andrea Mantegna for Ludovico III Gonzaga. Ludovico was the powerful ruler of Mantua, and a great patron of the arts, shown for his evident regard for the artist Mantegna who was his court painter and enjoyed the benefits of a flourishing reputation and a substantial salary.

The Camera degli Sposi exists in a small private space, and is a magnificent example of Mantegna’s experimental virtuosity. First we have the Court scene, where we see an informally dressed Ludovico with his wife, receiving a group of courtiers who spill out across the wall merging into a beautifully crafted illusionistic space, which blends seamlessly with the stone Corinthian capitals protruding from the walls.

On the west wall is an idealised meeting between Ludovico, his son Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and Christian I of Denmark. In the background we can see a view which highlights Mantegna’s training in classical architecture, which undoubtedly influenced his approach to figurative images as well, we can see this here in the solid fullness of his subjects.

Perhaps the most striking part of this collection of frescoes is the di sotto in su ceiling which depicts playful putti clinging onto the balustrades and a whole host of colourful characters, including a peacock, all skillfully foreshortened creating the illusion of an endless sky above and people peering over into the room below.  This is one of the earliest examples of this technique and demonstrates Mantegna’s innovation and desire to exhibit his skills and push boundaries of perspective.

These techniques have been used countless times in art, for the purpose of displaying an artists ability as well as inspiring awe and wonder in all who saw it. Particularly in the fifteenth century these methods would have been fairly new and completely alien to a public more accustomed to schematic altarpieces depicting the Virgin Mary. The developments in art seen through the work of individuals like Mantegna and Giotto much earlier are truly spectacular, and signify an exciting experimental phase in visual culture.

In conclusion I have used the Camera delgi Sposi as an early and groundbreaking example to represent these two terms, but it is important to note that trompe l’oeil and di sotto in su are not methods to be consigned to history and are very much present in contemporary arts today.

There is a tradition in sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch painting of using trompe l’eoil to depict objects. For example Samuel van Hoogstraten often produced paintings like this such as ‘Letter board’, which serves as a unique record of daily life in his time. We can see similar illusionistic paintings today, such as in the wonderfully delicate work of American Debra Teale. Furthermore grander scale examples, more in the vein of the bombastic trompe l’eoil Baroque interiors, are present in outdoor public paintings, by the likes of Edgar Müllercreating the illusion of gaping cavernous holes or perilous plunging waterfalls. Indeed these contemporary displays of this historic technique convey it’s ability to still delight and capture the imagination of the public today.

 

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