Andrea Pozzo, S.J. (1642-1709), a Jesuit coadjutor brother, was a tremendously multitalented artist. He worked as an architect, decorator, painter, and art theoretician; he was also one of the most noteworthy artists of the Baroque period. He is noted for developing quadratura painting, using a system of perspective in which the focal lines start at the corners of each piece and meet in the center vanishing point, making the painting appear almost three-dimensional in appearance, and his two-volume Tractus perspectivae pictorum et architectorum was one of the earliest-known books written on perspectives. Pozzo was best known for applying his knowledge of perspectives to design artwork for the cupola, the apse, and the ceiling of the St. Ignatius Church in Rome, and his style was subsequently copied in churches throughout Europe.
Pozzo was born in Trento, Italy on November 30, 1642. While growing up he studied both art and religion. He was a novice at the order of Discalced Carmelites at Convento delle Laste, near Trento from 1661 to 1662, before he moved to Milan in 1665 and became a Jesuit lay brother. Pozzo was encouraged by his Jesuit masters to continue with his painting, as his talent was seen as a gift from God. He started creating religious decorations for various sites throughout the city and his fame soon spread. In 1675 Pozzo was asked to visit the city of Turin, where he designed, among other things, the frescoes at the Chiesa del SS. Martiri; he also designed frescoes at the church of San Francisco Saverio in Modovi.
Most critics agree that Pozzo's early works give only a hint of his later accomplishments, but they showed enough promise to induce Gian Paolo Oliva, the Father-General of the Jesuit Society of Jesus, to invite Pozzo to Rome to do commissioned artwork for him there. The invitation was encouraged by Carlo Maratti, one of the most prominent painters in Rome at the time and was delivered in 1681. Maratti had seen Pozzo's work and greatly admired it. While Oliva died later that year, Pozzo was welcomed nevertheless to Rome by Oliva's successor. In Rome the young artist was given a myriad of ornamental tasks, including altarpiece paintings, altar designs, and festival designs, as well as some large-scale architectural paintings. He quickly became well known throughout the Jesuit order, both in Italy and even abroad, although he remained mainly out of the public eye and was not particularly well-known in the secular Roman world.
Painted St. Ignatius Church
One of the best-known and remarkable of Pozzo's works in Rome are his paintings done using the quadratura perspective for the ceiling and walls of St. Ignatius Church. Quadratura presented a grand architectural realm beyond the real space of the church, making the picture seem three-dimensional and the space of the church seem larger. The chief architect of St. Ignatius Church in Rome, Horace Grassi, S.J., had initially intended to build a cupola at the front of the church over the altar area, but died before he was able to even begin it. No one else had taken up his goal because the money that had been put aside for the cupola had been used up. The Jesuit Order turned to Pozzo, known for his perspective paintings, to come to their aid. He began work on the ceiling in October of 1684; the Jesuit's deadline of the feast day of St. Ignatius in the very next year, July 31, 1685, gave Pozzo only ten months to complete his masterpiece.
Pozzo not only made the deadline, but he painted such a work of art that all who entered the church were amazed by the painting's beauty and its interesting three-dimensional effect. On the enormous, flat ceiling of the St. Ignatius Church, Pozzo had painted a fresco of the missionary spirit of the Jesuit Society. The gorgeous ceiling was intended to commemorate two centuries of Jesuit explorers and missionaries. The effect was tromp l'oil; when looking up at the cupola viewers can see what look like pillars holding up a ceiling, and between the pillars Pozzo painted windows. In the middle of this, against the ceiling, as it were, that God, Jesus, and Ignatius are floating. Pozzo also installed a circle of red marble on the floor of St. Ignatius Church to mark the focal point for best viewing the ceiling. However, no matter where anyone stood, Pozzo's painting drew the eye upward. Many of those who attended the church the day the painting was unveiled were unable to tell that the ceiling was an optical illusion—that it was a painting and not an actual cupola. Many other artists have since come to Rome to scrutinize Pozzo's work and have used his technique in their own works on perspective. After a few centuries of smoke from candle wax, along with water and other damage, the painting became damaged and difficult to see, but was finally restored in 1962.
After his success with the ceiling of St. Ignatius Church, Pozzo was asked to decorate the apse, the nave vault fresco, and the pendentives, the triangular sections of vaulting between the rim of the dome and the adjacent pair of arches that supports it. For the nave he again used the quadratura technique. For the nave Pozzo painted an allegory of the Jesuit missions through the agency of St. Ignatius. Ignatius floats in heaven where he accepts a great beam of divine light from the Trinity which he then deflects to the four corners of the world, these represented by allegorical figures of the four continents known at the time the painting was rendered. Through this painting Pozzo once again celebrated the missionary activities of the Jesuit society and its founder, Ignatius. Pozzo's decoration of St. Ignatius Church, as well as Il Gesu, set a benchmark for late baroque church art throughout Europe.
Wrote Tractus perspectivae pictorum et architectorum
Besides his painting and other commissioned works, Pozzo began in the 1690s to write a explanatory book about his experiences with painting and architecture, and especially his work with perspective. The work, Tractus perspectivae pictorum et architectorum, was published in two volumes, the first of which appeared in 1693 and the second of which appeared in 1698. In this work Pozzo includes designs for altars, tabernacles, ephemeral structures for festivals, and church designs, as well as techniques for making a regular stage look like an irregular space by using wings obliquely.
In fact, even three centuries after Pozzo developed his work principle, filmmakers were still using his perspective principles to set up shots in their movies. In Pozzo's own day the Perspectiva enjoyed much popularity in artistic circles and was a great influence on architects throughout Europe. At a time when developments in printing technology had allowed books to be more commonplace, the popularity of his work caused it to be translated into German, English, Flemish, and even Chinese. Perhaps promoting his book, Pozzo claimed that anyone who had a familiarity with perspective and quadratura could be an architect.
Invited to Vienna
In 1704, with his renown growing as a result of his book and his frescoes at St. Ignatius Church, Pozzo was invited by Emperor Leopold I to move to Vienna to work for the royal court. In that northern city he worked for the emperor, as well as for Prince Johann Adam von Liechtenstein and various religious orders and churches. He also continued to work for the Jesuit Order, often traveling to other places in northern Europe to fulfill obligations to the Jesuits. Most of Pozzo's artistic works at this time, unfortunately, were installed in churches and other buildings that have since been destroyed. The best-known surviving object to reveal Pozzo's efforts in northern Europe is not a religious item at all, but rather a fresco of the Triumph of Hercules, done in the quadratura style, on the ceiling of the Liechtenstein Palace. This fresco is similar to the one Pozzo created at St. Ignatius Church, but there are a few differences. His work had matured by this point and he was experimenting with different ways to improve perspective. In the Triumph of Hercules the figures are smaller, they are not as firmly arranged, and they all appear to be floating, giving the viewer an even greater feeling of distance and space. A few of his altarpieces in Vienna also survived into the 21st century.
Despite its importance in the development of Western art, Pozzo's work has not been widely studied in recent years, perhaps because the multiple locations in which he worked required much travel, as well as the fact that some of his work has been lost. While most of Pozzo's works involved Catholic and particularly Jesuit themes, he is indebted to the theatre; through his art he constructed large dramas featuring tradition stage devices—a proscenium arch, a curtain, a backdrop—and positioned his religious figures as actors against these dramatically painted backgrounds. While Pozzo is not widely studied, his innovations regarding perspective continue to show their influences, marking them as foundational to much of modern design.
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