Ceiling FrescosWhen we think of large paintings, wall-size dimensions of perhaps ten to twenty feet in either direction come to mind. Of course we're usually thinking in terms of framed canvas paintings. And if we think of really large paintings, then we get to contemplating works too big for canvas--murals--usually frescos. However when we stop measuring the works in feet and start using yards, or meters, then we're talking...well...maybe enormous might be adequate? And for this scale, the surface is usually a ceiling. It's tempting to think first, foremost, and maybe even exclusively, of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco when the subject of ceiling painting comes to mind. But long before Michelangelo ever dripped paint in his eye, there was a long tradition of Italian ceiling painting, and Michelangelo's masterpiece was more like an opening shot than the chequered flag in what became a race amongst artists for several generations to paint the most remarkable ceiling frescos ever seen by the eyes of man.
The first leg of the race was won by Annibale Carracci with his Farnese Palace ceiling fresco painted between 1597 and 1601. Heavily influence by Michelangelo and obviously trying to out-do him, the long, vaulted ceiling, not unlike that of the Sistine Chapel, is decorated by a series of tightly abutted, trompe l'oeil groupings of framed scenes from mythological sources not unlike the French Salon's habit of completely covering an entire wall surface with paintings. The trompe l'oeil sculptural decorations between the works and the half concealed greenish medallions, add to what is already an overwhelming artistic encounter that leaves one breathless not to mentioned stiff-necked. Each of the dozen or more paintings covering the curved ceiling begs to be studied individually yet there is no place other than the cold, hard, marble floor upon which to lie down in order to do so comfortably.
The second round might well be said to belong to a lesser-known, Pietro da Cortona for the ceiling in the Grand Salon of the Barberini Palazzo in Rome painted between 1633 and 1639. Entitled Triumph of the Barberini, it is in fact, a last judgement in which the entire ceiling appears to burst open to a giant whirl of bodies being swept upward toward the figure of Christ looming from a cloud slightly off-centre of the main axis. But possibly the ultimate in trompe l'oeil fresco ceiling decoration combines stucco sculpture with fresco in a mixed-media extravaganza entitled Triumph of the Name Jesus. Painted by the little-known Giovanni Battista Gaulli between 1676 and 1679 to cover the vault of the Church of ll Gesu in Rome, and in apparent direct competition with the Barberini ceiling, the effect is at once theatrical, yet inspirational. The last judgement theme is the same but the work is so much more visually believable, combining architectural elements (both 2-D and 3-D) with sculpture, painted figures, and almost surrealistic heavenly happenings that, miraculously, you no longer notice your stiff neck.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 April 1998