On the upper floor of Trinità Dei Monti convent, Rome, you can visit a cloister where you will see some extraordinary and rare anamorphic frescoes, the result of the residents’ research on perspective.
The basic principle of anamorphic perspective is to project the line of vision in order to present an image as it would appear to the observer at a given distance, and to transfer the drawing, or simply a grid, to the surface to be painted at an oblique angle. The technique thus produces a deliberately distorted image that appears in its true shape if reflected in a certain type of mirror [for curved anamorphoses for example) or viewed from a predetermined angle (most often oblique).
Until the 18th century, the convent housed French monks of the Order of Minims, some of whom were carrying out important scientific work, such as Father Emmanuel Maignan (1601-1676) and his disciple Father Jean-Francois Niceron (1613-1646), both of whom held a special interest in optics and perspective. Their work in this field culminated in two anamorphic frescos painted on the upper floor of the convent, on either side of the cloister, but there is some disagreement as to which monk they should be attributed.
Niceron, who wrote a treaty on perspective Thaumaturgus opticus, spent only 10 months in Rome in 1642, but he probably assisted his master in executing one of the two frescoes, following the principles set out in his text.
The first anamorphosis, painted in grisaille, depicts Saint Francis of Paula in prayer, kneeling under a tree, an image which can be seen from the end of the corridor. But if you stand directly in front of the fresco, the figure of the saint disappears, recomposing as a marine landscape with a bay enclosed by hills. A port can be seen as well as towers, greenery and several figures. The scene is thought to be the region of Calabria where the saint lived. The two mean in the water near the sailing boat, between the two spits of land, recall the time when Saint Francis was refused passage by a boatman to cross the Strait of Messina, so he laid his cloak on the water and sailed across on it. Likewise, the figures lost in this desert landscape symbolise the hermit’s way of life.
At the time level on the other side of the cloister is another anamorphic fresco, this time depicting Saint John the Baptist writing the Book of Revelation. A similar work can be found in Paris in the convent of the Minims. which used to stand in what is now the Place des Vosges. The ideal vantage point to reveal the figure of the saint is on entering the room, but like the other fresco, if you stand directly in front you see a landscape, that of the island of Patmos where Saint John received a vision of Christ.
These really are extraordinary pieces of work and it is well worth taking the opportunity to pay a visit to the convent to see them if you are in Rome.