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The Beauty of Illusion – Discovering Gozo’s Trompe L’oeill

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Many of our Gozitan churches are spectacularly decorated with religious paintings and sculptures which are a sight to behold irrespective of your religious beliefs.  These artistic works portray episodes from The Bible and uplift onlookers whilst communicating spiritual teachings, taking the observer on an emotive, sometimes transcendental journey.

Many believe sacred art exists to decorate and educate (after all, churches are for everyone and so the teachings in these paintings & sculptures should be easy to interpret by people of all intellects and abilities).  But it’s also revelatory to discover much sacred art is loaded with subliminal meaning and symbolism which can be deciphered and interpreted, once you know what to look for.

However, today’s VisitGozo blog celebrates a style of art which tricks the viewer.   Although this art is unique and rare, Gozo is home to two astounding examples of it – namely Trompe L’oeill.  Trompe L’oeill is a French phrase meaning ‘to deceive the eye’ and it’s used to describe paintings which create an optical illusion of a real object or scene.

Artist, Antonio Manuele who was a scenographer from Sicily painted the first of Gozo’s Trompe L’oeill paintings over two centuries ago.  His artwork was positioned inside The Cathedral of the Assumption in the Cittadella 280 years ago in 1739.

Gozo’s Trompe L’oeill found in the cathedral at Cittadella Gozo
Antonio Manuele’s Trompe L’oeill. Photo Credit: jjpzammit

His exquisite painting,  commissioned to adorn the inside of the roof is a fine example of the technical mastery which typifies Trompe L’oeill; the painting tricks onlookers inside into believing the venue has a domed roof when in fact the ceiling of Gozo’s Baroque style Cathedral is completely flat.  It was the artists’ skilled knowledge of geometry and dimension translated through his canvas which fools the eye making viewers underneath believe they are looking into the inside of a round Cathedral dome.

Dismantling of the Gozo Cathedral’s Trompe L’oeill
The dismantling of Gozo Cathedral’s Trompe L’oeill. Photo Credit: jjpzammit

This painting was lowered a few months back for essential restoration work and churchgoers and tourists in Victoria (Rabat),  eagerly await its return.

We spoke with Pierre Bugeja, Senior Conservator & Restorer from Prevarti who are managing this restoration – who told us:

Restoration works
Conservators at work at Prevarti. Photo credit: jjpzammit

“The last time the painting was restored was in 1823, nearly 200 years ago.  Our team are working on the underside of the canvas doing what we call strip-lining.  A lot of the damage was on the underside, because the art hangs face down towards the congregation.  It was also prone to tears because strings bearing the weight had become damaged over the centuries.

Restoration works
Ongoing restoration work at Prevarti. Photo Credit: jjpzammit.

Also, when the Cathedral roof was replaced years ago, the painting became exposed to the elements which is dangerous when you consider how it’s made.  It’s a Tempora Magra painting, which is a technique of painting using colour pigments mixed with animal glue to paint; but when this comes into contact with water, it almost reverses the process and the paint on the canvas is reduced to a fine powder – so there was a lot of powdering on the painted side.  When we fully restore and return the artwork it’ll look brighter more defined and will be future proofed.”


Restoration works gozo
Paolo Camilleri-Cauchi. Photo Credit: Lorella Castillo

Paolo Camilleri-Cauchi is a Gozitan based sacred artist, who comes from a family of artists.  Paolo is a painter; his brothers are sculptors and gilders and their father was a highly revered sculptor.  Their family have created much of the art which adorns churches throughout Gozo, Malta and beyond.

Paolo painted Gozo’s second Trompe L’oell artwork which currently hangs inside Għarb church.  Although when it was painted during the 1970’s, he was less well known and the route to him winning this commission involved an element of illusion by him.

He says:  “The art for the dome inside Għarb church was going to be painted by Prof Giambattista Conti, a well-known religious artist in his 80’s, who sadly died before this work could begin.  As the scaffolding was already in position, parishioners and authorities were keen for their church to be decorated, so they created a competition inviting artists to submit designs for the dome.  I was based in Malta and heard about the competition.  I assumed because I’m from Gozo, I wouldn’t be taken as seriously and so I submitted my designs under an alias, calling myself ‘Mancino’ which means ‘left handed’ in Italian, as I’m left handed.  To my surprise my designs were the ones chosen.”


Artwork at Gharb Church Gozo
Paolo’s artwork inside Għarb church. Photo credit: Daniel Cillia.

Paolo continues: “I’d studied the architecture of Għarb church, a Baroque style church with a Greek cross layout.  The columns at ground level have arches with altars inside them, I wanted to recreate these on my canvas, so that when churchgoers looked up it would seem as if the detailed architecture and decoration was continuing.  The subject of the painting are episodes relating to Our Lady and the scenes are painted in a classical style, but then the frames and the niches and sculpture and stuccos which surround these scenes are painted very differently, giving the illusion they are 3D carvings and statues made from the stone – but they are all Trompe L’oeill”.

Paulo at Gharb Gozo Church
Paolo with his artwork inside the church during the 1970’s. Photo credit: Joseph Vella.

Paolo says: “It was a very different design at that time and what helped me was being the son of a statue maker.  So, painting to create the illusion of sculpture, I knew I had to give more strength to my designs, focus on reflections and shadowing and make my brush strokes bolder.”

The artwork took Paolo two years to complete and he remembers being hugely proud that his sculptor father Agostino ‘Wistin’Camilleri, who was in his 80’s was alive to witness the inauguration and unveiling and see a tribute to stone carving portrayed through his son’s canvas.

We hope this week’s blog is proof that not all innovative artwork is in galleries and museums, many are in our places of worship.  If you want to keep across restoration progress of Gozo Cathedral’s Trompe L’oeill updates are posted here:   Other examples of Paolo Camilleri Cauchi’s sacred is found in churches in Xewkija, Fontana, Qala, Gozo Cathedral, Sacristy of St George’s Basilica, St Francis in Victoria, San Lawrenz, St Anthony in Għajnsielem and throughout Malta.



With thanks to:  Paolo Camilleri Cauchi, Prevarti and jjpzammit.


READ NEXT: For whom the bells toll – interpreting the secret messages of Gozo’s church bells.


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