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Three Floors of Illusion

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

In February of 2022 My daughter Sonia and I started a large project to paint the facade of a building in the old centre of Pistoia, in via dei Fabbri. We were re-creating the decoration which had almost completely worn away. The owners had decided to take advantage of an Italian government funding scheme designated for the restoration of building facades visible to the public. The building in question houses a popular hardware shop on the ground floor, and residential apartments on the two floors above.

Some before and after pics

This building or ‘palazzo', the foundations of which can be traced to the time of the Lombards, is situated in one of the most characteristic old streets in the center of town. The palazzo itself is part of the antique structure of the Cellesi castle, which belonged to a nobile family of that name from medieval times. There are plaques all along the facade at intervals which are almost completely worn away but still legible. They bear the crest of the Cellesi family and more specifically attest to fact that this was the property of one Lanfredino Cellesi.

Lanfredino was a colourful character. History tells us he had a fiery temperament which got him into trouble. In 1543 in Poggibonsi he was responsible for the assault and murder of a well connected gentleman from Bologna, Marsilio Marsigli. Although Lanfredino was well connected himself, he was unable to avoid being incarcerated for his crime. The incarceration, which took place in Volterra, cannot have been too uncomfortable however, because Lanfredino was given his own private apartment. Also, among the written records from this time is his request for ‘one of those whores who knows my ways’. Apparently his needs and desires were given due consideration. In 1586, after 19 years of imprisonment, he was able to buy his liberty and move on to greater things. He went to Pisa and established the bailiwick of the Order of Santo Stefano, claiming the office of ‘Bali’, a type of bailiff. He returned to Pistoia with this title and subsequently acquired it for his son Teodoro as well.

But, let's return to our building, Lanfredino's palazzo in via dei Fabbri. From as far back as the mid 16th century there are records of part of it being rented as a ‘bottega’. So, one could say that the hardware shop on the ground floor has roots. The records show that there has been a place of trade and/or manufacture in this spot for centuries. The well-trafficked shop certainly feels that way, being a landmark of sorts in the mundane life of the town. It is a family business owned and run by an elderly father and his two daughters. They were always friendly and happy to exchange a few words with us despite being constantly busy with customers. The father generally spent as much of his time outdoors on the street as the weather permitted, holding conversations and exchanging banter with familiar townspeople and other merchants in his rich booming Tuscan accent. Apart from his arrival every morning aboard a loud two-stroke ‘Ape’ truck, it was easy to imagine a similar style of daily life on this street in the 16th century. One thing that has always struck me about old Italian town centres is that the outdoors often feels like the indoors. Maybe it is the acoustics, but the narrow streets sometimes feel like a large room where people enter and exit. Fittingly, the old civic centre of Pistoia is still referred to as the 'Sala', a word which means a large room or hall.

The badly corroded facade decoration which we faced at the beginning of our project did not have particularly ancient origins. Despite our queries to local historians, the families and the architect involved in the restoration project, we do not have the exact date of that decoration. The style of painting is known as ‘quadraturismo’ in Italian and involves the creation of optical illusions of architectural elements. This technique is perhaps better known internationally by its French name ‘trompe l’oeil’, which literally means to ‘fool the eye.’ It was a popular way to transform a flat building facade, making it appear to have sculptural columns and cornices around the windows and, in this case, decorative bands of mouldings and perforated plasterwork across the entire width of the facade.

Our best guess on the date of the decoration, after having consulted with Marco Cavallini, (a Florentine expert in quadraturismo), is that it was done in the early part of the 20th century, possibly around 1920. This late date is only a good guess, and was arrived at due to the observation that a stencilling technique was used to create the decorative borders below the windows, and a sponging or stippling technique was used to create texture for the stonework on the ground floor. These techniques were not in common practice here before that time. Furthermore, the work was probably done by a competent local company of painters, very sure of hand when it came to the line work, but not so similarly sure of the rules of perspective when drawing out the cornices and creating the illusion of three dimensionality.

A picture gallery of our work in progress

We spend about two months working on the facade. We took the train from Florence before day break every morning to arrive at the job site in good time. The winter days were mild enough when we were bundled up, but the daylight was limited. We started at the top of the palazzo and worked our way down. During our time there we were treated kindly by everyone involved. Stefano, who was once my student, is the owner of company we worked for. He is a young man with plenty of exuberant energy, who traversed the town on his eco-friendly 'monopattino' scooter, checking in with us to offer any assistance needed or expressos from the bar on the corner, then whizzing off to other job sites. The couple who lived on the top floor of the palazzo were grandparents with a love of history and culture. They offered us to come up for coffee everyday after lunch. After we refused a couple of times, they figured out that we preferred tea. From then on they set the kettle to boil every day about at 2 pm and laid out the tea chest on the kitchen table. We were invited up to their home to warm our bones and have a little chat. By the time we had worked our way down to the next floor windows, news of our preferences had already spread and we were offered tea directly from the window sill by the lady who lived there.

Tea time on the scaffolding

We settled into our routine and became used to experiencing the town from our hidden perch behind the veils on the scaffolding. From there we witnessed the regular early morning volley of greetings exchanged on the street "Buongiorno - Buongiorno", the many encounters with barking dogs straining on their leashes, the local busker with his worn repertoire, the cooing of pigeons in the eaves, and then later in the day the lunch time aromas from the local restaurants and the return of the noisy school kids. There was talk of covid numbers, and then of the outbreak of war in Ukraine as the public waited outside the hardware store for their turn to enter.

a video of the work in progress

Finally towards the end of March, the scaffolding was removed and we arrived at ground level feeling like exposed strangers, hidden eavesdroppers, suddenly revealed to the public eye. For those last couple of days, a joyful Stefano helped us out, fielding most of the comments and questions from the excited residents while we worked to finish off the faux stone work on ground level. Quite a crowd had gathered. The residents of Pistoia were happy to see this building brought back to life. Many of them had not even noticed the decoration that had been there before because it was so dirty and damaged. As dusk descended we left feeling that we had played a small part in the story of this town.

Pictures of the completed work from the final days on the job site

Some links:

-To read about Pistoia

-To read about the history of the Cellesi family (in Italian)

-The website of Prof. Marco Cavallini

-Our online video course on the Trompe L'oeil technique: (coming soon)


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