I have a background in signs and scenic painting, which gives me a sincere appreciation for large works of art that cannot be contained within a gilded frame. This type of art, whether it’s a mural on the side of a building—or a unique outdoor advertising sign, always catches my eye.
I particularly enjoy seeing trompe l’oeil, which is a painting style that “fools the eye” into believing a two-dimensional (flat) surface is three-dimensional by using optical illusion techniques.
This type of realistic looking artwork is seen in traditional paintings, but is most commonly found in murals. Trompe l’oeil can also be found on the architectural surfaces of some European cathedrals and castles. When the European craftsmen immigrated to America, they brought trompe l’oeil with them.
I have discovered many beautiful examples of architectural trompe l'oeil at several well-known Las Vegas casinos and hotels, and also at the Winchester House, located in San Jose, California. All the Disney properties have also made good use of this ancient technique that dates back to the Baroque period in history. With a few buckets of paint, a whole lot of talent, and a stroke of the brush, Disney’s craftsmen are well versed into tricking their guests into believing that they have arrived, upon purchasing a simple ticket, at some exotic land. After a recent trip to Northern California, I can now add Napa Valley to my list of places in which to see this style of art.
Carlo Marchiori is a renowned decorative painter, who lives in Calistoga, a peaceful, picturesque little town at the northern tip of the valley. He is originally from Italy and studied classic art and academic design in Padua and Venice. He’s much more than a painter, Carlo is also an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker (The Drag, 1967), a sculptor, muralist and a delightful host.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Carlo, over a glass of Italian wine, and talked to him about his works of art. In all, I spent an afternoon walking with him around his villa, viewing the gardens and also got a glimpse of his most recent project at one of the local wineries located in the heart of Napa Valley.
Although most people travel to Napa Valley because of the wineries, it was Villa Ca’Toga, the Italian estate Carlo created for himself, and calls home, that attracted me to the region.
Inside Villa Ca’Toga:
Located on the outskirts of Calistoga, Carlo’s illusion begins as the garden gate swings open to reveal a Palladian-style villa with an expansive lawn that has bits of sculpture placed strategically about, hinting at what the guest is about to experience once they walk in thorough the villa’s cinnamon colored, front doors.
The home’s interior walls are painted with murals from floor to ceiling, with each room claiming a different theme throughout. The main living area, which has a Greco-Pompeian mythological and Venetian Carnival theme, features trompe l’oeil painted on the walls as though his sculptures and pottery works of art are in relief. With master control over his color palate, the murals are painted with muted earth tones that do not overwhelm the space. Any uses of color that may be slightly richer in tone have been carefully positioned around the room to keep everything in perfect balance.
But what sets Carlo apart from other decorative artists that specialize in trompe l’oeil architectural painting is that he does not slavishly copy traditional motifs or styles, but has managed to spin a web of wit into an entire repertoire of designs, that he uses repeatedly, making his work a cohesive, recognizable body that is all his own.
The rest of the house is personal and tells the story of this painter’s life. Each room has a theme that may recall a childhood memory, or may illustrate his philosophy of life in a whimsical way.
If you look carefully, every nook and cranny of the villa, offers a glimpse of “who” this person is that’s doing all the painting. My favorite moment of the tour was when I looked down from the second floor of the villa into his working studio, where everything he creates begins.
Carlo is a vivacious well of creativity. His work extends to hand painted tiles, sculptures, articles of arte, dishes, and furniture, making him a well versed and disciplined craftsman. His style can move from gestural watercolor studies, found on wine labels throughout Napa, to geometric or free flowing patterns. His classical human figures, painted with a well-studied understanding of human anatomy and proportion, are depicted with a variety of attitudes and movements. The garden is filled with interesting objects of art ranging from classical to whimsical.
Visiting Villa Ca’Toga is a rare opportunity to see how an artist chooses to develop the space around him. The villa is open to the public seasonally and Carlo’s gallery in the center of town is definitely worth a visit, too. Many of the local Napa wineries feature his enormous wall murals. For more on Carlo Marchiori visit him online at www.catoga.com.
I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to this ancient, magical art form. The next time you visit a Las Vegas Casino, A Napa Valley winery, or one of the Disney Resorts, take a closer look and you may be surprised to find a bit of Trompe l’oeil fooling your eye.