The Fake Dome by Andrea Pozzo

One of the artworks for which the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome is famous is the “fake dome” created by Andrea Pozzo in 1685 at the request of the Jesuits (who apparently ran out of money to build a real one). The history of this fake dome is truly interesting:

To understand the fake dome, you need to get to know Andrea Pozzo:


Brother Andrea Pozzo

Andrea Pozzo was born in Trento in 1642, nearly a century after the death of St. Ignatius. He studied in Trento at the Jesuit school and then moved to Milan, where he became a lay member of the Society of Jesus: he took his vows at the age of 23, in 1665.

In Milan, he worked for 2 years on the completion of the church of San Fedele, considered one of the reference models of sacred architecture of the Counter-Reformation art, and here he began his professional training inspired by the works of Pellegrino Tibaldi (a Bolognese architect and painter, already dead for more than half a century). An important element of San Fedele is that the church was temporarily equipped with a fake dome: this inspired Pozzo for his subsequent works.

Then Andrea Pozzo moved to Genoa, where he encountered the works of Rubens (in one of Rubens’ paintings in Genoa, there is another fake dome), and later he moved to Mondovì in the province of Cuneo, where he created his first fake dome, actually a fake drum since the calotte was missing. This first experience led him to think about how to calculate and solve the perspective problem of creating a complete fake dome.

For his fake domes, Andrea Pozzo was also inspired by past artists who had attempted similar perspective creations, particularly Melozzo da Forlì and the works of the Sacred Mountain of Varese.

Andrea Pozzo in his life created 8 fake domes, but the most famous one is in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome.


the fake dome

The original project of the church envisaged a very imposing real dome (remember that the church is 81 meters long and 43 meters wide, so consequently the central dome also had to be very large), but the prolonged construction over the decades had drained the finances and it seems that in the end the Jesuits ran out of money to build a real dome.
And maybe this wasn’t even the only reason that led to a more economical painted fake dome: it is also said that there was some powerful and influential person living in the immediate surroundings who had forbidden the construction of a dome over the Church of the Roman College to not lose the view from his attic, or perhaps it was the fathers of the nearby Casanatense Library who did not want the large dome to cast too much shadow on their library. Then malicious tongues hypothesize that the Dominicans of the nearby Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (which has no dome but only decorated cross vaults) did not want to be diminished in comparison. However, the economic aspect was the most important.

For Andrea Pozzo, the fake dome of the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome was his third Roman work: the first was the marvelous Corridor of St. Ignatius (the one leading to the rooms of St. Ignatius), and the second was the small chapel of St. Anthony at the Baths (which was a place where St. Ignatius lived for a few months shortly before his death).

Andrea Pozzo painted the fake dome not on the ground, but already inverted in the correct position and raised a little over 2 meters high, and he found himself painting a round canvas of 16 meters in diameter (and therefore more than 200 square meters of surface) in a closed and dark space under the supporting framework. Obviously, the canvas is not a single piece, but a collage of 21 strips 80 centimeters wide each, nailed to wooden planks.
The artist “putting his hand to this much-debated enterprise made a large wooden frame covered with pure canvas the size of the opening of the great dome and, raising it in the air just enough to be able to paint from the ground, began to work with his creative brush according to the rules of his perspective”.

And Pozzo completed the work in a very short time: he started painting at the beginning of May and finished on the 20th of June 1685, the day on which the canvas and the frame (which weighs about 4000 kg) were raised to 33 meters in height to their current position.

The final effect is that of a completely convincing dome:

the fake dome by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

On the church floor, there is a spot marked by a golden disc from which the optical illusion is perfect. Looking closely at the photo above, you can also see the diagonal lines of the new framework that supports it: it is the framework of the last restoration in 1962.


damages and restorations

The painted dome we see today has been repaired and restored several times because over time it has suffered numerous damages, starting with the normal candle smoke used to illuminate the church that accumulated on the canvas over the years, and then from water infiltrations. A first serious damage occurred in 1818 due to a fire of a catafalque during the funeral of Isabella of Braganza and there was a first restoration in 1823 by the painter Francesco Manno who essentially redid the entire dome. A second major damage was a tear in the canvas caused by the air displacement following the explosion of the Monteverde powder magazine on April 23, 1891: it was a tremendous roar and the resulting shock wave was so powerful that it shattered several windows and lifted a huge cloud of dust. The canvas of the fake dome was seriously damaged by the 1891 explosion, and it remained so for a long time: a few days after, the tears were quickly patched up and remained that way for about 70 years, until the last restoration in 1962, by which time the canvas was in really poor condition, so much so that its mention as a work of art in tourist guides had been removed for decades.

The critical moment of the 1962 restoration was lowering the canvas to the ground without damaging it: for the operation, the Rome Fire Department was called in, who built a circular iron framework (weighing 5400 kg) which was raised by 16 hand-operated winches by a team of 40 firefighters over 4-5 hours until it reached the canvas of the fake dome 33 meters high, at which point the old wooden framework was detached from the original supports and laid on the new iron frame to be lowered to the ground. Once the canvas was restored, it was attached to the lower part of the iron frame and raised again by hand to its original position.


distinguishing illusion from reality

The illusion of space construction is an important concept, which connects to the Jesuit teaching of distinguishing between the point of view of personal opinion and “the truth” (at least the perceived one) that gives certainty to man, confirming his true position in space. In his life’s journey, man must always distinguish between illusion and reality, recognizing (and rejecting) the illusion of the evil one.

If you move to other positions in the church and look at the dome again, you realize it is an illusion. But at the same time, it is a reality: even if it is just a perspective canvas, it actually exists. You must understand both aspects. This is also the message of the Jesuit Andrea Pozzo, based on the concept of discernment developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The message hidden in the frescoed ceiling is more elaborate:


the frescoed ceiling

Another great work by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome is the great frescoed ceiling with the triumph of St. Ignatius: a work of great perspective illusion in which the fresco continues the geometric lines of the true underlying architectural structures until it makes the ceiling disappear in an open-sky illusion, focused on the figure of the saint who radiates a beam of light from his heart emitted by Jesus Christ, a beam reflected to the allegorical representations of the 4 continents where the Jesuits operated as missionaries.

the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Romephotocredit: LivioAndronico – CC 4.0 license

The allegories and hidden symbols in the fresco are very interesting: for more details, see the article on the frescoed ceiling with the triumph of St. Ignatius.


visiting St. Ignatius Church

To better prepare for your visit to the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome, refer to these other in-depth articles:



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For official information, please consult directly the official sources of the Diocese of Rome or the Jesuit Order.