Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fooling the Eye

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

It’s probably not giving away a show-business secret to point out that the view from Frasier’s living room was not the actual skyline of Seattle.  The television show was filmed in Hollywood, so what was “outside” the window was a massive backdrop, called a translight, that had a photographic reproduction of the skyline of Seattle.  There was a daytime version of it and a nighttime version, but it was all inside Stage 25 at Paramount Studios.

Backdrops like that have been used in movies and television since the earliest days; set designers, Directors of Photography and technicians have been creating illusions of Canterbury and Casablanca for a long time.

Artists have been at it even longer in painting, sculpture and architecture, reproducing objects so faithfully that we’re tricked into thinking we’re seeing the real thing, at least for a moment.  According to Encyclopædia Britannica, an ancient Greek artist named Zeuxis “reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them.”

This technique is known to the art world as trompe l’oeil, a French expression that literally means “fool the eye”.  To use its correct French pronunciation, it should sound like someone is trying to stuff a towel in your mouth while you say “trawmp-loy”.

Fairly common trompe l’oeil images include portraits of people whose elbows or heads seem to be protruding out of the frame.  Actual windows in old buildings are sometimes bordered by faux drapes.  The trick, of course, is to create a three-dimensional effect on a two-dimensional surface.

Seventeenth and 18th-century artists like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Andrea Pozzo did spectacular ceiling frescoes in churches and palaces; often the illusion they created was that the top of the building was open to the sky.  (That effect didn’t work very well on rainy days.)

Pozzo was responsible for one of the most impressive examples of large-scale trompe l’oeil I’ve seen.  The Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome not only has three-dimensional saints seemingly circling overhead, Pozzo painted an incredibly realistic “dome” on the flat ceiling.  There’s a spot on the floor where you put your feet to get the maximum deceptive effect, and it’s so perfectly rendered, you’d swear that you’re looking at the inside of a dome.

Working on a much smaller scale, the 19th-century American still-life painter William Harnett was a master at creating illusions of everyday objects like musical instruments, envelopes — even bank notes.  Harnett was so good at making convincing reproductions of money, in 1886 he was arrested for counterfeiting.

In recent years there has been a lot of trompe l’oeil work in public spaces.  There are office buildings painted with ultra-realistic (but fake) balconies and other architectural embellishments.  There are trompe l’oeil pools in the middle of sidewalks, and statues that sure look like they are carved out of marble — nope, they’re painted on a flat surface.

Several months ago, the technique was even used in the interior of certain New York City subway cars (see photo, and click to enlarge).  Oh — and in case your eye is so fooled that you can’t tell, the man is real but the books are not.

Casus Belli

Robert Jenkins presents the evidence

Robert Jenkins presents the evidence

Years ago there was an item in the newspaper about an assault in a bar.  Two guys had been arguing over this age-old question:  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  One of them tried to prove the logic of his argument by stabbing the other man.  The chicken-or-egg topic was the excuse for the fight, but the reason might have been too many beers.

The fancy term for that tipping point — the excuse for combat — is casus belli.  It’s Latin (so sometimes italicized), and according to Webster’s, it means “an event or political occurrence that brings about or is used to validate a declaration of war.”

One of the more colorful illustrations of a casus belli is a conflict historians call The War of Jenkins’ Ear.

The British had been fighting one opponent or another for centuries, but they took a little time off in 1729 to polish their buttons and reload.  There was lingering hostility between Britain and Spain, though; the Spanish suspected the English were violating the terms of a treaty by smuggling goods into or out of Spanish America.

In 1731, a Spanish patrol boat off the coast of Florida seized the merchant ship Rebecca, which was under the command of Captain Robert Jenkins.  According to his later testimony, Jenkins was bound to the mast of his ship and his left ear was severed.

The Spanish commander, Julio León Fandiño, supposedly said something like, “Go tell your king that I will do the same (to him) if he dares to do the same.”  Jenkins was probably in too much pain at that moment to think of saying, “What?  I can’t hear you,” which would have gotten huge laughs from his crew.

After eventually making it back to England, Jenkins reported the incident; through intermediaries, it supposedly reached King George II.  This news was now a bit inconvenient, however, because Britain and Spain were patching things up, thanks to the Brits supporting the Spaniards in The War of Polish Succession (1733-1738).

Jenkins seems to have been told, “We’ll be in touch,” because nothing came of his report until 1738, when the British were mad at the Spanish again.

Jenkins was brought in to testify again, this time to Parliament.  He brought a dramatic prop with him for this appearance:  An ear, supposedly his, that was kept in a pickle jar.

At that point in the story I start to get a little skeptical.  First of all, why would Fandiñ0 have lopped off his ear and then given it back to him?  “OK,  almost done now… and — here you go!”  Secondly, it seems odd that Jenkins would think, “Cool.  I’m keeping this as a souvenir.”

Anyway, the political climate had changed to the extent that Parliament was now ready to go to war (again) with Spain.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear officially began in 1739; most of it was fought in the Americas, including what is now Colombia, as well as Georgia and Florida.

Combat continued for several years, but by 1742 it had pretty much merged with the War of the Austrian Succession, in which the British and the Spanish were also on opposite sides.

Robert Jenkins’ ear was the casus belli that resulted in about 30,000 dead, wounded or missing.  Little is know about him after the early 1740s; he became so obscure, there is no historical record of which side Jenkins took in the chicken-versus-egg debate.