Years ago while backpacking through Europe with some friends, I visited the Palazzo Spada in Rome. It must have been something we read about in “Let’s Go Europe” because otherwise I’m not sure how we got there.
Anyway, Palazzo Spada is famous for its incredible forced perspective gallery created by Francesco Borromini. In the midst of the density and limited space in the heart of Rome, the gallery gives a momentary sense of depth and grandeur akin to what one might find in a much larger country estate. It has an 8-meter long corridor that appears to be a considerably more grand 37 meters. Its centerpiece and visual destination is a “life-sized” sculpture that is actually only 60 centimeters tall.
It sounded crazy, so we were definitely intrigued!
When we first got to the palazzo, I wandered up to one long, beautiful corridor lined with columns and with a statue at the end. Such a site wasn’t particularly unique or exciting after a couple of months of traveling through Europe. We had seen probably 10 of them just in Rome. But, we were there to see the fake one! This one was the real deal, obviously not Borromini’s work.
Then, something weird happened. As I turned to keep looking for Borromini, I was suddenly disoriented. Wait…what the…hold on…
I momentarily lost a sense of where I was and even how big I was related to the things around me. Distance was a scramble. That long corridor got short then long then short. The sculpture was life-sized then tiny then… My eyes seemed to see one thing then another and then back to the first. I tried to focus. My mind tried to make sense.
But, my eyes and mind were wrestling with a carefully crafted lie (Borromini actually worked with a mathematician to help create it).
The illusion starts with controlling your vantage point. It entices you to the spot where you need to stand to perceive its fabricated truth. Once in position, it manipulates your horizon and narrows your vision toward a single vanishing point. It then constructs the objects around you relative to the truth of that horizon and vanishing point, closing off a broader world of scale and perspective.
As long as I unwittingly obliged its subtle and unseen rules, I saw what Borromini wanted me to see.
But, if I changed my vantage point, things shifted. As I moved, I regained control over my horizon. A step left…right. Squatting. Getting on my toes. My eyes adjusted away from Borromini’s very particular vanishing point. The things I knew and understood about the relation of objects in the world began to reclaim their rightful logic. The perspective was no longer forced. I was back in control because I had seen it for what it was.
Beyond art and Borromini’s clever trick, forced perspective manifests in life in at least two extraordinary and paradoxical ways:
1. In the negative, it is the tool of the abuser, the occupier, the oppressor. It is the carefully constructed, highly controlled, believable version of reality that is motivated by the destruction and control of the other. It shifts the rules, norms, and logic so fundamentally, yet subtly, (mathematically in Borromini’s case) that the oppressed colludes in his own oppression, the victim blames herself. Accepting plausibility as truth. Normalizing external definitions that destroy internal foundations. Disorienting to the point of confusion, uncertainty, and weakness. Forced. Perspective.
2. In the affirmative, on the other hand, it can actually draw us out of disorientation. It can focus and clarify. Provide control. It can be the tool that helps liberate us from the abuse and oppression described above. When life is in fact chaotic, unsure, unfocused, and scary, forcing perspective can be a way to survive, manage, and direct limited energy. When you are struggling, it can adjust your vantage point toward things that matter, things that you can control. In this sense, counter to its negative application, it can reorient you to your fundamental truths and strengths. It asks: Is your horizon set in relation to the things that matter most to you, or a construction built around some other illusion?
Forced perspective is part of our daily lives. The fine line between perspective as something we control versus something that controls us is fundamental to our relationship with our selves and the world. So, we must recognize it, name it, create it, and own it every day.
Otherwise, we may be forced to live a life defined by someone else’s perspective.