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Anamorphosis is a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute the image. The word “anamorphosis” is derived from the Greek prefix ana-, meaning back or again, and the word morphe, meaning shape or form.
There are two main types of anamorphosis: perspective (oblique) and mirror (catoptric).
Examples of perspectival anamorphosis date to the early Renaissance (fifteenth century).
Examples of mirror anamorphosis were first created in the late Renaissance (sixteenth century). With mirror anamorphosis, a conical or cylindrical mirror is placed on the drawing or painting to transform a flat distorted image into a three-dimensional picture that can be viewed from many angles. The deformed image is painted on a plane surface surrounding the mirror. By looking uniquely into the mirror, the image appears undeformed. This process of anamorphosis made it possible to diffuse caricatures, erotic and scatological scenes and scenes of sorcery for a confidential public.
Leonardo’s Eye (Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1485) is the earliest known definitive example of perspective anamorphosis in modern times. The prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux may also possess this technique because the oblique angles of the cave would otherwise result in distorted figures from a viewer’s perspective.
Hans Holbein the Younger is well known for incorporating this type of anamorphic trick. His painting The Ambassadors is the most famous example for anamorphosis, in which a distorted shape lies diagonally across the bottom of the frame. Viewing this from an acute angle transforms it into the plastic image of a skull. During the seventeenth century, Baroque trompe l’oeil murals often used this technique to combine actual architectural elements with an illusion. When standing in front of the art work in a specific spot, the architecture blends with the decorative painting. The dome and vault of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, painted by Andrea Pozzo, represented the pinnacle of illusion. Due to neighbouring monks complaining about blocked light, Pozzo was commissioned to paint the ceiling to look like the inside of a dome, instead of building a real dome. As the ceiling is flat, there is only one spot where the illusion is perfect and a dome looks real.