Located in the heart of the French Riviera, Nice has a lot going for it. Warm, sunny summers; short, mild winters; two world-class art galleries; great food; and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Tens of thousands of tourists come each year, but most don’t even notice that some of the most impressive works of art are literally in front of their eyes. The following are some of the best trompe-l’oeil (optical illusion) works painted on buildings around town.
99 Quai des États-Unis
The side of this building that faces the Esplanade Georges Pompidou is entirely trompe-l’oeil. The only real architectural element on this otherwise flat surface is the overhanging gutter at the very top. The building is across the street from the 9 Oblique Lines sculpture on the Promenade des Anglais, close to the Nice Opera House. The Google Maps image on the right is from October 2010, before the building was painted.
14 rue Saint-François de Paule
This building is located behind the one above, but the trompe-l’oeil side faces the Esplanade Georges Pompidou. Although less detailed and interesting than its neighbor, it’s still worth seeing as the quality of the work is outstanding. The only real architectural elements are the railing, the chimney stacks, and the small window on the top floor. The building entrance is at 14 rue Saint-François de Paule, across the street from the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). The Google Maps view of the building in the inset is from 2008 when the area that is now the Esplanade was still a parking lot.
8 rue Saint-François de Paule
This building, housing the Hotel Cresp and Boulangerie Jeannot, is located next door to the Nice Opera House. The trompe-l’oeil is so well done, I walked past it for months without noticing that other than the shutters and the balconies, the architectural details are all painted on. What makes this particularly impressive is that fact that the trompe-l’oeil carries over to the side of the building facing the alley.
Chapelle de la Visitation – Sainte Claire, Place Sainte-Claire
The Chapel of the Visitation – Saint Claire is a bit off the beaten path but is well worth a visit. Dating from 1609, the chapel is built against the hillside on which Castle Park is located. To get there, head to the Place Saint-Francois and walk up the stone stairs to the left of Creperie Trimaran. You must turn left at the top of the stairs. Walk 100 feet and then take a nearly 180 degree turn right and walk up the path. The chapel is visible as soon as you turn the corner.
The interesting thing about the trompe-l’oeil on the chapel is that it was only added to the 4oo-year-old building in the 1980s. The work was carried out by Nice artists Patrice Giuge and Marc Lavalle and depicts classical architecture, making it different from all of the other works in this list.
Palais Nicole, rue de France 115
The Palais Nicole at rue de France 115 displays one of the more interesting and playful trompe-l’oeil paintings in Nice. As the your eye travels from the ground upward, the realism of the painting gradually gives way to a trompe-l’oeil in progress. An enormous pencil appears, sketching the remainder of the unfinished work. As with the two buildings listed earlier, the painting covers the flat side of a building, so none of the architectural details are real.
This is the largest trompe-l’oeil in Nice in terms of total surface area and yet it’s easy to miss. The same French Baroque neo-classical architectural elements appear on the front of every building in this square. These include rectangular pilasters, rounded balustrades, and alternating curved and triangular pediments. The inset Google Maps view is from 2008 and shows the same side of the square before the addition of the trompe-l’oeil elements.
4 rue Raoul Bosio, Mairie Annexe (City Hall Annex)
The Mairie Annexe is officially located on rue Alexandre Mari but the trompe-l’oeil side is on rue Raoul Bosio. To see the building from a distance, stand across the street in the breezeway that leads to the Palace of Justice. Even up close, it’s difficult to tell which architectural features are real and which are not. For example, the lintel above the door and the columns supporting it are made of stone. Almost every other detail you see is painted.
Place Ile-de-Beaute Porticos
The porticos that flank both sides of the Church of Notre-Dame at Nice Port contain trompe-l’oeil medallions on the ceilings. Although hard to see due to their height above the ground, the paintings are highly realistic. Even when you stand beneath them, it’s difficult to believe they’re not plaster moldings.
Although most tourists go to the Musée Matisse to see the artwork inside, you should check out the exterior, too. All four sides of the 17th century Villa Genoise that forms the main block of the musuem are painted in trompe-l’oeil. The paintwork above the ground floor level is in poor condition, but the overall effect is still impressive. The heavy, vibrant red used as the base color contrasts strongly with the lighter, more textured painted features. The result is that the lintels, pilasters, and balustrades seem to have extraordinary depth and virtually pop out from the surface.
Maitre Jacques, Place Centrale
This is one of the smaller and harder to spot examples of trompe-l’oeil in town, but also one of the most technical. Positioned on the front of the Roberto 1er Gelateria building in the Place Centrale, it depicts a highly detailed statue of Maitre Jacques with deep shadows and grimy, timeworn textures that make it hard to believe it’s one-dimensional. Despite significant internet research, the story behind “Maitre Jacques” (Master Jack) remains a mystery.
Other Trompe-L’Oeil in Town
If you wander around Nice, you’ll see many other examples of trompe-l’oeil. Many are in excellent condition and add beauty and interest to buildings that would otherwise be forgettable. However, those that have been directly exposed to Nice’s intense summer heat and damp winters tend to be badly faded. Check out the following additional examples if you’re in the neighborhood:
- 85 Quai des États-Unis – On the wall beside the outdoor section of Restaurant Di Piu. In very poor condition.
- Place Rossetti – Above Antonia Cafe. In poor condition.
- Cours Saleya (Flower Market) – On the walls of both stairwells leading down to the car park beneath the square. Some in poor condition.
- 9 rue Cassini (Elodie Manildo Optique building) – The side facing rue Martin Seytour provides the best views of this work. This artistry is another work carried out by the Ponzanelli group, which also painted 8 rue Saint-François de Paule and part of Place Garibaldi. In excellent condition.
- Palais du Pin, 5 rue Emmanuel Philibert – Another work of the Ponzanelli group. Similar in design to 9 rue Cassini, which is a 3 minute walk from it. In excellent condition.