Ancient Illusions and Camera Obscura

Think optical illusions are new?  Think again!

Holbein - The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors – Holbein

At Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, we have many exhibits that are very old.  Some of our 3D images date back to the late 19th century, while the Camera Obscura itself is a whopping 160 years old.  But optical illusions are even older than that.


The Hidden Skull


A painting, The Ambassadors,  by the famous Renaissance artist Hans Holbein contains a hidden skull.  Can you see it?It is the weird shape at the bottom.  It only looks like a skull when you look at the painting from the right.


It is really spooky.  Holbein put it there to remind everyone that death awaits us all, which is even spookier. But optical illusions were not always so creepy, especially ancient ones.  The Greeks and Romans were fans of optical illusions. Take the Parthenon in Athens…..


The Parthenon


The Parthenon – exaggerated

Built over 2,500 years ago in Athens, it may not look like an obvious example of an ancient optical illusion, but it is.  The whole building is a giant illusion.  There are no straight lines in its entire construction.  It is hard to see, which is the point.  It is so big that all the sides and columns need to be curved to appear straight.

This is an exaggerated version of what it actually looks like. The Parthenon is an expensive optical illusion, but they were also used to make cheap things look expensive.  In ancient Rome, marble was fashionable for decoration, but it was very expensive.  Therefore, many people had their walls painted to look like marble.

House of Griffins

House Of Griffins 

This is the House of the Griffins underneath the Palatine hill in Rome.  It is a late Republican House that was buried when the Emperor Domitian built his palace in the late first century.  The owner wanted the walls to look like they had expensive marble panels, so these were painted on.

The ancient world loved optical illusions.  Pliny the Elder (writing in the first century AD and killed in the eruption that destroyed Pompeii) tells a story of a Greek painter, Zeuxis, in the 5th century BC, who was in a painting competition and won by painting grapes so lifelike that they fooled the birds into trying to eat them.  His competitor, Parrhasius, did even better, for when Zeuxis asked him to draw back the curtain and show his painting, Parrhasius revealed that the curtain WAS the painting.  Zeuxis responded that while he had fooled the birds, Parrhasius had fooled him (The story is in Pliny’s Natural History 35:36).


It seems that throughout history, everyone has loved a good illusion.  So come for a visit today to join in the hands-on illusionary fun that’s packed into the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions building!


Written by Jen Cresswell

Picture credits:

Holbein The Ambassadors: Wikipedia

The Ambassadors detail: Wikipedia

The Parthenon: Wikipedia.

The Parthenon exaggerated:

The House of the Griffins: Jen Cresswell

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