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Architecture

Portofino’s Painted Houses

What’s Real and What’s Illusion?

“In the seaside towns of Liguria’s Italian Riviera–and most especially in the photogenic little yachting haven of Portofino–all is not as it seems.”

Sometimes, windows are not windows, doors are not doors, and even balconies and flower boxes are not balconies or flower boxes at all. They’re simply painted on for effect. 

Such is the case in Portofino, where the gelato-coloured houses, each with uniform forest-green shutters, have graced more postcards and travel brochures over the years than can ever be counted. Look closely though, and you’ll realise that many of the shutters, large cornerstones, elaborate carved arches, porticos and gothic colonnades are skilfully painted onto the walls. You’ll find this decorative illusionism in Santa Margarita, Camogli, Nervi and the five villages of Cinque Terre too, as well as further up the coast all the way towards the French Riviera. 

But unlike the cutesy cafes and overpriced fruit shops, these “fake” house facades are not done for the benefit of tourists. The trompe-l’oeil painted houses along the Ligurian coast are nothing new: this artistic trickery has been going on for centuries. So what’s the story behind the unique tradition, and who is it meant to be tricking?

Since the Renaissance, painted optical illusions have been popular, especially in northern Italy. Around the 17th century, the ever-practical Ligurians made the logical leap of using these depth-defying artworks on house facades instead of inside them, adding an illusion of beauty and wealth without having to commission (and pay for) fancy marble columns and window carvings. Some also credit high window taxes in the kingdom with cementing the tradition: it was cheaper to paint on windows and live in darkness than to build them. The specialised school of art became deeply rooted along the Genovese coastline, where masters began to teach pupils how to paint garlands, medallions, niches, balustrades, windowsills and 3D illusions with all sorts of friezes to dazzle the onlooker. As with other Renaissance artwork, the skill and the secret is all about perspective.

From the grandest palazzi to the most modest apartments, visual tricks are everywhere in Portofino. Some of the decoration is simply detailing–painted garlands along rooflines, curlicues under eaves or colourful ribbons over doorways. Others have more symbolic meaning. 

For the residents of Portofino (of which there are under 400), the history and tradition of their painted houses is of deep importance. This summer, a chance meeting with a born and bred Portofinese (“Six generations DOC!” he tells me proudly) called Mino Viacava brought the curious tradition to life. 

Mino comes from a long line of Portofino builders. His great-grandfather Emanuele was a brick-layer, while his grandfather Gerolamo had a particular talent for restoring the friezes of historic villas. In fact, he was once commissioned to restore part of the castle of Baroness Von Mumm, “La Baronessa di Portofino”, a formidable Scottish-German-Italian character who is credited with persuading Nazi forces to spare Portofino from destruction on their retreat in 1945.

Mino too had spent much of his working life constructing villas for Portofino’s aristocratic residents and holiday-makers, before returning to his family’s eco-farm Portofinese in the hills just above town.

Mino explains that the decorative house facades would traditionally all be done as frescoes–painted onto wet plaster so the colour dried into the walls. Mino and his team would use natural local pigments which gave ochre and terracotta colours. As Mino explains, the Portofinese “are very attached to their territory and traditions, and pay great attention in fixing the paintwork with absolute precision.” They had to work quickly once the walls had been plastered to get the layers of pigments on, sometimes working all night by candlelight before it dried. It paid off though: this way of decorating meant the intricate artworks lasted for 30, 40 or even 50 years against coastal weather conditions, stormy winters and abrasive sea air.

In the 1990s the old practice was left behind in favour of new synthetic paint technology. Since then, we’ve seen brighter, deeper colours, which only last a few years against the elements before they peel and have to be re-done. More recently, happily for people like Mino, the Ligurian region is seeing a return to the old ways of decorating, with apprenticeships set up under the University of Genova.

More than just looking pretty, there are many layers of historic meaning and purpose behind these colourful outdoor frescoes. One of the oldest types of paintwork is the marcapiano, a decorative technique used for indicating different floors of the building and the residents who live within. “The first floor might be a humble family without any decorations, while the second floor might be owned by a wealthy landlord who wants to show their status,” explains Mino, as with the brown and white line-markers to distinguish different floors on many houses in Portofino.

The painted houses had other practical uses too. “Originally the Portofinese were fishermen and sea-faring navigators,” Mino says, referring to his own ancestors. “They needed the bright colours to be able to see their homes and the villages from far out to sea, to distinguish which village it was, and to use specific houses as way-markers and tools for plotting their route.” The black and white stripes you’ll find on other houses date back to the Napoleonic wars, when Portofinese residents who were awarded knighthoods or military awards used their house decorations to boast their military statuses. Legend dictates that fake porticoes and doorways were also painted in the harbour during various wars to confuse and dumbfound invading enemies, giving residents the chance to hide or escape.

Whether or not this is true, many of the paintings are protected by local authorities and cannot be changed or removed. Indeed, if you’re lucky enough to own a house with an original frieze, you’re obliged to upkeep it every couple of decades with the same patterns and colours. Though the colours might be becoming brighter with modern paint, they’re a part of Portofino that is here to stay. 

Ironically for a town whose entire essence revolves around being illusionary–in creating visually-appealing spots to grace celebrity weddings and postcards and Instagram reels–the biggest illusion of Portofino is actually one of the most real.