To many, Escher’s impossible buildings are the highlights of his oeuvre. These are the prints that visitors look for when they come to our museum. They stand in front of them and discuss with their family and friends what they see happening before their eyes. In that respect they really are conversation pieces. If you take ‘impossible’ in a broad sense, Up and Down, House of Stairs, Relativity, Convex and Concave, Print Gallery, Belvedere, Ascending and Descending and Waterfall can be defined as impossible buildings. But it is the last three of these that Escher himself referred to as such and which are also the ones most open to interpretation. ‘Look, see that? That’s impossible, right?’
During a lecture in 1963, Escher once said*:
‘If you want to draw attention to something impossible, you must try to deceive first yourself and then your audience, by presenting your work in such a way that the impossible element is veiled and a superficial observer would not even notice. There should be a certain mysteriousness that does not immediately hit the eye’.
Escher was therefore very purposeful in deceiving his audience, disguising his impossibilities in such a way that at first sight it appeared possible for them to actually exist. The lithograph Belvedere is a perfect example of this. A three-dimensional building that can be neatly depicted on a flat surface, but is impossible as a spatial figure. Escher beautifully illustrates this contrast with the man on the bench. On the floor is a drawing of a so-called Necker cube. This is a perspective drawing of a cube whose lines intersect. This makes it impossible to tell which side is on the front. Hence this cube can exist on paper, but what he is holding in his hands does not. It is an object that is impossible. He looks at it in amazement, barely realising that there is an equally impossible building behind him. In 1958 Escher also made a wood engraving prominently featuring this man with his impossible cube.
The name of the building he is sitting in front of is a reference to the architectural term of the same name. Etymologically, ‘belvedere’ stems from the Latin for ‘beautiful view’. It is an addition to a building affording a better view, in the form of a gallery (also called an upper gallery) or a tower. Towers also had a strategic role, because they were used in defence. It can also be a complete building, often a palace or a castle, built on a hill or mountain in order to achieve the aforementioned beautiful view. In the Netherlands, the tower shape is common, whereas in the rest of Europe several examples of palaces are extant.
Escher’s print conflates tower and gallery. The walls that are spill over the sides of the frame on the left and right also seem to suggest that this beautiful view is an addition to an existing building. The characters’ clothing is a clear allusion to the late Middle Ages. The woman at the bottom right even has a direct link with Hell, the copy he made of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The landscape at which the people are looking cannot be defined geographically. But given Escher’s love for the Italian landscape, which he immortalised countless times in the prints he produced over the 1928-1935 period, we can say with near certainty that this is an Italian palazzo. Somewhere in the Abruzzo, for example, though Sicily is another candidate.
Our eyes are used to correctly interpreting three-dimensional objects on a flat surface through the laws of perspective. Lines that run away to a vanishing point that is out of the frame. Escher plays with that conditioned view and creates a building that seems to be correct perspectively. Just as he did previously in prints such as Convex and Concave and Up and Down – though also, in fact, in his first ‘impossible’ prints Still Life with Mirror and Still Life and Street – Escher combines images that are perfectly logical separately, but not when they are merged. In this case the top of the building and the bottom with the terrace, walls, dungeon and stairs below. The ladder and the columns unite the two halves. If you were to cut this in two, you would have two ‘normal’ images. Although it seems as if the man on the stairs in the bottom image is going to replace a light bulb rather than climb up a facade.
By connecting the two halves by means of the columns and the stairs, Escher creates a subtle but very convincing impossibility. The top figure on the stairs seems to be looking down mockingly. He is reminiscent of a jester, the joker at court whose role it is to make everyone laugh. In this case, he seems to be the only one who gets the joke.
[*] Lecture for the Mathematical Centre Amsterdam, 5 November 1963.