Art of Ceilings and Walls: History of Fresco

Written by Milan Jara

There are few words from the art world that are as recognizable as fresco. It is a word that brings to mind the walls of Italian palaces or the ceiling of a medieval church, but this artistic technique dates back much further than the Renaissance. Frescoes are found in the ruins of Minoan temples, on the walls of Roman baths, and in caves on the Indian subcontinent. The technique of fresco-painting has survived well into the modern era, with sprawling examples in Mexico City and Washington, D.C. Unlike a painting that sits in a frame on a wall, a fresco is part of the wall and can last for millennia.

What Are Frescoes?

Frescoes are murals painted on wet lime plaster. As the plaster dries, the paint binds with it and becomes a part of the architecture. The word fresco is Italian for "fresh," and describes both the type of water mixed with the paint and the freshness of the plaster as it is painted. The earliest frescoes are found on the island of Crete and are attributed to Minoan artists. The frescoes, some of which date to 1500 B.C., are one of the few ways scientists are able to study this ancient culture.

As time passed, the art of fresco-painting spread throughout the Mediterranean. Vibrantly painted frescoes can be found throughout antiquity. Egyptians painted frescoes on the walls of their tombs, and both ancient Greeks and Romans used frescoes to decorate homes and temples, with examples surviving today at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Fresco-painting came back to prominence during the Middle Ages and reached its height during the Renaissance. Frescoes were painted on the walls and decorated ceilings of homes, palaces, churches, and cathedrals as permanent artwork that denoted style as well as status. The most famous examples of fresco murals date from the Renaissance, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

The art of fresco painting was not restricted to Europe. Frescoes dating from 600 to 200 B.C. have been discovered in caves in India that illustrate the Jataka tales. The frescoes were painted on the ceiling and walls using a technique similar to the buon fresco method. A mixture of wet limestone was spread over the desired surface and painted as it dried using natural pigments. Frescoes have also been found in Sri Lanka that date to 400 A.D. The frescoes are done in the fresco lustro style, with pigments that contain a glue or binding agent. They are the only example of Sri Lankan artwork that has survived from antiquity.

The Technique

There are three types of fresco painting: buon fresco, succo fresco, and mezzo fresco. Buon, or true, fresco is the most permanent type of fresco painting. First, a layer of lime plaster is applied to the work surface, called the arriccio. The artist uses the arriccio to sketch out the basic shapes of the fresco in a red pigment called sinopia. Later Renaissance artists like Michelangelo would also scrape indentations into the arriccio, which created the illusion of depth.

Once the arriccio sets, the artist goes over a section of the work area with a thin layer of lime plaster called the intonaco. After the intonaco is laid, the artist ideally has eight to nine hours to paint before the plaster becomes too dry to work with. Buon fresco paints are mixed with pure water and applied with a brush, which allows the pigments to seep into the wet plaster. The intonaco of any area that is not completed is scrapped off and finished later.

Secco fresco is fresco painting on dry plaster and is often done in conjunction with buon fresco to add depth, darken colors, or fix mistakes. Pigments applied using the buon method vary greatly as they dry, so artists use the secco method to even coloration. Secco paints are traditionally mixed with egg instead of water. Unlike buon fresco, paint applied using the secco fresco method stays on the surface of the mural and can be flaked off.

Mezzo fresco is a method used on nearly dry plaster. This type of fresco was more common at the end of the 16th century and eventually became the method of choice when creating a fresco. Because the painting is done on a nearly dry surface, mezzo fresco gives the artist more control over pigmentation and allows for later corrections to be made. Frescoes were generally painted from the top down to prevent paint from falling on a lower section of the completed work.

Examples of Frescoes

There are thousands of beautiful frescoes covering nearly every major epoch in art. Here are a few examples that illustrate the artistry, delicacy, and timelessness of this ancient technique:

- Milan Jara

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