THE SACRED ART JOURNAL
VOLUME 13 NUMBER 3 SEPTEMBER 1992
A Publication of the St. John of Damascus Association of Orthodox Iconographers, Iconologists, and Architects
FRESCO HISTORY AND TECHNIQUE
by Richard and Deborah Zuccarini
Flgtze 1. Fresco painting and color grinding. From a Florentine print, c. 1465.
MY FIRST INTRODUCTION to the art of fresco was at a very young age, when I was taken to the Detroit Institute of Art and exposed to the Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera. I’ll never forget the awe and excitement I felt as I walked through the gates to the courtyard where the murals live. I still feel it today — on every visit. It wasn’t until many years later that my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting two people who worked as apprentices on these murals under Rivera, Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff. It was through their generosity and tutorage that we embarked on a journey to become fresco artists. We have found that learning the day-to-day workings has only increased our excitement and awe for the work that has been done before us. The present article will supply a brief history on fresco and enough instruction to enable the reader to feel this same excitement.
First, in order to create a fresco, it is necessary to understand the process. In fresco buono you paint with pure pigments on wet lime plaster. As the plaster cures, a layer of crystal forms over the pigment, locking it into the surface. This is what gives fresco its beautiful matte finish and permanence.
It is commonly believed that the paintings on the walls of the famous caves at Lascaux, France, were put there for magical or religious purposes. It is impossible for us to know what reason those early artists actually did have for the lovely, often highly realistic, renderings of animals. What is most certainly true is that they had no idea, when applying chalk and charcoal and colored earth to the damp limestone walls, that they were creating the world’s earliest known frescoes. If it is correct that the images were a means of reaching a level of influence, a spiritual avenue to affecting earthly life, then they are possibly also the first icons. At some 30,000 years of age this cavernous art museum surely proves that wall-painting is the mother of all painting. Fresco has been used in Western and Eastern art for at least 4,000 years.
Although there are few wall paintings remaining, we know that the Greeks developed it — and true fresco — to a high level of expertise. Perhaps the best evidence exists within the
Figure 2. Roman wall painting from a villa at Boscoreale,
near Naples. Late 1st cent. B.C. Height: 96 in.
Minoan remnants on the islands of Crete and Thera. The former is most famous, and reconstructions of the fabulous Palace of Knossos give some idea of the colorful, spontaneous, and eloquent design-sense of the Minoans. There contains evidence that fresco was not just for the privileged and royal minority; many household wall decorations are found there.
The Greek methods spread and continued through the Roman civilization. They evolved and changed; the Romans gave names to the processes and pigments, some of which we use today. For instance, sinopia is so called for the red oxide pigment traditionally used to draw it, the Roman sinoper.
In Pompeii and Herculaneum, “fortuitously” preserved for us by layers of volcanic ash, we can see how fresco was used to brighten windowless stone rooms. The Romans painted scenes of the outdoors, lively people, and trome 1’oeuil doors, arches, and windows to help relieve claustrophobia. Here, too, art was used for sacred purposes; gods and the rituals serving them were depicted in both an educational and decorative manner. In some houses there is found layer-upon-layer of lime plaster, indicating that wall paintings may have been changed much as we change wallpaper.
The methods of the mural painters of ancient Egypt were not true fresco. They are called fresco secco to indicate that the painting was done on dry plaster. Here various gums and glues were derived from plants to bind the pigments to the surface, as well as casein, made from milk solids. Unlike wet lime painting, most of these, except casein, are far from permanent. Some magnificent wall paintings can be blown away with the slightest breath, like so much dust.
So called after the name of one of them, coemeterium ad catacumbas. the catacombs of Rome were never actually used to hide Christians during persecution, nor were they secret places for worship. They were, however, the burial place of thousands of Christians. The wall paintings found there are simple depictions of biblical parables considered appropriate symbollically to environs of the dead: the raising of Lazarus, Jonah being regurgitated by the fish. The Christians were not the first to decorate their burial places, they were continuing a tradition in a style long practiced by the Romans. Roman painting had evolved to a level of such sophistication that the simple brushstroke was prized; the ability to depict a complete subject with a minimum of strokes is considered a very modern concept in art. To the untrained eye, and to later artists who copied the style, such art may appear awkward and clumsy. In later years, when the history of the earlier, great civilizations was lost, artists seem to have continued from a starting point of those simple, childlike images. Realism and perspective were no longer employed.
The crisis of the Catholic Church, and its subsequent division, helped to preserve the old ways, and, in a way, helped to preserve fresco buono. Cut off from the continuing evolution of Western Art, the Eastern Orthodox frescoes are thought to be true to the Greek and Roman methods. When Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in 1204 the painters employed by the church needed to go elsewhere for work. The artists who decorated Our Lady’s Church at
Figure 3. Page from a medieval pattern book. Top figure
holds a stone muller in his right hand and a
wooden ‘amassette’ for scraping pigment in his left.
Studenica in Serbia are known to have come from there. The monastery shared many of the trials and tribulations endured by the people during their dramatic history, and approximately only one-fifth of the original frescoes remain. Extensive restoration work has made it possible to distinguish between the layer of the 13th-cent. frescoes and the more recent l6th-cent. layer. The I6th-cent. ones mainly repeated the subject matter, all are themes common of Byzantine churches from approximately the same period. Other frescoes in the chapel, originating a quarter of a century after those of Our Lady’s Church, indicate the path Serbian painters took, unassisted by Greek painters. Contact with the Classical World was lost and Byzantine art began its own life.
The tradition of Byzantine fresco painting continued in the Balkans up to the 19th cent. However, in Russia an evolution took place from the 15th cent. onwards when mural painting began to grow stylistically closer to icon painting. The increase in the number of figures and accessories, the refined execution, the effects of modelling and the miniaturists’ taste for detail all required more time and application, which made finishing secco necessary. The preferred binders were egg, wheat starch, and sturgeon