Pauline Marek: Italia America 2022

Artistic Expression – A Deep Dive into the Fresco Technique

The ability of expression through the use of art is one of the most powerful tools acquired by the humankind, it is a form of storytelling, a means for self-expression, and an expedient way to document the history of entire countries as well as civilizations. 

Forgotten Art Form

The Roman art technique utilized for murals referred to as Fresco was a commonly used method that could be found in various locations throughout Italy’s many timeless wonders, the technique itself permitted for Romans regardless of economical standing or social class to own mural paintings. The Fresco murals can be found throughout rich villas, private houses, as well as public buildings which sheds light on the broad range of prices that stemmed from the use of various pigments. The source of pigments used was the deciding factor in regards to price. It is universally known that ancient Romans used wall paintings as a means of interior design, Fresco was widely used for decoration purposes. The precise definition of Fresco is fresh plaster meaning that the entire technique was focused on applying natural mineral pigments onto freshly wet plaster, in Italian the painting technique is known as “affresco”. When creating wall paintings the artist would dissolve the natural mineral pigments in lime water before applying it to the wet layer, Fresco, and lastly applying the final thin layer, intonaco, on to the pigment. The murals created depicted scenes of fantasy, flora, and fauna, however, Fresco murals were also made with the intention of being prized possessions meant to represent success. 

In reference to the symbolism behind Fresco mural paintings, certain murals were painted with the intention of being triumphal paintings. Triumphal paintings were meant to depict military success with images portraying battle as well as battling campaigns, the imagery used was intended by the owner to impress the public. The Column of Marcus Aurelius is one of the most profound examples of Fresco with the intent of boasting one’s triumphs, the column signifying the celebration of victory located in Rome was a commemoration for the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Prominent Fresco mural paintings can be found throughout parts of Pompeii, the house of Ara Maxima, and the highly regarded Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Despite Fresco murals being relatively affordable other art techniques slowly began to rise to popularity, the antique method came with setbacks as the process was very fast paced due to the surface drying relatively quickly putting a lot of pressure on the artist. By the mid-16th century modern oil paintings took over replacing Fresco. 

Revisiting the Process

Mural paintings that were created using the Fresco technique required the artist to apply mortar directly to the wall being used for the painting, the mortar would have to be applied thickly requiring anywhere up to three layers. The mortar used consisted of various materials but most commonly contained calcium hydroxide also known as slaked lime and volcanic pozzolana would also be mixed in. Volcanic pozzolana could have been interchangeably used with coarse sand, both were effective for the process. Once the mortar was successfully applied onto the wall, a following three coats of slaked lime and crushed marble were used in order to create a smoother surface to work with. During this process crushed marble could also be replaced with fine sand as it was also effective with slaked lime in smoothing down the mortar layer. Regardless, calcium carbonate would form on the surface due to exposing slaked lime to air which in turn would cause it to dry and react. In order for the surface of the wall to be prepared to take on pigment, the surface had to be further polished and made smooth. The surface can be further polished by utilizing either glass, cloth, or even marble to acquire the most desired results. Before the wet layer, also referred to as Fresco, had enough time to fully dry the artist had to outline the overall design and drawings into the wet plaster. Drawing the outlines prior to the wet plaster drying would have produced the best outcome in regards to how well the layer would catch the pigment and look overall. 

Once the mural wall was finally prepped, the artist could then officially start preparing the pigments and applying color to the outlined designs. The Fresco technique requires the artist to utilize primary colors first as they were the most bold and prominent in pigment, soft pastel colors were then added second. Soft pastel pigments were applied using a medium known as secco which is a dry plaster. When both the primary colors and soft pastel colors were fully dried the artist could then start work on detailing the artwork, secco was also used as a means of detail work.

Colorful Ordeal

The natural mineral pigments used for the purpose of bringing color to the Fresco mural paintings determined the final overall price, the individual commissioning the artist would be able to decide the quality of the materials used to create the art. In regards to the color red, a wealthy Roman would be able to afford the more expensive medium and acquire their red pigment from cinnabar which is a form of mercury. Meanwhile a less prosperous Roman would be able to use red ochre or heated white lead for the red pigment used in their Fresco mural painting. Vermillion was another orange-red pigment that was used in antiquity for mural paintings, the expensive mineral made from red mercuric sulfide was just another option to be used. The yellow pigment was obtained from ochre, black pigment could be made from burnt brushwood or pine chips, and a blue pigment referred to as “Egyptian Blue” was acquired by mixing sand and copper together before baking them. Deep purple pigment had two main sources that Romans used, the purple color was made from either sea whelks or heated orange-hued haematite. Green pigment was procured from various minerals, glauconite as well as celadonite were two minerals commonly used for their vibrant green color in Fresco mural paintings. Notable to mention were the Greeks in regards to the medium used, the pigments that were utilized for artistic purposes were unoriginal to the Romans but rather adopted from the Greeks.

The Evolution of Fresco

The Fresco art technique utilized by the ancient Romans underwent numerous periods of evolution in order to continue to fulfill demands as well as trends of evolving antiquus times. Four distinguishable time periods in ancient Rome depicted alterations to mural artwork and the Fresco technique, each period of time introduced a new concept and focal point. 

150-90 BCE

The Fresco mural technique was first introduced to ancient Rome during 150-90 BCE, murals created during this time were heavily influenced by the Greeks and were best characterized as flat projections that were meant to portray basic objects. Marble blocks were often painted onto walls of public buildings and private residences using the Fresco wall painting technique, the paintings were meant to portray simple columns and blocks. However, the pigments used were nevertheless very vivid and were a prominent characteristic of what is referred to as the “First Style” in reference to the Fresco method. 

First Style
90-25 BCE

During 90-25 BCE a massive change in art technique was acknowledged as murals began to portray illusions such as depth, being able to incorporate significant depth in artwork allowed for artists to create a sense of greater space. Ancient Romans began to focus on much more extravagant and elaborate themes for their Fresco murals, many artists were commissioned to create scenes of landscapes and gardens. The artwork became grander over time so much so that entire interior walls within buildings were covered with the intent of creating an illusion where aspects of nature from the outside world took over the inside space. Shading and perspective were also heavily incorporated into murals dating back to what is known as the “Second Style” of the Fresco Technique, this allowed artists to create illustrations that made it appear as though one was overlooking a luscious landscape or garden from within the comfort of their home. 

Second Style
20 BCE- 20 CE

During the time period 20 BCE- 20 CE a noticeable shift was noted as ancient Romans began to focus more on the decorative aspects of the mural created via the Fresco technique. Due to murals being ornamentally focused the concept of space and depth were pushed aside, artwork once again became flat and two dimensional. Artists begin to use less pigments to create their mural art, they heavily focused on colors such as red, white, and black to create monochrome linear drawings for the background. However, landscapes and scenes of nature more specifically rural areas were heavily depicted in the artwork to create a cohesive Fresco mural. The lack of perception and usage of monochromatic flat images characterized what is referred to as the “Third Style” of the Fresco technique. 

Third Style
40 CE

The final alteration that took place in regards to the Fresco mural technique was most profoundly known for the reintroduction of depth into the artwork, this allowed for perspective to be brought back into the mural so that the illusion of space can be created once again. Artists became more heavily focused on detail work as their ornamental work became more intricate, this allowed for various scenes of nature and fantasy to be incorporated into the interior design of a building. Certain Fresco murals were composed of Greek myths, fantasy scenes, still life, and even floral borders to accentuate certain focal points of the art. The increase in mural complexity and incorporation of illusion is what defined the final prominent “Fourth Style” of the Fresco technique.

Fourth Style

Withstanding the Test of Time

Although only a select few specializing artists still prioritize the Fresco art technique, the murals dating back all the way to antiquity have remained intact and are still well preserved due to the technique itself. During the Fresco technique a chemical reaction takes place when slake lime is applied to the surface of the wall, when the slake lime and fine sand are applied to the mortar layer it begins to dry as a result of the reaction taking place. The direct exposure to air will cause calcium carbonate to form as a result of calcium hydroxide and carbon dioxide combining together during the chemical reaction. Calcium carbonate presents itself as a transparent film that forms over the surface of the wall which is where Fresco murals acquire their tarnish resistance. 

The durability of the Fresco technique was ultimately proven with the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, despite the mass destruction caused to the city of Pompeii many mural picture galleries created with the use of Fresco were still found preserved. The recovery of the Fresco murals showed the extent of how significant the calcium carbonate film was in the tarnish resistance, it was also documented that the volcanic ash proved to be another key element in the conservation of the artwork. Murals made with the Fresco method have withstood the test of time, although currently many may not be aware of the technique behind the artwork some of the most renowned sights in Italy are those of Fresco murals. 

Application

Although the Fresco technique is not as prominent as it once was during the Renaissance Era in ancient Rome influences of it can be seen in present day applications. A popular method of protection in regards to maintaining the integrity of the exterior structure of a house is to use stucco. Stucco is a material used to create a layer of durability against various weather conditions. Much like Fresco, the intent of the stucco application is a wet to dry finish which can as a result withstand elements such as fire and any mass impacts. A previous technique used for artwork during the Renaissance Era is now being utilized for construction purposes, the durability which Fresco provided murals is now used for providing secure homes.

On the other hand, certain artists such as Ali Cavanaugh have continued to utilize this technique to create artwork with a modern approach. Fresco painting has made it apparent that the art technique continues to be timeless as it has brought about new purposes for the method as well as continued to inspire new generations of artists. 

References

Fiore, Julia. “The Frescoes in Pompeii’s Lavish Villas Reveal the Fabulous Lives of Ancient Romans.” Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-frescoes-pompeiis-lavish-villas-reveal-fabulous-lives-ancient-romans (August 2018)

Gomez, Nina. “The Four Styles of Roman Wall Paintings.” Honors Program in Rome. University of Washington. https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/ninamil7/TheFourStylesofRomanWallPaintings/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html (September 2005)

Lepinski, Sarah . “Roman Stuccowork.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stuc/hd_stuc.htm (March 2012)

“Roman art – wall painting techniques.” RSC Education. Royal Society of Chemistry 2022., https://edu.rsc.org/resources/roman-art-wall-painting-techniques/1960.article (September 2015)

“Roman art – wall painting techniques.” RSC Education. Royal Society of Chemistry 2022., https://edu.rsc.org/resources/roman-art-wall-painting-techniques/1960.article (September 2015)

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Fresco Painting.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/art/fresco-painting. (April 2022)

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