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Fresco (it. affresco — fresh) is a technique for wall painting on wet plaster, as opposed to the secco or fresco secco technique, in which paints are applied to an already dried plaster wall. In contemporary art, the term “fresco” denotes wall painting, regardless of the technique, in which it is performed.
At creating a classic fresco, the pigments should be resistant to alkaline reactions. When they are applied to wet plaster that is moistened with lime water, a chemical reaction occurs, so that the pigment is absorbed into the lime layer and, after drying, it is securely fixed. The artists applied the contours of the future fresco to the lower, coarser layer of plaster, and after its drying a thinner layer of lime mixture was applied, and the final painting was already made over it. To give more volume and expressiveness to the details, some artists outlined them with smooth depressed lines or scraped out a layer of plaster.
Because the plaster dries quickly enough (10 to 12 hours), only the part of the fresco to be painted within a working day was covered with it. The remains of the wet top layer were removed. The work continued the next day: the artist had to determine the area of the drawing, which he intended to paint, and fresh, wet plaster was applied to it. Calcining the lime in the plaster fixed the pigments and ensured durability and colour saturation.
Paintings on dry plaster were called secco (from the Italian secco — dry), and this type of painting required paints that included binders, such as glue, oil, eggs. The rough surface of the plaster when painting secco was more susceptible to time and moisture, therefore, classical frescoes were more appreciated, as their surface was very smooth, and the pigments were saturated. The only colour often used on “wet frescoes” after they dried was blue, since in the arsenal of the old artists there were no blue pigments available to be fixed in the lime-alkaline environment of the plaster.
Some artists used an intermediate painting technique — mezzo-fresco: it was carried out on a rough lower layer when it was slightly damp, but could no longer be pressed with a finger. The artists Michelangelo and Tiepolo created their frescoes in this technique.
Looking back at the history of humanity, the fresco technique was used as early as the 6th—3rd centuries BC by artists of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the countries of the Orient. The first classical frescoes, that were painted on wet plaster, were found on the islands of the Aegean sea, they date back to the 2nd century BC. Homes and tombs in ancient Greece were decorated with wall paintings. The famous Roman frescoes that were found during the excavations of the ancient Pompeii are widely known. Painting on lime plaster was popular for decorating houses and temples in India, Turkey, Sri Lanka.
In Europe, fresco painting began to gain popularity during the late Middle Ages and flourished during the Renaissance. An enormous contribution to the development of the technology was made by the Italian painter Giotto, who was the first to depict biblical events against a realistic architectural and landscape background, thereby breaking the canons of the Byzantine art school.