1902 Encyclopedia > Fresco


FRESCO. Fresco-painting is the art of mural painting upon freshly-laid plaster lime whilst it remains damp, with colours capable of resisting the caustic action of the lime with which they are mixed or brought into contact. Fresco-painting might be called lime-painting, lime being the vehicle with which the colours are fixed, but the term would not be sufficiently distinctive, because colours mixed with lime may be applied under certain conditions to plaster which has been allowed to dry, an art which the Italians call painting "a secco," to distinguish it from "a fresco" or painting on newly-laid and still wet plaster. The art of painting with colours mixed with lime is very ancient; it was in use in Egypt from the remotest periods of the monumental history of that country ; but as it was carried to perfection by the Italians, it is needless to trace its de-velopment elsewhere than in Italy, where the most primitive examples—those existing in Etruscan sepulchral chambers dug in tufa—are marked by technical peculiarities which survive in fresco-painting to this day. The walls of tufa were prepared by being whitewashed with lime—a method revived in mediaeval mural pictures; and the outlines of the figures were drawn with a metal point or stylus, and subsequently coloured on the whitewash, which from the percolation, of water through the tufa remained permanently damp. In examples at Chiusi this outline is found limited exclusively to the external forms of the figures, a custom which reappears in niediaeval pictures of the school of the neighbouring Siena, whilst drawing on wet plaster with the stylus belongs to this art in every age. The colours used were earths, which were mixed with lime and laid on in flat tints, and earths for the most part ate the colours still employed in fresco-painting. The Romans, probably owing to Greek influence and example, carried the art much farther than their Etruscan predecessors, and established real fresco-painting in Italy. Vitruvius remarks, "Colours when carefully applied on moist stucco do not therefore fade, but last forever. Stuccoed walls, when well executed, do not easily become dirty, nor do they lose their colours when they require to be washed, unless the painting was carelessly done, or executed after the surface was dry." This is emphatically descriptive of fresco-painting. In this art it is essential that a given amount of plaster be laid for the painter at one time,—in modern practice only enough for a day’s work,—and therefore frescos are readily recognized by the joinings in the plaster, most fre-quently following the outlines of the figures or other objects. These joinings vary in distinctness in different works accord-ing to the skill of the plasterer. Sometimes they are clearly perceptible, at other times they are only discoverable on minate examination. It has been observed on painted walls in Pompeii that such joinings exist, but they are further apart and less frequent than in modern works gene-rally, suggesting either that the ancient artists painted more rapidly, or that several worked together on the same sheet of plaster, or that they knew how to keep the plaster fresh for more than one day, which, considering their great technical skill, is not improbable. Such wide divisions are found in the fragments of a mural painting of the 14th century existing in Sta Croce, and in others by Paolo Uccello, but this is explained by the completion of these pictures in distemper, whilst the Pompeian paintings are in fresco; for, besides the joinings, which are not incon-sistent with the presence of tempera, there are also marks showing the use of the stylus on damp plaster, and by experiments made by the late Sir Humphry Davy, it has been shown that all the colours employed contain lime; therefore they are fresco and not tempera.

It may be doubted whether any works of art produced in later times could have withstood the trials to which the mural paintings of Pompeii have been subjected from the action of heat and damp, the latter for centuries, without serious damage. The expression of Vitruvius that they would last forever has been so far justified. The processes of the ancients were not limited to fresco-painting; they were familiar with others of great beauty and durability, but these do not enter within the scope of the present notice. The construction of the walls and the system of plastering then in use are more important subjects of inquiry in connexion with fresco. Those unsurpassed builders, the Romans, faced walls intended to be painted, with a lining of bricks set on edge, detached by a small space from the main structure to which it was secured with leaden clamps. This was a precaution against damp well worthy of imitation. Generally, three preparatory coats of plaster were laid on this brick facing or on any other description of wall, the first consisting of lime mixed with pounded brick and pozzolana, the other two with lime and pozzo-lana. The finishing coat was frequently composed of lime and pounded marble, which was susceptible of an exquisite polish, after which it was painted by durable processes, the secret of which is now lost. For fresco-painting the last coat or intonaco consisted of lime mixed with sand only. A long gap now occurs in the progress of mural painting. Its practice is feebly illustrated in tombs and catacombs, interesting historically, but of little value technically. Finally it was displaced for a time by mosaic, but it was again revived in the 13th century, that great epoch of the resuscitation of the fine arts. The works of Giunta Pisano and some of his contemporaries in the upper church of St Francis at Assisi, executed in the first half of the 13th century, clearly indicate a knowledge of a system of fresco. In a history of the practice of this art these mural paintings, with those of Cimabue and his colleagues or assist-ants, and those by Giotto and his followers, deserve special consideration. They illustrate the early processes of fresco and mural painting upon which all the methods subse-quently followed were based. It is evident from the structure of the interior of the beautiful upper church of St Francis that the architect did not provide for its being painted internally. It was complete in its admirable mas-onry, and when it was determined to paint it, the only preparatory process possible was to cover the aslar with a thin coat of intonaco about one-eighth of an inch in thick-ness. Any plan of preparatory coats of plaster in the Roman manner would have buried the string courses and other mouldings, and ruined the proportions of the piers. True fresco-painting under such conditions was consequently very difficult, for the thin intonaco, laid on a stone wall which could not be soaked with water, of necessity dried rapidly. The mixed art of fresco and distemper which was thus made imperative at Assisi prevailed in mural painting, with certain modifications, for a long period everywhere.

The following is a brief statement of the methods of Giunta Pisano and Cimabue. Both artists practised, if they did not inaugurate, the system of outlining their subjects on the walls, which continued for two centuries, till it was abandoned for the better plan of preparing cartoons. A sketch was first made, and was squared in the usual manner with vertical and horizontal lines drawn to scale. The space to be painted was then squared proportionately, and, guided by the squares, the artist outlined his subject full size with charcoal on the wall. This done, with a hair pencil and some ochre mixed with water he passed over the general lines, and then brushed off the charcoal; he next marked in the entire composition with red "terra rossa" mixed with water only, this time entering more into detail, and even indicating the chiaroscuro. Where the ancient intonaco has fallen off, these red outlines are visible ; they have a mysterious grandeur, and those by the hand of Cimabue prove the possession on his part of freedom and power of drawing. Over these outlines the intonaco was spread in portions, and on it the artist marked the squares once more, and drew the outlines of the figures he meant to paint. That the intonaco was prepared in sections is proved, not only by the visible lines in the plaster, but also by the falling off of the leg of a figure, showing the cut made by the artist when he had finished his work. The cut follows the outline of the limb, and this process suffices to show that fresco-painting was practised in the first half of the 13th century, if any doubt should be entertained. The intonaco being spread, the artist painted his subject in a slight manner with terra rossa, laying in the chiaroscuro and details, after which the plaster was allowed to dry. The picture thus prepared was then coloured in distemper, and completed in every part. By the aid of Vasari and of Cennino Cennini a pupil of the school of Giotto, who completed his treatise on painting on the 31st July 1437, we have clear statements of the methods of mural painting followed by the Byzantine artists, and subsequently by the Italians. Cennino, in the most express terms, states that mural pictures, although commenced in fresco, were always finished in distemper. The distempers used were a mixture of egg, including both the albumen and the yolk, with the milky fluid which exudes from twigs of the fig tree; size made from glue or from gum tragacanth is also mentioned. A list of the colours employed by Giotto and his pupils and successors is given below; and the same, there can be little doubt, were in use on the part of Giunta, of Cimabue, and their contemporaries. Amongst these white lead played an important part in painting on panels and on walls. All who are familiar with old pictures must have frequently seen those of black Madonnas and saints, held in especial veneration for their sanctity and antiquity. The colours with which they were painted were freely mixed with white lead and with the yolk and albumen of egg, which darkens whilst the white lead oxidizes ; hence their present state.

This partially explains the singular appearance presented by the mural pictures of Giunta at Assisi, in which the shadows are red executed in fresco, and the lights painted in distemper are black. The explanation is not entirely satisfactory, however, for the change is not universal, and in a considerable number of the pictures the colours have not changed; but wherever damp has penetrated, the paintings have become very dark; the microscope would probably show that this is due to the presence of fungus, the produce of the egg distemper. As the works attributed to Cimabue are for the most part in better preservation than those given to Giunta, they suggest that this great artist, who did so much for design, also improved the technical processes of mural art. He undoubtedly carried fresco painting further, although on thin intonaco; but he prepared for the finishing processes as his predecessors had done. This statement is based upon the examination of a Madonna and Child with Angels in the lower church of St Francis, which is executed in the same manner as the pictures in the upper church ascribed to Giunta. Thism fragment is so noble in design, the heads are so beautiful, the whole work is so much better than the picture of the Borgo Allegri, now in St Maria Novella Florence, that although in its method it is like the works of Giunta, in design it is far beyond his powers. Cimabue’s method of outlining on the wall has been described; but there are traces of his use of the stylus, to which he had recourse when he wished to alter an outline after the work was begun, and it is therefore evident that the plaster was damp when he had recourse to this instrument. His pre-parations in fresco being dry, he proceeded to paint the shadows of flesh with terra vert in distemper, and then modelled the features with the requisite colonrs. That he heightened the lights with white lead is apparent, for these have become black even in places which damp did not reach. A glaring example of this is the table-cloth in a picture of the Marriage at Cana in Gallilee, which, once white, is now an intense black; the plates, viands, and vases upon it are unchanged in colour; these no doubt are in pure fresco, which explains the difference.

We can form no idea now of the splendid appearance which the paintings in the interior of St Francis presented when newly done. There are abundant traces of the use of a mordant for gilding, showino, that the high lights upon dresses and the edges of folds were gilt, as well as embroideries on the borders, and on the aureoles of saints. It is obvious that such ideas were derived from mosaics, in which the lights sparkle with gold. Regarded simply as decorative art, these paintings at Assisi, with their clear bright colouring, the rich gilding, and with the windows filled with coloured glass, must have been magnificent. The art was very conventional, still the beginnings are perceptible of a higher imitative system, and of a growing appreciation of truth to nature. The heads of angels are characterized by expressive beauty; the bride in the Marriage at Cana has a very pleasing face. and even the idea of portraiture is observable ; the look of surprise in the countenance of the husband is naturally expressed, and with good taste. Those who have not seen these paint-ings, and only judge of the merits of Cimabue by his altar-pieces at Florence, can have little conception of the ability of this remarkable artist.

Beneath the paintings of Cimabne, and under the gallery which represents a triforium, range the mural pictures of Giotto and his contemporaries or pupils. By Giotto the art of fresco received a new impetus; he continued the mixed method then prevalent, but with a more moderate use of distemper, and laid the foundation of the system carried to perfection by his greatest successors. The part of the wall which was assigned to him apparently admitted of thicker plastering, for he caused preparatory coats of plaster to be spread with due care; on the last of these, when dry, he no doubt made his outlines according to the manner of his predecessors, and over these the intonaco was distributed with singular dexterity. Plastering in his time was a branch of fine art, so that it is at all times difficult to discover the joinings in the works of Giotto and his followers. An account of his method of mural painting will convey a clear idea of the technical processes improved by him and followed by other artists after him.

The lime prepared for the intonaco having been kept till it had parted with much of its caustic quality, was mixed with sand in the proportion of two of sand to one of lime. The pigments used were:— White—biancosangiovanni, or lime carefully ground with pure water and dried in the sun in the form of cakes ; black—charcoal of vinewood, a black chalk, or lamp black; red—cinabrese, a red earth of intense colour, and sinopia, a lighter red, also an earth, and burnt ochre; amatista—not now known by this name, but a fine purple red; green—terra vert; yellow—two qualities of ochre, dark and light, and giallolino, which resembled Naples yellow in tone. This is a very moderate palette, but it was supplemented by the colours subse-quently applied in distemper. These were orpiment, cin-abro (a red oxide), German blue (apparently a cobalt), vermilion, lake, verdigris, indigo, and white lead. When the picture was commenced in fresco, particular grounds were laid on the wet plaster in preparation for the colours which were to follow; for instance, the sky to be painted blue in distemper was prepared with a deep red (cinabrese) in fresco. The virgin’s blue robe was first grounded with black mixed with red, and then painted with blue mixed with size prepared from glue, for red of egg would have made it green. The blue, however, has frequently become a bright green, spite of this care. There are numerous ex-amples of these methods in pictures, extending from the age of Giotto to that of Raphael. In a painting by Lippo Memmi at Assisi a dark rich red in distemper is laid over a preparation of light red in fresco. By Ghirlandajo a brown robe has been coloured in tempera over pale grey in fresco. The dark purple robe of the Cardinal Bonaventura in the fresco called the Dispute on the Sacrament, by Raphael, is spread over a preparation of red. Many other cases might be cited were it necessary. The most singular of all was the preparation for painting trees and bushes by a ground in fresco of black, on which the leaves, branches, sprays, buds, and flowers were executed of the proper colours in distemper. Illustrations of this custom are observable in pictures by Orcagna, Pietro Laurati, Simone Memmi, Masolino, Paolo Uccello, and many other artists; it did not survive the 15th century, and it is due to Masaccio to point out that he appears to have been the first to escape from this commonplace conventionality.

The methods of mixing colours and tints and their use in painting were reduced to system, whether for painting drapery or the nude. It was usual to prepare three pots of each colour carefully graduated, Thus, for instance, in the preparation of a flesh tint, a certain quantity of lime, bianco-sangiovanni, was mixed with red ; in another pot the same red, with much more lime; two equal portions of these tints were mixed in the third pot : thus three equal gradations were secured. A head, hand, or any part of the body being drawn on the wet plaster with fine lines with the brush, the shadows were painted with terra vert, then, the lightest flesh tint being taken, the lights were put in. This done, the middle tint was applied, the junctions between the two tints being carefully softened; next the darker colour was laid in, all these tones being fused together in a proper way. The operations were repeated till sufficient solidity—impasto—was obtained. Another and much lighter tone served to mark the high lights, such as those on the nose, chin, and parts of the ears ; lastly, the small and most brilliant points of light were touched with pure white, and the whites of the eyes were painted. The artist next out-lined the nostrils, eyelids, and apertures of the ears with black, touched in the lower eyelids and the eyebrows with shades of sinopia, and with the same, colour the nostrils, upper lip, and the line between the lips. The hair was broadly shaded with terra vert, and washed over with light ochre; then the locks were defined with dark ochre, and the lights pencilled with a much lighter tint of the same ; lastly, the outlines were strengthened with sinopia. Such usually were the methods pursued by Giotto and his fol-lowers, It is evident that painting thus, according to a fixed system, a master and his trained pupils could act together and harmonize their work in a manner otherwise unattainable, At the same time the individuality of the artist was not obliterated by this prevalence of rule. In the frescos attributed to Giotto and his followers or com-peers, it is not difficult to distinguish the different handi-work. In some the green shadows are modified with a warmer tint; in others the results are cold and formal; some paint with soft gradations, others in a harder manner, but the difference between thp artists is still more observ-able in the drawing and proportions of the figures. As guiding cartoons were not prepared by the master; probably the assistants or pupils were only provided with his sketches, which they enlarged on the wall with such skill as they possessed ; hence the varieties of proportion which are so remarkable.

Draperies were painted with graduated colours prepared in the same way; the lights, according to the usage of the Tuscan school, were heightened with pure white, and the shadows were glazed with washes of unmixed colour, showing that the intonaco must have been damp when these were applied or they would not have adhered. Thus in these pictures the most important part of the work was pure fresco, whilst the tempera, although undoubtedly used, was less freely applied by Giotto than by his master Cimabue and his predecessors, judging from the mural paintings at Assisi. To the taste and genius of Giotto was owing this great improvement in the technical processes of mural painting

The architectural details, where they occur as accessories or backgrounds, are carefully drawn and painted with in-finite grace, and as architectural designs they are singularly beautiful, especially in the works of Giotto. It is true that they are invariably too small in proportion to the figures,—-a peculiarity which they probably owe to the imitation of similar adjuncts in ancient Roman bassi-rilievi, The con-veritional routine of thus designing backgrounds lasted for rather more than a hundred and fifty years. There is an appearance of perspective, showing observation, but no knowledge of optical laws, The method was in every respect analogous to that which replated the drawing of very similar details in ancient Roman art.

These mediaeval mural pictures in Italy place painting much more upon an equality with the sister arts of archi-tecture and sculpture than was the case in other parts of Europe; they exhibit intense thought, sentiment, and as-cetic religious expression. They have not the weird gran-deur and sublimity of the designs of Cimabue, nor do they show efforts like his to represent ideal beauty; but they approach much more nearly towards the representation of familiar nature, and the expression of human emotion. Still this art was conventional; of the infinite and beautiful variety of inanimate nature, or of its effects of sunshine and shade, the artists had no perception whatever.

The idea that painting possessed such a power had not yet been awakened ; but at the beginning of the 15th cen-tury a genius was born who led it into new paths, and ex-ercised a good influence upon it, which produced the most beneficial results. Tommaso da San Giovanni, called Ma-saccio, was this great painter. Another artist, at the present time of a more widespread reputation, divides the honours of the first portion of the 15th century with Masaccio, to whom, however, he was far inferior in originality or per-ception of nature’s variety and beauty. This was Fra Beato Angelico (see FIESOLE). He continued the technical pro-cesses of the artists of the preceding century, and in his work mediaeval painting culminated and became perfect technically; but before he left the scene of his loving labours, he was so far influenced by the rising wave of the revival that he abandoned Gothic forms in his accessories for timid imitations of classic architecture.

In practice Fra Beato adhered to the last to the precepts of the older school, but with a freshness of colour, a beauty of form, and a grace of manipulation all his own. He finished his mural pictures with solid distemper of such peculiar excellence—very probably employing gum tragacanth, so insoluble is the mixture—that it remains com-paratively unchanged; and he transmitted to his successors the old schemes of preparatory grounds in fresco for the subsequent finishing coats in tempera, which for so long a period characterized monumental art. This is observable in many of his numerous works, and especially in his great mural painting of the Crucifixion in the chapter house of St Mark’s, Florence. In conformity with traditional custom, he laid in the sky in deep red in preparation for blue, which, however, has never been applied. It is to be regretted that the pious artist did not finish this his most important work, but it illustrates in a very remarkable, way how far he carried fresco before having recourse to distemper.

The great and gifted painter Masaccio relinquished the precepts which had guided his predecessors and were practised by his contemporary Fra Beato, as he departed from their methods of composition, drawing, and chiaroscuro. His insight into the true appearances of nature was that of genius, and he painted these with fidelity, and not conventionally, like the older masters. His art was a reve-lation : he burst through the routine by which painting had hitherto been bound ; it may be said that he anticipated all that was to be done after him, and that no artist, however great, of those who followed him could escape finding in the works of this wonderful originator anticipations of his own qualities as an artist. They were studied as models by the greatest artists of succeeding times, by Michelangelo, and by Raphael, who imitated him to the extent of plagi-arism. Standing before the frescos of Masaccio we are introduced to new rules destined at a future time to regu-late the practice of the art. No frescos hitherto painted had been so pure; they are not entirely free from retouch-ing in distemper, but this was reduced to a minimum, yet with the attainment of a richness of colour and a force of chiaroscuro never surpassed. Masaccio could paint the effects of sunlight with extraordinary power and brilliancy; when he chose he could rival the finish and refinement of Leonardo da Vinci ; he created the art of characteristic portraiture, whilst he could rise to a lofty ideal. He shadowed forth the power of form of Michelangelo, the natural dignity of Raphael, the brilliant chiaroscuro of Correggio, and the rich colour of Titian. He cast behind him the conventional pattern-like landscape of his predecessors, and hinted at a new and true idea of representing scenery. Technically he painted with an impasto, and a freedom hitherto unthought of, except by his reputed master Masolino da Panicale, who had sufficient insight in moments of his existence to escape from formalism and to feel the influence of nature. It is not to be won-dered at that with such qualities as these Masaccio’s frescos should have been objects of study and admiration to gen-erations of artists. An aberration in modern criticism and a fantastic and somewhat weak devotion to mediaeval forms give a transient preference to the works of his devout contemporary; but in those of Masaccio the great prin-ciples of the revival rise brilliantly above the horizon; in those of Fra Beato the ideas of the Middle Ages set with pure and tranquil ray.

With the advancement of the art of painting we have a discreditable decline in the requisite structural preparations, which has produced disastrous effects on many noble works of art. Frescos were only too frequently painted upon ill-built rubble walls, with unequal surfaces, which were not brought to a level by careful preparatory coats of plaster. This is unfortunately exemplified in the frescos of Masaccio. The results of uneven surfaces are the ac-cumulation of dust on the pictures and of other impu-rities, seldom removed, and the removal of which is accompanied by a certain risk. The careful structure of the Romans was known to their Italian successors, and was described by Leon Battista Alberti and other architects, but apparently with little effect. It is absolutely necessary that walls intended to be painted upon should be very carefully constructed ; the Pompeian system is excellent, and to it may be added thin beds of asphalt at the bases and summits of the stone or back work. It must never be forgotten that damp is a deadly enemy to fresco-painting, and that unequal surfaces are unsightly as well as destructive.

The history of mural painting may next be illustrated by reference to the works of Benozzo Gozzoli. As a pupil of Fra Beato Angelico it might be expected that he would continue to use distemper painting extensively, and such was the case. Greatly excelling his master in power of drawing, although with less sentiment, endowed. with prolific fancy and capable of unwearied exertion, he has left very important mural pictures, which were begun in fresco, but were so entirely finished with distemper as to be in fact distemper pictures. The joinings of the intonaco in his works present a somewhat unusual appearance. They are for the most part carefully concealed, but in one of his compositions at Pisa they are very observable, and they are invariably cut at some distance from the outlines of the figures; they are not unlike the joints between the polygons which form an Etruscan wall. Thus they include considerable portions of the background. Other artists, notably Masolino, and at a later period Michelangelo, frequently included parts of the background in the day’s painting, which artists will readily recognize as, where possible, important in principle. The objection, however, is obvious. The joinings which do not follow the outlines disfigure the surface, unless carefully concealed by the help of distemper painting, which in modern times would be considered objectionable. When the paintings are so far from the eye that the joinings are invisible, as in the Capella Sistina, the method is valuable. Towards the close of the 15th century Filippino Lippi in his works further illustrates the history of mural painting. He was employed to finish Masaccio’s fresco in the Brancacci Chapel, representing the Raising of the King’s Son, and he showed himself to be in every respect worthy of the honourable commission. He painted in the centre of the picture a group of eight figures, the heads of which in truth to nature and refined execution literally never have been excelled. He lacks the force of Masaccio; he did not see the effect of sunlight in the same way; he rather painted twilight; but he introduced into fresco a variety in the management of flesh tints and grace of technical execution which unfor-tunately diminished in his later works. These were his characteristics when he painted in competition with Masaccio. His method was also to prepare the draperies of the figures in fresco, and then to glaze them copiously with dis-temper colour. Whilst Masaccio invariably painted hands in fresco, Fillippino as invariably painted them in tempera over the draperies. This may have saved trouble, but was not otherwise commendable. It is to be remarked that apparently he first shaded them with terra vert like the mediaeval painters, subsequently adding the flesh tints. Domenico Ghirlandajo follows as an important and very able mural painter. He also commenced his works in fresco, in which he painted admirably with a large effective maimer combined with finish. He used distemper exten-sively; and as an unctuous glazing has been found upon frescos by his brother Rodolfo, it is possible that a new pro-cess of retouching was introduced by these brothers. It may have been in their studio that Michelangelo when a boy learnt to retouch fresco in tempera; he undoubtedly retained in his method some impressions derived from his first teachers.

Pietro Perugino excelled in the art of fresco-painting as it was understood in his time. His works illustrate two very different methods. He painted in pure fresco ; and it may be observed that, whilst his oil pictures are marked by such rich and powerful colouring, some of his frescos are like delicate water-colour drawings. A glance at the wall paintings of Masaccio would have shown him how far colour can be obtained in fresco. No doubt he had his motives, and when he wished to produce force and colour, like all other artists of the time he had recourse to re-touching in distemper. His famous frescos in the Sala del Cambio at Perugia, are thus retouched all over, and consequently the usual and unequal darkening of the coloars has taken place. They have force, but they have lost all brilliancy, and they illustrate in a remarkable way the inexpediency of a manner of painting which would suffer from the mephitic atmosphere of a crowded place of meeting. Pure frescos would have remained clear or could have been cleaned, whilst retouched frescos darkened with-out remedy.

Another remarkable contemporary artist, Bernardino Pinturicchio may be said to have carried distemper painting over fresco to the most extravagant degree of any master of his time. He fell back on the primitive conventions of gilt rilievo ornaments in stucco in his paintings, on hatching with gold, and other barbaric splendours of early art. His mural pictures at Siena resemble illuminations in choral books. They are in excellent preservation, having escaped damp and bad air within the well-built library of the cathedral.

It is obvious that the progress made in oil-painting in the 15th century must have produced important effects upon fresco and ideas connected with it, Some oil painters transferred to their art the light brilliancy of wall painting and notably Michelangelo in his oil picture for Angelo Doni. Leonardo da Vinci estimated more justly the capabilities of the more powerful vehicle. Tempera, after a brief struggle, sank before it, and disappeared from amongst the processes of art, whilst in mural painting the habits long prevalent of retouching and glazing with strong distempers were confirmed for a time, and new methods were invented to make fresco rival the splendour and force of oil. It is to be regretted that it was not seen that this could be ade-quately attained, as had been demonstrated by Masaccio, with little aid from extraneous means. Leonardo da Vinci evidently thought that fresco-painting was unequal to pro-duce the effects which he desired, and he executed his great mural picture of the Battle of Anghiari in encaustic, and his still more celebrated work, the Last Supper, in oil, with what disastrous results need not be recorded here except as a warning to artists to avoid methods not sanctioned by experience and not tested by time.

A period is now reached, the close of the 15th and flist years of the 16th centuries, when modifications were made in the technical preparations for fresco. Benozzo Gozzoli was probably one of the last of the artists who drew the outlines of his mural pictures upon the preparatory coat of plaster. Writers upon fresco have only noticed one illus-tration of this custom in the ruins of a fresco by Pietro di Orvieto at Pisa, but it was a generally established method from the l3th to the close of the 15th century.

The account which we have in Vasari of the preparation of the cartoons by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for their rival mural pictures in the hall of the municipal palace of Florence brings the history of fresco-painting to an important epoch. The execution of such full-size drawings, and of the previous sketches and studies requisite under the circumstances, involved an amount of thought and care hitherto little contemplated. The drawings in red on walls or rough plaster were freely executed with little study, and were not calculated to improve the artist’s skill in the delineation of form; but the preparation of the cartoon was for art the most im-portant step ever taken towards the cultivation of mastery in design, and to the acquisition of that profound know-ledge of form which characterized the great painters of the first part of the 16th century, the golden age of art, The cartoonist first prepared his sketch on a small scale, then made his studies from nature, either in separate drawings or in a general delineation of the entire composition. In like manner he considered accessories and details, and made careful studies of drapery. Some artists modelled the whole subject so as to observe the light and shade. This done, the paper for the cartoon was stretched and squared. Pupils were sometimes employed to transfer the sketches to this the working drawing. How carefully such cartoons were sometimes executed is described in the most interesting manner in the history of that famous one which Michelangelo drew with such infinite pains. The wall to be painted was then squared like the cartoon, which was cut into pieces of a convenient size, and so was fitted by the help of the squares to the freshly laid intonaco. The out-line was then transferred to the yielding plaster either by the help of the pounce bag, the cartoon having been pricked, or it was marked through the paper with the stylus. It is profoundly interesting to observe the different methods followed by the old masters in preparing the outline. The two greatest of all, Michelangelo and Raphael, were scrupu-lously careful. They transferred the forms to the wet in-tonaco with the pounce, after which Michelangelo marked them in some places with a very sharp cutting point. Sod-doma, a great painter, was on the contrary very careless in the preparation of his cartoon and its transfer to the plaster. He frequently altered the drawing whilst painting. Bernar-dino Luini was content with mere indications of the contours. Pordenone indicates a fiery spirit in his mode of dashing them in with any sharp instrument at hand.

The history of the practice of fresco-painting now reached its apex in the works of Michelangelo and Raphael; those of a long line of great mural painters have illustrated in vari-ous ways most of the technical processes of this difficult but noble art. Michelangelo was unwilling to paint; he remarked to Pope Julius, "It is not my profession;" yet his frescos may be taken as perfect types of what ought to be aimed at by every practitioner, so far as method is concerned, apart from the retouching in distemper. The following apparently was his mode of painting. The local colour was laid on and modelled into the cool shadow—(the use of terra vert in shadow had now disappeared, and grey taken its place)—with that perfect knowledge of form and truth of gradation habitual to Michelangelo, and observable in all his drawings. The lights were then painted with a full brush and softened into the half tints; then the darker parts of the shadows were added. It is observable in the execu-tion of this great artist that he modelled the colour in fresco with all the breadth and impasto which slow drying oil paint makes possible. This distinguishes at a glance his work from that of his assistants, which is laboriously stippled. It has been ascertained beyond a possibility of doubt that Michelangelo was not satisfied with pure fresco-painting; but he did not repaint with distemper,—he merely glazed with a thin coating of a blackish grey mixed with size, which he applied in some places with washes, in others with stippling. This is very different from the older methods of painting over the fresco with solid distemper colour.

In the celebrated in-aral paintings of Raphael in the Va-tican changes of method are very observable; yet it may reasonably be inferred that the great artist’s wish was to paint in pure fresco. A century before the execution of these works, Masaccio had shown what great results could be achieved without having recourse to extensive retouchings, and Raphael carefully studied his frescos. In his exquisite early fresco in San Severo in Perugia he showed that he adhered to these principles. In his famous Vatican frescos he at first partially adhered to the mixed method: besides moderate retouching in the usual manner, he prepared by a coat of red in fresco for painting blue in distemper; but when he executed the noble picture of the School of Athens, he evidently desired to get rid of this old system, and he painted the blues without preparation on the damp intonaco. It was well known from an early period of the art that ultramarine resisted the caustic action of lime. Whatever the blue which Raphael used on this occasion, it has faded more than the other colours in the picture, which is there-fore now out of harmony, and his experiment so far failed. At other times the contrary result is observable. In the Aurora by Guido it is the other colours which have faded, and the blues are now too strong, showing that ultramarine if carefully prepared stands better than other colours. Guercino is the artist who has introduced blue in pure fresco with most technical skill, and consequently his works re-tain a harmony which is very rare. Raphael evidently aimed at pure fresco-painting, but may have been dis-satisfied with the results ; for he allowed the greatest lati-tude to his pupils, who employed distemper and apparently other vehicles copiously, when executing portions of their master’s works. When he died, charged as they were with the completion of the Stanze, and provided with his designs, they at once commenced on one of the walls of the Hall of Constantine to paint in oil, as if they had been converted by their master’s rival Sebastian del Piombo. Such was the admiration excited by these works that Cardinal Dovizza da Bibbiena wrote,—"The pupils of Raphael have executed a specimen of a figure in oil on the wall, which was a beautiful work of art, so much so that no one would look at the rooms painted in fresco by Raphael."

These were idle discussions and idle experiments; each branch of art has its field of operation, and it i' to be regretted that the old masters generally were not satisfied with the effect of pure fresco-painting. Masaccio trium-phantly illustrated its true powers. In the Brancacci chapel at Florence the perfection to which the noble art may be carried without extraneous aid is amply illustrated. In the efforts made to give fresco the richness of colour and force of chiaroscuro of oil-painting, its finest qualities were in fact destroyed. In the attempt there is a manifest confusion of ideas. Fresco-painting is in a special manner the hand-maiden of architecture, with which it harmonizes and to which it adapts itself in a manner from which oil -painting seeks to escape. Oil-painting asserts itself, fresco aims rather to adorn and complete the architecture with which it is associated; but its history shows that not all artists understood its true limits or its real mission.

Some lessons taught us by the results now ascertainable of the technical processes of the old masters may be summed up. The importance of careful construction of the wall so as to prevent the action of damp is evident. Undoubtedly the best walls are those of brick with facings in the ancient Roman manner. The ruinous consequences of badly constructed roofs have been shown by the state of the mural paintings at Assisi. That pure fresco is a much more durable art than the mixed method of fresco and distemper-painting is obvious. Of distempers used, those containing animal matter are the worst, especially that prepared from eggs, for when they are assailed by damp, black fungi spread over such pictures and ruin them. It is needless now to point to the disastrous results which must follow the use of white lead ; for as a pigment in tempera-painting its great defect is known to all artists. The employment of pozzolana in the preparatory coats of plaster may appear to be favourably supported by ancient examples. Pozzolana is a volcanic ash, which, mixed with lime, forms the famous Roman cement, and has admirable qualities; but it must not be forgotten how Michelangelo suffered from using it, and how mould spread on his frescos. The ancient masters prepared intonaco in two ways,—with lime and sand, and with lime and marble dust. If the sand used is quartz, the mixture is insoluble, and the fresco painted upon it will be permanent. If marble dust, on the contrary, be preferred, as it was by many old masters from its beauty, it is soluble, and it facilitates the formation of sal nitre on the surface, a common enemy and a dangerous one of frescos, for it destroys the colours. It is important that lightning conductors should be provided ; as at Assisi the action of the electric fluid on the frescos of the vaults, where it has played over the surface, has blackened them.

The Germans, who have done much for the restoration of fresco in the present century, have added to the list of colours formerly in use, and in doing so have been aided by modern chemistry. They have also experimentally fixed the time requisite for the preparation of the lime for the intonaco, and have greatly improved the structure of walls intended to be painted. They have restored the ancient method of lining walls internally with brick; they have in-terposed sheets of lead between the bases of those walls and the foundations, and prevent the descent of damp from above in the same way. They consider it enough to keep the lime to be used for from ten to twelve months, whether for the intonaco or for painting with; and the following is a list of the colours which they have added to those em-ployed by the old masters:—Raw and burnt terra di siena, all kinds of burnt ochres, a lake-coloured burnt vitriol, a purple burnt. vitriol, raw and burnt umber, Cologne earth burnt forming an excellent black, chrome green, cobalt green, and for blue cobalt as now prepared, or imitations of it.

The frescos of the Venetian masters, and those of Antonio Allegri da Correggio, add little to our knowledge of the technical processes of mural painting. As might be expected, the works of the Venetians, which are compara-tively few in number, show more attention to colour than to form, and they are slight in execution. The most brilliant are those by Paul Veronese, whose ideas of colour and effect in a special manner fitted him to deal with the conditions of monumental art. Correggio illustrates, as might be expected, the magic effects of sunlight alternating with shade, and the beauty of form and feature which distinguish the immortal artist. Technically, his processes resemble those of other Italian masters, and his works have suffered in the same manner and from the same causes.

Enough, it is hoped, has been said to explain the pro-cesses of fresco-painting as practised by the greatest masters of the art. Some of these have led to their decay, but a combination of ignorance and carelessness on the part of the Italians themselves has been the chief cause of the widespread ruin of the greatest examples of the art of painting which the genius of any nation has produced.

Modern Fresco-Painting.—The practice of painting in fresco has been continued to the present time in Italy; it has been employed not only for the decoration of churches, public buildings, and private residences, but also for painting exteriors. The traditional habit of painting the exteriors of houses prevalent in Genoa and its neighbourhood for centuries, and less frequently in other parts of Italy, still continues, although in an incompetent manner and by painters of a much more ordinary class than formerly. For the execution of interior work excellent fresco-painters are readily found, and the Italians of the present day are in no respect inferior to their predecessors in practical skill, however little they may equal them in the high characteristics of art. Modern Italian masters paint in pure fresco with much force of colour, satisfactory execution, and excellent finish; they repudiate the old system of retouching with distemper colours, whilst apart from the practice of fresco they are probably the best painters in distemper in Europe. In this art they paint like the old masters with the egg vehicle, but as a separate art of mural painting, and never as an adjunct to fresco.

Towards the commencement of the present century several German artists resident in Rome studied the art of fresco with much zeal, and laid the foundation of the modern school of fresco-painters in Germany. Some of them acquired a great amount of technical skill, and followed the system of the old masters, by training pupils as assistants with satisfactory results, and thus were enabled to undertake public work with comparative facility and at a reasonable expense. As already noticed, they improved the art in important technical respects, as well as the structure of edifices to be painted, and settled the best methods for preparing the lime for plastering with, and for painting.

In France the art of fresco-painting has not been successfully developed. French artists who practice mural painting with great ability prefer oil or wax-painting, an ancient method which they as well as the Italians and Germans have with much care and ingenuity endeavoured to revive, They have not been able to restore the ancient encaustic, but they have devised useful and beautiful modes of mural painting and decoration.

A zealous attempt was made in England to promote the art of mural painting in fresco, in connexion with the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament in London. Careful inquiries were made in Germanv and Italy, and a valuable amount of information was gathered and published; and, after various experiments, artists of distinction and ability were employed to paint in fresco in the House of Lords and in other parts of the new national edifice. Notwithstanding the difficulties which beset them in the practice of an art so new to their experience and so different from their usual habits, a considerable amount of success was achieved, highly creditable to them and to their zeal and perseverance. But fresco-painting has not been domiciled in Great Britain, nor has any great school of mural painters been formed. The excellent artists employed did not form schools as in Germany or in Italy, or as in France in a different branch of art; and without the aid of trained assistants public painting is impossible at a cost which can be brought within reasonable limits.

Before the revival of fresco-painting in London, Mr Zephaniah Bell, a Scottish artist, who had studied the art in Italy, painted some clever and forcible frescos at Muirhouse, near Edinburgh, which after the lapse of about forty-five years are still, with the exception of the yellows, fresh and in excellent condition.

See Cennino Cennini, Trattato della Pittura (English translation by Mrs Merrifield, 1844); Vasail, Le Vite dei piu eccellenti Pittori, Scuitori, e Architetti; Eastlake, Materials for a History of oil Painting (containing a brief essay on fresco-painting), 1847; C. Heath Wilson, ‘Report on Fresco-painting," in the second Report of the Commissioners of the Fine Arts, London, 1843, and the same author’s Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1876; also be Reports of the Commissioners on the Fine Arts, London, from 1842. (C. H. W.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries