The Annunciation by Fra Angelico; The Procession of the Magi by Gozzoli; Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Massaccio; Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; His accompanying work The Last Judgment on the chapel’s altar wall. What do these famous works of art have in common, other than the fact that they were all painted during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries? It’s the fact that, despite their precarious locations on plaster walls, we can still enjoy them centuries later. This is due to the magic of fresco painting.
Some of my favorite works of the Renaissance are paintings (e.g. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus), some are mosaics (e.g. ceiling of the Florence Baptistery), or sculptures (e.g. David). And let’s not forget about the many buildings and structures that transport us right back in time. But I’ve always been fascinated by frescoes. It seems crazy to me that important, commissioned work by sought-after artists of the Renaissance would be painted onto the walls of buildings, rather than on a canvas or other portable surface, where it can be moved and sealed away for protection. But when we look at the art of fresco painting, we see that these artists and art patrons in fact had longevity in mind and knew exactly what they were doing.
Though the word “fresco” is commonly used to describe a work of art, it is actually a painting technique. In Italian, the word means “fresh,” which refers to the fact that the plaster of the wall is still wet when the paint is applied. As the paint and plaster dry, they become one and the same— The painting is now integral to the wall. On the other hand, to paint “al secco” is to simply apply paint to a dry wall (“secco” means dry), subjecting it to a fate of chipping away over time. I have read accounts of the difficulty level of painting “al fresco.” Imagine that you are atop a tall ladder or hanging from ropes high on a wet-plaster wall. You’ve got your powdered colors and some water to help mix and move the colors along. Dripping sweat, you are racing against time as the plaster dries quickly while you work, forever sealing into history your every brush stroke— brilliant ones and mistakes alike. Perhaps you should work with plaster that’s a bit more wet so that you have time. But as you work, the plaster may drip if it’s too wet, ruining everything. Now imagine that you are doing all of this upside down, suspended from a ceiling like Michelangelo. Amazing!
One of Florence’s most important works of art is a fresco by Giotto from the early 14th century that graces a wall within the beautiful Santa Croce church. This narrative piece depicts the death of St. Francis, and is remarkably well maintained for its age and location on the wall of a busy church that’s been through a lot including a disastrous flood. Giotto proved to be way ahead of his time in the way he captured human emotion in the faces and gestures of the figures. You can see love, adoration, agony, even resignation in the expressions and postures. Because he chose the fresco method, visitors can marvel at his work today.
In contrast, let’s look at another Renaissance masterpiece. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper mural at the Santa Maria della Grazie church in Milan was painted in the late 15th century and is not a fresco. The detail-obsessed da Vinci chose to paint on dry wall because he desired the freedom to work on the painting slowly and blend the colors to perfection. The result is a breathtaking work that conveys the emotion of each apostle after learning of the betrayal against Jesus. However, due to environmental factors and even some intentional damage, very little of the original painting remains today.
If only it were a fresco…