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A Short History of the Fresco Part One

What is a fresco?

You may have heard the word in your college Art History class or by your tour guide in Florence, Italy. But do you actually know the definition and history of this ancient art technique?

A fresco is a mural painting process in which painting becomes an integral part of the wall (or surface). Now here’s where your high school Italian 101 course will come in handy. The technique most frequently associated to fresco painting is “buon” or “true fresco,” which applies pigments mixed with water to a layer of wet, fresh lime mortar or plaster. But there are two other variants, “secco fresco,” which is painted onto dry plaster thus requiring a binding medium such as glue, oil or egg tempera for the painting to penetrate, and “mezzo fresco,” which is painted onto almost but not completely dry plaster.

And if you received your June Smart Art Box, you too can master the technique!

Displaying Luxor Temple.jpgLuxor Temple, Ancient Egypt. Photo: Visual Hunt

The art of the fresco dates all the way back to Antiquity!

The earliest known fresco to archaeologists come from the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (2613-2498 BCE) in and around North Africa. Frescos have also been discovered that date to 2000 BCE by the Minoans during the Bronze Age of Crete. A famous example is The Toreador, which depicts a sacred bull ceremony.

Much of Egyptian art was never meant to be seen by human eyes. That’s because it was made in keeping with complex spiritual beliefs for tombs and monuments. According to the ancient Egyptians, death was simply a momentary phase between life and the afterlife. Eternal life could be ensured through things such as mummification (preservation of the body) and the offering of objects. So they decorated ornate tombs with jewelry, objects for the home, paintings (mainly secco fresco) and much more, to enjoy in the afterlife!

If you’ve seen an Egyptian painting in a history book or in person at a museum (luck you!), you’ll know that figures were rendered in a rather peculiar way. (Peculiar to our contemporary eyes, that is!) People and animals were painted in a profile view (for the face, waist and limbs) and frontal view (for the shoulders, torso and eyes) at the same time. That’s because they were drawn from their most recognizable angle. Many people and objects were crammed into one picture plane, and the most important elements, such as royals and gods, were rendered bigger than the rest. This hierarchy of scale, means of anatomical illustration and group portraiture were meant to convey as much information as possible to viewers.

Displaying Villa of the Mysteries.jpgVilla of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy. Photo: Visual Hunt

Your Greek and Roman ancestors were master fresco painters too!

As very few Ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman frescos survive today, the ones that do serve as valuable sources of historic documentation about the everyday lives of the ancients. We can cite the Greek mural in the Tomb of the Diver in Paestrum, Italy, for one!

And although it was a catastrophic disaster at the time of its eruption, we have Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy to thank for the preservation of Roman frescos today! The cities and surrounding areas of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in volcanic lava and ash in AD 79 – this caused the destruction of those civilizations, yes, but at least the artwork was preserved! This included the Villa of the Mysteries and its many frescoes, such as one that we think shows the initiation of a young woman into a Greco-Roman mystery cult.

On that mystical note, we can also cite the survival of frescos in the many Christian catacombs that peppered Europe during the time of Roman rule…

Stay tuned for part II of “A Short History of the Fresco”!

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