Wednesday, 24 April 2013


Paintings done in true Fresco are executed on wet plaster in the space of a day, or for as long as the plaster is wet. Any work  painted on dried plaster can no longer be termed Fresco painting. Paint done on dried plaster can be traced in Italy as far back as 1300's and is termed  "Fresco Secco" It often happened that paintings in Fresco were NOT entirely finished "on the day" and so some re-touching was required to complete the works.
Over time, while Fresco painting was still considered the correct and honorable method, more and more "Fresco Secco" was used. Many different kinds of paint mixtures were experimented, but it was lime mixed with pigments that most looked like true Fresco paintwork. On a practical level, the architectural paintings of, for example Raphael Sanzio or Guido Romano, were so complex that they could not have been contemplated without the support of some painting on dry plaster. Overtime the commodity of painting on dry plaster, for both it's practicality of use and it's cost, became a necessity. As is known, from necessity is born invention and decorators would fine tune this method to an art-form in its own right.
The stylistic development associated with lime painting can be said to derive from how true Fresco painting was used within the grand decorative cycles abundant in Italy. In fact ornaments and figurative paintings, even when illusionistic, were used ONLY as a support to architecture and inserted appropriately within a logical framework. It was the structure of the building that called the tune and the first job of the decorator was to rationalize space according to the underlining architecture. Painted monochromatic mouldings and colour divisions were the way to stabilize a logical overall scheme and lime was the ideal medium . I believe that at this point  Trompe l'oeil, or trick of the eye painting, took a different path from traditional painted decoration, it's main objective was to suggest an impossible reality, with little or no structural attachment to it's surroundings, it has, maybe a closer relationship to classical canvas painting, which can be dislocated from it surroundings and still work on it own terms.  Trompe l'oeil  is also often done using fine art materials, which allows a greater flexibility of use: the painter has time to correct, define and modify with little risk of ruining this work of perfection.
Lime requires a sureness of hand a and gives little opportunity for second guessing yourself. However, moulding and ornaments can be painted with a speed that other materials simply don't allow. That is why it was so suitable for covering large expanses of wall space. It also offers total opacity  Often seen close-up these decorations lose their impact, it is only at a distance that their power hits you.  The emphasis was on the structural styling of space and not on detailed figurative painting.  In fact, lime painting is associated with a method known in Italy as "Quadraturismo" which alludes to the job of dividing and underlining space with reference to the classical orders. Ultimately the job of the decorator was to highlight architecture, not to modify it, not to trick your eye into seeing a different, impossible space, but to better understand what was physically there. Apart from the exasperated illusionistic Baroque period, in Italy buildings were decorated primarily with an eye towards underlining ambiance style. Decorators could provide solutions for surfaces much as an interior designer would, using purely paint, while still having the skills to finely paint ornaments.

In most countries lime-paint was used, however it has more of a reputation as an economic wall disinfectant known as  "whitewash". It was through its association with fresco painting that lime gained an added value and had prolific longevity in Italian decoration. 
Decorators over the century's were often cultured individuals, inspired by the renaissance Artists who possessed an immense knowledge of architecture, iconography, classicism as well as technical painting skills. 
From the the 1700's to the early 1900's intricate architectural schemes with complementary ornaments and paintings were commissioned to gave substance to both the building and its occupants.  Decorations in lime were placed on the ceilings, walls and facades of any building who's owner was of any social import.

Photo shows a late 1800's ceiling painted in "Fresco Secco" that needed some of our attention.  
Restored using lime putty-paint. This is a small private country home, like many others in Italy from this period, it was decorated with the intention of coordinating with the choice of interior decor.
copyright n.beccaria
copyright N. Beccaria