The fresco is one of the most important mural creation techniques in art history. Although often associated with Italian Renaissance art, this painting technique has been around for millennia, inspiring ancient and contemporary artists alike.
Created by painting directly onto plaster, frescoes offer a permanence not found in other art forms. Therefore, muralists take advantage of this durability to the fullest. This is illustrated by some well-preserved masterpieces, such as the Roman wall paintings of Pompeii and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo.
What is a fresco?
A fresco painting is a work of art on a wall or ceiling created by applying pigment over intonaco or a thin layer of plaster. The name “fresco” refers to the fact that the intonaco of a true fresco is wet when the paint is applied.
Types of fresh
There are three types of fresco: buon , secco , and mezzo .
To paint a fresh bun (“good” or “true”), the artist must paint directly onto freshly mixed plaster. Due to the natural stickiness of wet intonaco, the pigment used to paint a buon fresco does not need to contain a binding medium; instead, it can mix it with water.
In contrast, fresco secco (“dry”) employs dry plaster as a canvas. For the paint to adhere to the plaster, the pigments must be mixed with a binding medium, such as an adhesive glue or egg yolk.
A mezzo (“middle”) fresco is painted over nearly dry intonaco. During the Renaissance, this type of fresco became widely used, eventually overtaking the buon fresco in popularity.
Although widely considered an Italian art form, there are famous frescoes worldwide. Below, we look at some of the most famous of these plaster paintings.
Fresco Of Taurocatapsis
It was created around 1400 BC. For a wall in the palace of Knossos in Crete, the Taurocatapsy Fresco is one of the most famous works of Minoan art. This ancient mural is known for its vivid colors and theme, featuring stylized figures participating in a bull-jumping ritual: a unique ceremony in which individuals performed acrobatic tricks on the backs of cows and bulls.
Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, once the site of an ancient palace, is famous for its small collection of colorful, mythology-inspired frescoes that have survived the test of time. These exquisite works were created by King Kasyapa in the 5th century BC. C. and were destined to transform this earthly site into their paradise.
Portrait of Sappho
Woman with Crayons and Pencil— better known as the Sappho fresco or portrait— is one of many well-preserved works of wall art discovered by archaeologists in ancient Pompeii. This buon fresco was found on the wall of a house and features a portrait of a wealthy young woman holding writing instruments as she poses contemplatively.
The Annunciation by Italian painter Fra Angelico marks the turn from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. Unlike medieval pieces that feature a similar theme, this fresco conveys a more realistic composition, as Angelico expertly suggests depth through a vanishing point.
This fresco is located in the convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy. While this is not the first time Angelico has explored this iconography (he also completed three visually similar panel paintings and another fresco of the Annunciation), it has become one of the best-known frescoes of the Renaissance.
The Last Supper
In the 1490s, the Santa Maria Delle Grazie convent in Milan commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to create The Last Supper, a large-scale wall painting depicting the last meal of Jesus. Painted on dry plaster, this piece is one of the most important secco frescoes in history, although the artist also added a layer of white lead to lighten the tones.
Along with other works such as the Mona Lisa and the Vitruvian Man, The Last Supper remains one of this artist’s most famous works of art.
The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
From 1508 to 1512, the Florentine artist Michelangelo painted an intricate and colorful fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, located in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. This huge bun fresco features 9 central scriptural scenes and 343 figures.
Many of these characters are framed with Giornata, subtle “outlines” made by scraping away sections of the wet intonaco. Intended to suggest depth, these Giornata are present throughout the plaster painting.
The School Of Athens
Raphael, a High Renaissance painter, was also commissioned to create monumental frescoes for the Vatican like Michelangelo. In 1511 he painted a set of four murals inspired by the main schools of thought: theology, law, poetry, and philosophy.
The School of Athens, the best-known fresco in this series, includes portraits of the world’s most famous philosophers. In addition to great Greek thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Euclid and Aristotle, this colorful mural also incorporates a sneaky self-portrait of the artist himself.
Detroit Industry Murals
Although fresco painting fell out of fashion after the Renaissance, this practice was taken up and rejuvenated by Mexican muralism in the 1920s. With frescoes at the forefront, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera initiated this renewed interest in mural art. They painted the Detroit Murals of Industry, a 27-piece series inspired by the Ford Motor Company, between 1932 and 1933.
Characterized by “masses, machines, and naked mechanical power,” Rivera’s murals helped connect fresco painting with the modern world.