Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Art of Fresco part two: practising fresco

 the art of painting fast

In a small street in the Oltrarno (the area on the other side of the river Arno from Piazza della Signoria, Florence's Left Bank, so to speak), in the artisans' territory of Borgo San Frediano you will find an interesting workshop called Accademia d'Arte San Giovanni where many of the arts which made Florence famous are taught and practised to this day. 

I am grateful to a lively, informative local English language paper called The Florentine for alerting me to this workshop and its activities. The Florentine hosts a series of tours entitled provocatively So You Think You Know Florence? run by Alexandra Lawrence, a qualified guide, amongst which a visit to the Brancacci Chapel prefaced by a two-hour course on the art of fresco.

The idea of actually trying out such an age-old technique for myself was extremely appealing. I joined about 18 other participants on a gloriously sunny winter's morning, for once not feeling bad about staying indoors.

The workshop is tiny but welcomes artists and craftspeople (and interested non-artists like me) from all over. I heard more North American English that morning than I have since I was last in New York. 

The Academy was founded to nurture and teach a variety of ancient arts, from sculpture to lost wax casting, ceramics and woodturning, painting and drawing...and fresco or affresco as it is called in Italian. Fresco means fresh or in our case 'still damp' (pittura fresca is wet paint) and that is what the plaster must be for the painted pigments to adhere and fix.

Nineteen work stations had been neatly prepared for the participants each with the materials necessary for the course. A booklet on The Fresco was included in our kit.

our kit: tracing paper, pencil, stylus and card for punching, fine and large brushes, seven pots of pigment in suspension, palette, water and paper towels plus the helpful booklet on fresco painting
Thankfully, and sensibly, the item to render as a fresco was a photo-shopped simplification of a detail from one of the frescoes we would view later that day: relatively simple geometric structures - or so they seemed.

Our teacher was Luca Viviani, sculptor and archeologist, who has taught the history of ancient arts in the Accademia di Belle Arti of Florence.

Luca detailed a little of the history of fresco and explained the basics of the technique. The canvas of a fresco is of course the wall, which has to be prepared beforehand.

the arriccio, the intonaco and the watercolour pigments

The wall's surface (or in our case, a wooden board), is covered, first with a layer of slaked lime and coarse river sand, called arriccio, which is quite thick, then with a finer layer of plaster or intonaco made of slaked lime and fine river sand with marble dust added for extra sheen. Luca called this surface the velo or veil.

smoothing the intonaco or velo of wet plaster onto the individual wooden boards (our 'wall') already covered with arriccio
The design itself is transferred to the wall (or board) by various methods. In our case a drawing is first traced onto tracing paper from the original print. Small holes are punched in the paper along the lines of the drawing, the paper held  against the wet plaster and a pounce, resembling a powder puff filled with charcoal dust (or in our case, sinoper, see below), lightly patted or pounced over the holes to create a rudimentary stencil. 

The dots of this 'stencil' are then joined using a fine brush and the red iron oxide pigment called sinopia, sinoper, to create the underdrawing, also called sinopia.

Once the drawing has been transferred to the wall the difficult part -the painting- begins. Not only that, the clock has already started ticking: from the moment the stencil is dusted onto the plaster your time is limited by the plaster's capacity to dry. And, depending on atmospheric conditions, it can dry fairly quickly. The various pigments, made from the pulverized minerals, are absorbed by the plaster. As they dry they are fixed into the plaster through a chemical reaction. Frescoes are potentially long-lasting - barring flood, fire, earthquake and human destruction.

The pigments used are natural, based on earth, clay and various other minerals (compounds of iron or manganese and iron) and some are sourced locally. Certain minerals used in the renaissance such as lapis for ultramarine and malachite for green are too expensive to use today; we have substituted with cobalt and viridian. White is from lime and black from ivory or charcoal.

The participants' work was carried out with varying degrees of success but  with overall great enjoyment. Personally, I learnt through my mistakes: how important it is to mix and dilute the pigments judiciously; light colours should be applied before dark; you must wait for the paint to dry before adding another layer or correcting a mistake; do not press too hard or you will bore holes in the plaster and so forth...

All this with the mastery of Masaccio in mind. The workshop preceded the Brancacci Chapel tour described in an earlier post: one cannot help but make analogies with the ridiculous and the sublime.


The tour was led by Alexandra Lawrence, a professional guide and the mind and energy behind So You Think You Know Florence. She can be contacted on
tel +39/3338689458

The Accademia d'Arte San Giovanni 
via San Giovanni 23
055 5121629 

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