(Italian for "fresh"), method, or art, of painting with watercolors on plaster, while the plaster is still wet, or fresh. The term is also applied to the painting executed in this manner. In the Renaissance this process was termed true fresco or buon fresco to differentiate it from fresco secco, the process of painting on dry plaster. The term fresco is also sometimes used, improperly, for tempera painting, or distemper, in which watercolor is mixed with egg or other glutinous substances and applied directly on masonry.
Pigment is applied to the top layer of several layers of plaster for a buon fresco. The painter usually applies to the next-to-last plaster surface a sketch, or cartoon, of the painting. The outlines of the various figures and forms of the cartoon are then reinforced with dark watercolor. Plaster is laid over the drawing in small sections, and color is applied to the wet plaster, often aided by another sketch of the color scheme. As the plaster dries, the lime in the plaster reacts chemically with the carbon dioxide in the air to form calcium carbonate; this compound forms a film over the colors, which binds them to the plaster. This makes them part of its actual surface and also gives the colors an unusual clarity.
The colors of a fresco are usually thin, transparent, and light, often with a chalky look. In the Renaissance, methods were found to give the colors somewhat more opacity. In buon fresco, the painting must be done quickly and confined to essentials. The artist must know precisely how much watercolor the plaster will absorb. Too much paint causes the surface to become "rotten." Cutting away the defective portion, laying on fresh plaster, and repainting is then necessary. In fresco secco, the dry plaster is rubbed with pumice stone to remove the crust, then washed with a thin mixture of water and lime. The colors are applied on this surface. The effect of fresco secco is inferior to true fresco; the colors are not as clear, and the painting is less durable.
Fresco painting was known to the ancient Egyptians, Cretans, and Greeks. The Romans also practiced fresco painting; extant examples have been found in Herculaneum and Pompeii. The early Christians (2nd century AD) used frescoes to decorate the walls of catacombs, or underground burial vaults.
The art experienced a great revival in Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries, begun by the Florentine painters Cimabue and Giotto, who painted numerous fine examples in churches in Assisi, Florence, and Pisa. In the 15th century the art flourished in Florence, notably in the work of Masaccio, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Ghirlandaio. Fresco painting reached its peak in the 16th century, with the supreme achievements of Raphael in the Vatican Palace and with The Last Judgment and Genesis frescoes by Michelangelo in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Fresco painting was widely practiced in Europe in the 18th century, with nobility of style replaced by elegance and illusionistic effects.
One outstanding fresco painter in this period was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in Italy. In the 19th century the art was revived, largely for the embellishment of public buildings. The most important center for fresco painting in the 20th century has been Mexico. Two Mexican painters in particular, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, created outstanding frescoes in Mexican government buildings.
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"Fresco," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.