What are Frescoes?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Frescoes are paintings which are executed on plaster. Italy is particularly famous for its frescoes, but the art form can also be found in other cultures as well, particularly in India, Latin America, and Greece, where the relatively dry climate preserves frescoes. Many frescoes are quite ancient, and it may be among the earliest of art forms, especially if one considers cave paintings a form of fresco. After a brief period of reduced interest, frescoes experienced a revival in the mid-20th century, thanks to the work of Latin American mural artists like Diego Rivera and artists who received grants through the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal in the United States.

Woman painting
Woman painting

There are two basic types of frescoes. Traditional frescoes are executed in wet plaster, which is applied in small sections which can be covered in a day. To make traditional frescoes, artists ground pigments with water and applied them to the plaster, which would suck the pigments in and bind them as it dried. Frescoes can also be painted on dry plaster, and in some cases the two techniques were blended, especially when work to correct errors or make small changes was needed.

The primary advantage of traditional frescoes is that they are surprisingly durable. Ancient frescoes which are hundreds of years old have been found more or less intact, or with enough clear imagery to make it easy to fill in the blanks. Since the pigments are bound to the plaster, they do not flake or chip off over the years. However, traditional plaster was made with lime, creating a very alkaline environment which resisted some pigments. As a result, the color palette in traditional frescoes was more limited, which is why some artists supplemented them by painting over the plaster after it dried.

Most frescoes are executed on a huge scale, which can actually be quite challenging for the artist. Artists must create works of art which look pleasing up close and from a distance, often employing tricks of perspective to enhance the finished work. Many frescoes have religious themes, as is the case with frescoes in major churches. Others were created in private homes, especially in Ancient Greece and Rome.

A well executed fresco or mural can be stunning to see. Many famous artists worked in the fresco medium, which means that visitors to frescoes can see masterpieces which are hundreds of years old in the setting where they were originally created. Some people also feel like frescoes are more accessible than museum pieces, since some are located in active churches and homes which are still in use, rather than isolated in museums. This has unfortunately led to damage in some cases, as it is difficult to protect frescoes from humidity, smoke, human contact, and other contaminants which can damage them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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