Magical American Fresco - Crafting the Sublime

By Tenaglia, Susan; Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Magical American Fresco - Crafting the Sublime


Tenaglia, Susan, Henkin, Stephen, The World and I


If fresco paintings existed alone, they would still be unique works of art. When seen in concert with the related crafts of their respective eras, the effect can be sublime. Three genres of historical note-- relief work, gilding, and scagliola--not only help showcase fresco work but stand on their own as capturing the creative spirit of highly creative periods.

Relief making, whereby sculpture is executed on a surface so that the figures project, without being freestanding, is found wherever art exists. It achieves its special "come alive" quality through a design made so that all or part projects from a flat surface, creating the illusion of three dimensions.

Types of relief are most basically broken down into two kinds. Alto rilievo ("high relief") is carved deeply enough to suggest that the main parts of the design are almost floating on their base. Bas-relief, or basso rilievo ("low-relief"), figures project less than half their true depth from the background. In both forms, the play of light, quality of craftsmanship, subject matter, and imagination of the viewer determine the success of the work.

Other categories of relief create a diversity of visual effect. Anaglyph is a low-relief sculpture, or embossing, which usually rises just above the surrounding surface. Mezzo rilievo is a relief sculpture in which figures and objects are seen in the half-round, with half their volume projecting from the surface.

Rilievo stiacciato, or rilievo schiacciato ("flattened relief") is a finely graded, low relief of flattened transitions where the overlapping parts are, to some extent, falsified for purely three- dimensional effects. This style was most elevated by Italian Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello. Cavo rilievo ("hollow relief"), or intaglio, is a hollow-cut design--the opposite of relief-- and is often used as a matrix from which a relief can be made for a coin, medal, or sealing.

Another craft with ancient origins is gilding, the process by which another metal is covered, most often, with a thin layer of gold or silver. The gilded surface can then be polished to a high shine, or tarnished or blackened if a lesser metal than gold is used. Sometimes the object must be sealed with varnish to prevent blackening of a surface through oxidization. But if a darkened look is sought, the metal surface can be exposed to air until the desired appearance is achieved, then sealed over. Gold can be melted and remelted without losing weight, becoming so soft that it can be beaten into very thin sheets and worked easily.

Gold was first turned into foil by the ancient Egyptians and pre- Columbian Amerindians, followed by artisans in China, Japan, and ancient Greece and Rome. Gold- and silver-gilded objects such as furniture, wall carvings, plaster moldings, mirror frames, and candlesticks were originally used in churches and palaces to evoke admiration from the masses but then became the desired chattels of the more prosperous members of society, as gilding workshops flourished. Gilding was used extensively to decorate furniture of the Baroque, Rococo, and Empire periods. …

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