Magical American Fresco

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

Magical American Fresco

Tenaglia, Susan, The World and I

An acient medium recalling both the very origins of art and the classic grandeur of the Renaissance is reborn as a key design element in contemporary American art and architecture.

In the small thirteenth-century town of Ceri, about twenty-five miles from Rome, the Academia Caerite holds workshops on the ancient art of fresco painting. Taught by Livia Monaco, whose family owns the Palazzo Torlonia where the workshops are taught, and Sheilah Rechtschaffer, a New York fresco artist and teacher, the program has attracted numerous Americans eager to master a technique as old as art itself. "It's really interesting," says Monaco, "but teaching fresco is more requested in the United States than in Italy."

The medium of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, as well as the ancient Romans, Pompeiians, and Cretes, has indeed become one of the exciting rediscoveries of contemporary art. Architects, interior designers, fine artists, and art students flock to Italy to ponder works of the Renaissance masters or attempt their own small masterpieces. In the process, they are reinventing the art form to express their individual styles. As Rechtschaffer explains, "People always say to me, 'How dare Americans come to a place filled with the history of fresco?' But I feel it is engraved in the American psyche not to be intimidated by the past. We free ourselves from history. We have always attempted to be innovative. The contemporary American approach to fresco is daring and creative."

American art is not without its own fresco tradition. During pre- Revolutionary times, itinerant artists like painter Rufus Porter traveled the New England countryside painting "mezzo" fresco, a variant of true fresco, in house interiors. One simply has to travel to Washington, D.C., and glance up at the monumental dome of the Capitol's rotunda to see the nineteenth-century true fresco of Italian-American Constantino Brumidi, who was considered a leading master in this country until the Mexican muralists appeared in the 1930s.

Buon fresco in Italian means "true" or "real" fresco. It is a way to distinguish fresco from other mural paintings done in distemper or encaustic, which are often mistakenly called "fresco." True fresco is time consuming and requires skill. Great attention must be paid to the preparation of the multilayered surface, known as arriccio or arranata, even before pigments are applied. The final coat of smooth, brilliant white limestone and sand, or intonaco, must be damp when the artist begins to paint; hence the term fresco, which means "fresh."

The artist decides on his giornata, a word to describe the amount of painting that can be done in a day. Limestone, or calcium carbonate, is used to bind pigments to a plaster surface. Once the paint is applied, a chemical reaction occurs; the colors are absorbed into the surface and literally become a permanent part of the stone's luminosity. As the limestone dries, it whitens and reflects both natural light and the color of the paint.

A single mistake can ruin an entire fresco. The artist must work fast, or the damp limestone will dry or ruin the image. If the underlayers or final limestone surface is applied incorrectly, an entire fresco can crack or peel away. It is this necessity for exactness, restraint, and skill, combined with fresco's permanence and its relationship to architectural space, that artists find both attractive and invigorating. "When you paint in fresco, you are close to the origin of everything," explains artist Daniel Bozhkov. "You are like an African medicine man talking about the organic elements of the earth. Fresco is both mystical and sacred. There is an immediacy and physicality to its craft. It's like alchemy."

The great era of American fresco occurred in the 1930s with the arrival of the Mexican muralists and the emergence of Works Progress Administration projects. Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Parisian-born Jean Charlot painted almost exclusively in true fresco. …

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