Painting Italian Style
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
If you visit Italy you can’t miss the frescoes. Fresco paintings decorate castles, Roman villas, public buildings, and of course, churches. Fresco in Italian means fresh, and that is exactly what it is, applying pigments to fresh plaster. The ability to cover large surface areas, such as church walls, and palaces, along with the long-lasting nature of pigments and plaster, contributed to its ubiquitous presence in Italian towns and cities. Considering the expansive wall space in buildings, fresco painting requires long days, lots of preparation, and skilled artisans. A Roman bedroom, the fantastical Legend of the True Cross, and humble monk’s cells in Florence tell the story of how fresco painting dominates Italian art.
Fresco is the most common type of painting found in Italy until oil painting surpassed it in popularity starting in the late 1400s, although large ceiling frescoes were still common in the 1700s. Oil painting is more subtle to convey depth and color (think Mona Lisa) as well as the ability to retouch or repaint areas. Fresco is one and done. There is very little chance to correct mistakes or re-do, other than chisel out the plaster and start over with the wall preparation. Painters could take their time with oils and tempera and paint in detail; fresco painters were under the pressure of time.
Painting on wet plaster is problematic and time consuming, although compared to other techniques is a quick way to paint a large surface. Winter months with cold and rain aren’t friendly to the wall preparation and painting. Skilled artisans were needed for preparation. Typically, a day of fresco work would take nearly all the daylight hours. In the Renaissance a life size figure could be completed in about two days.
The First Frescoes
How did Italy become a country of frescoes? It started with trade and the Etruscans. Romans excelled at occupying neighboring lands and appropriating cultures, Romanizing it and elevating it as their own. Wall painting was no exception. The Greeks and Etruscans had the cultural and artistic heritage the Romans co-opted. Wall paintings were common in tombs of the Etruscans, influenced by Greek wall and vase painting, with whom Etruscans had robust trade connections. Mythological stories, banquets, dancing, and scenes of living the good life helped the deceased transition to the afterlife. Nature scenes, hunting, fishing, and war scenes are found in the Etruscan sixth century BCE tombs in Tarquinia (about one hour north of Rome). Red ochre, blue, and brown are dominant colors. There is little depth of field or perspective represented, nor is there much landscape, with most figures painted on a plain background.
Romans also decorated tombs with wall paintings but took it to a different level by creating complex frescoes in their homes. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid eighteenth century, near Naples, revealed preserved frescoes that had been covered with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 79 CE. Paintings generally vary from depictions of faux marble on walls, to architectural elements with columns, to imaginary windows to an outside world, to large mythological scenes.
The buried cities were a sensation and unfortunately many of the houses were stripped of their artifacts, and frescoes were peeled from the walls to be sold at auction. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York obtained frescoes from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, known as the Boscoreale frescoes. Homes were not a place for retreat but places for entertaining and amusement. Spaces where banquets and performance took place in the home were granted more space than bedrooms, which were usually small and windowless. The Woman Playing a Kithara was originally located in a dining room or a parlor for social gatherings. She holds a gilded stringed instrument used for concerts.
The cubiculum, or bedroom, of the Boscoreale villa was not a typical sleeping room. The Roman who inhabited this room enjoyed a window and a series of fresco scenes as if one was looking outside to imaginary fountains, arch ways, rocky paths, and townscapes. The word bosco in Italian means woods or forest land and Boscoreale was situated in a desirable location for country houses. The frescoes in this bedroom probably resembled the landscape of these country estates.
Red is often used as a background color, for clothing, or architectural elements. Red was a favorite color, not only of the Romans, but also of pre-historic cave paintings, Egyptian paintings, and Greek vase and wall paintings. Cinnabar, an expensive red mined from Spain, was a favorite. Red ochers from Sinop in Turkey, or reds derived from yellow ocher, or iron oxide were also used. Romans had a wide range of red color sources and hues to utilize.
Characteristically, Roman wall paintings are sectioned off in neat square scenes framed by painted architectural elements. Romans were fond of order and organization both in administration, city planning, and wall painting. Later wall painting dissolves into more open scenes, sometimes rather fantastical in nature, almost abstract by design. The organizational concept of sectioned scenes is very similar to the way large Renaissance fresco narratives are organized with blocks of space vertically and horizontally.
Frescoes in citizens’ homes pale in comparison to those of the emperors. It is rare we have knowledge of Roman painters, and many may have been Greek not painting in Italy under their free will. However, Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House in Rome, is an exception. This extravagant 142 room palatial estate, complete with a 125-foot statue of Nero, was constructed 64-68 CE. It was re-discovered in the Renaissance and painters such as Raphael shimmied down a rope to the buried palace and was in awe of the wall paintings.
We do know the name of Nero’s painter and he is appropriately named Fabullus. Although mostly looted or lost, some frescoes are still visible during a guided tour given by scholars, architects, and engineers who are currently restoring the Domus Aurea. Fabullus painted many architectural details sectioned off into neatly divided zones.
Fabullus, Domus Aurea, 64-68 CE, Rome.
In these fragments there is no attempt at defining space or a scene. What we see today does not reflect the entirety of the luxurious decorations where no expense was spared, however, a virtual reality experience, which is part of the guided tour, gives visitors an idea of the incredible vastness. Hated by the elite, but admired by the commoners, Nero committed suicide in 68 CE at age 27. The Senate issued a condemnation of Nero’s memory, literally erasing his legacy, including smashing statues and dismantling as much of the 300 acres of the Golden House as possible. The Colosseum was built over part of the acreage 70-80 CE.
Romans valued wall painting that created an imagined realty and illusion. They loved their manicured gardens and reconstructing gardens in fresco was a favorite subject. Displays of wealth were an essential status objective for the ruling elite. And there was no better place to display wealth than in the country home of Livia, Rome’s first lady and wife of Emperor Augustus, and great-great grandmother to Nero.
Villa of Livia frescoes, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. About 20 BCE.
Livia’s country villa, about six miles outside of Rome, housed a subterranean dining room with the first surviving continuous landscape fresco. Over two dozen identifiable bird, shrub, tree, and flower species are represented. The artist or artists depicted objects in the background with less clarity than the objects in the foreground, a method called atmospheric perspective. This technique was skillfully used later by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Villa of Livia fresco scenes are sectioned off less obtrusively than the Boscoreale frescoes. A wicker fence separates a grassy area from another fence with a section of fruit trees, then another grove of trees beyond. There is nothing wildly haphazard about the botanical representation as this is a tamed garden. The villa no longer stands but the frescoes, although damaged in the upper sections, are housed in a large room all to themselves in the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme minutes from the Baths of Diocletian and train station.
A Day in the Life of a Renaissance Fresco
The process of making a fresco hasn’t changed much. Nearly 1500 years after Fabullus painted the Domus Aurea, Renaissance artists used the same method to create wall paintings. It is largely a lost art now, but Italy has a compatible climate and material resources for fresco. Here’s a breakdown of how a fresco was created in the Renaissance.
The patron, either a wealthy family, guild, or religious order, would commission an artist to paint a narrative series or a large scene. Artists did not have free rein to depict what they wanted or who might be in the fresco. Artist and patron would agree on what and where would be painted. Sometimes religious leaders would assist with the iconography for complex subjects. Most likely a contract would be drawn up and the patron would specify a subject, for example, scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Contracts were sometimes very specific and sometimes vague. Payments would be agreed upon, perhaps what colors to use, the timeframe, then the artist and his studio would begin to create concepts, and how the sequence would look on the wall or ceiling. Patronage was a complex political and social undertaking and often it was necessary to pay homage by including in the fresco particular family members and saints associated with the patron, subject, or city.
On site, workers built wooden scaffolding to accommodate the various artisans. A muratore is first to work on the surface by making short incisions so that the plaster, called an arriccio, could be applied in a thick layer. The plaster would need to dry completely before a thin layer of intonaco would be applied only to the area to be painted that day. The intonaco consists of volcanic ash and slaked lime. Slaked lime is calcium hydroxide, lime found in limestone, marble, or seashells, combined with water. When applied to the wall the chemistry does the rest, as slaked lime hardens and binds with the pigments.
Paper was very expensive for preparatory drawing and was rarely used in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Artists painted straight away on the wall. That took skill and courage. Later on, fifteenth century fresco work and beyond often relied on detailed drawn paper cartoons made in the artist’s studio to develop figures, poses, and other elements. The cartoons were transferred to the prepared wall by first making holes along the outlines of pictorial elements and pouncing a powdered charcoal, called spolvero through the holes onto the wall. A dotted outline of the figures to be painted helped guide the artist apply pigments.
Pigments were ground by studio assistants, some as young as eight or ten, and mixed with water. Colors were ground very finely, especially expensive red cinnabar, which is often referred to as vermilion. It was the most difficult to grind, and toxic as well from its mercury content. The female cochineal insect when dried and ground contained acid which produced a red color, used since the Egyptians. Venice was an important trading center for the highly prized pigments due to their trading with the Mediterranean and Near East. Pigments were expensive and were not often locally sourced, save for some black colors which could be made from charcoal. Colors we know as burnt sienna came from the Tuscan town of Siena, while burnt umber was sourced from Umbria. Lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan via Venice, the most expensive pigment, and a true blue, never fading. It was reserved for the most important figures.
As the plaster intonaco dried to just the right stickiness and dampness, the painting began. Colors applied to the intonaco looked more like watercolors, pale, and transparent. The bright and luminous finished result was dependent on the humidity of the day, dampness of the plaster, and ambient temperature. Touch-ups and the most expensive blue, were applied to the dry plaster, which over time were prone to peeling and damage. Sometimes just the master artist would be responsible for the most important or main figures and assistants would paint background, architectural elements, or minor figures. At day’s end, assistants cleaned up, trimmed brushes, preserved pigments, and made a clean edge around the plaster so the next day the fresh intonaco plaster would adjoin the previous day’s painting cleanly.
Each section of a fresco is known as a giornata or a day. Experts can tell how many days, or giornate, artists and/or assistants took to paint a fresco cycle. Some artists worked quickly and some labored more on certain scenes. The Sistine Chapel in Rome has thousands of square feet painted by Michelangelo (1508-12). He used twelve pigments for the ceiling and painted in varying speeds. There are four spandrels in the Sistine Ceiling (a triangular shaped section in the corners of the ceiling) one of which is David Beheading Goliath which took Michelangelo twelve days to paint and another, Worship of the Brazen Serpent, which took thirty days. This is a relatively long-time frame, but remember he was standing on scaffolding in an awkward position painting a rounded corner, or perhaps weather interrupted frescoing. On the other hand, the lunettes of the ceiling (triangular shaped scenes along the long walls) with the ancestors of Christ were painted freehand without cartoons in two or three days each. In contrast, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel Last Judgement (1536-41) in 456 giornate, which has 391 figures and covers 2100 square feet.
Fresco wasn’t the only type of painting in Renaissance Italy. Tempera painting was common for altarpieces and smaller devotional pieces in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Tempera is a multi-step process of applying ground pigments with egg yolk to a prepared wood panel. It was a slow process requiring months. Not all artists embraced fresco. Leonardo da Vinci, always the experimenter, wanted to try new techniques. In his Last Supper in Milan (1495-1498) he attempted to blend the techniques of tempera and fresco, with poor results. The painting would show damage and peeling by 1517, during his lifetime. Repeated fixes and overpainting did more harm than good. Fresco was not his preferred medium as oil painting better suited his refined and delicate style. Da Vinci was an early adapter of oils, popular at the time in Venice and Northern Europe. Michelangelo refused to try the new medium.
Piero’s True Cross
Tuscany has many picturesque and delightful towns. Stop into just about any of them and you will most likely find frescoes in churches or palaces. Arezzo is south east of Florence and has a well-known cycle by Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492). An examination of Piero’s masterpiece Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco gives us insight into his working techniques and how visitors should “read” the fresco cycle.
The Franciscan order chose the subject matter and the noble merchant Bacci family paid for the paintings. The entire fresco cycle would be seen by mostly the friars in the choir, behind the altar, not the general public in the church. There was physical separation between clergy and worshippers at that time in churches. Nowadays visitors can wander around the church but that would not be the case in the fifteenth century. If you sit in the pews you can see what most worshippers saw in Piero’s time: only four scenes clearly and glimpses of the other walls. The intended audience was the clergy and Franciscans, not the townspeople.
The story of the true cross is a mythical tale requiring imagination. Briefly, the story represents how the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represented in the Old Testament – yes, the tree from which Eve took the apple and gave it to Adam – is traced ultimately from its origins to the tree on which Christ would be crucified. The tree has quite a life cycle from the Garden of Eden to the Crucifixion, as it was buried, rediscovered, after appearing in a dream, tested to see if it is the tree as it raises someone from the dead, and is eventually brought back to Jerusalem. It’s a difficult narrative series to paint, with a large cast of figures.
There are fifteen scenes in the cycle. There are 230 giornate for the entire fresco. He worked slowly and deliberately, taking a day to paint a face, and over two years to complete the cycle, although he worked on it off and on for years, starting in 1452 and finishing in 1460. Often, he would cover the damp plaster with cloths overnight so he could continue working on the painting the next day. He had two assistants but was the painter for all main figures.
Visual unity and balance of composition were important artistic goals for Piero. One technique he used to achieve visual harmony is his innovative use of cartoons in compositions. He used very large cartoons, much larger than one would need for one day’s work. The outlines were pricked with a stylus and pounced with the spolvero. He then reused cartoons, flipping them to create mirror effect figures. He gave figures different clothing, but the subtle effect is one of balance and order. I don’t believe he did this out of cutting corners but more because he was obsessed with geometrical balance. Piero never painted another fresco cycle, instead he concentrated on writing treatises on geometry and perspective.
The fresco is not read from left to right around the chapel, but by scenes across from each other related by subject matter, not according to a time-based sequence. Worshippers already familiar with the story would look at facing walls to compare specific aspects of the legend. For example, scenes with women leaders are on opposing walls as are visions of the cross, as are battle scenes, and rulers. Quite a few fresco cycles are not painted in a chronological story line but by some other iconographic scheme, which makes it quite confusing for modern visitors and those not steeped in the Old and New Testaments.
One scene, the Dream of Constantine, is unusual as it depicts Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, dreaming while an angel appears bearing a cross to assist him with divining its location. A night scene is rare enough but Piero’s attention to detail included the constellations of Great and Little Bear above the tent in the night sky in the proper position for the mid 1400s.
Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross, 1450s, S. Francesco, Arezzo. West wall.
White, red, green, and blue are used primarily by Piero. Red is used in narrative scenes intermittently between figures almost as punctuation, and it is rare that two shades of red are represented next to each other. Given the number of figures, color gives the composition a sense of logical spacing and allows the eye to progress along each scene. Red and blues are used mostly in fabrics to highlight the most important figures. Red is a power color, an expensive dye for fabric, used frequently for royalty.
Note how the painted architectural elements serve to divide the scenes and is reminiscent of how the Romans also preferred scenes divided by painted architectural or structural elements. Backgrounds are sparse but even the green trees serve to balance the fresco scenes. Green is used less frequently but really stands out in a beautiful garment in the scene Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Here the rulers wear gold and white gowns, but the green dress of the queen’s entourage stands out. Piero’s priority was balance and harmony in overall composition, not creating an individual look for each figure. The men and women lack differentiation in facial features, are expressionless, and most of the women look very similar. This may be due to his re-use of cartoons.
The Angelic Friar
A painter who became a Dominican friar frescoed the cells of San Marco monastery, each cell with a unique and distinctive fresco for a fellow monk. Guido di Pietro, or Fra Angelico (late 1390s-1455), as he is known, painted most of these frescoes himself, sometimes only in two days for each cell. He earned his nickname as the angelic painter, hence Angelico, while Fra designates a member of the holy order. By all accounts, he was the real deal, truly a pious painter who lived humbly and devoted himself to the Dominican order.
The Dominican and Franciscan orders represented a new way of ministering to the poor. As mendicant orders founded in the thirteenth century, both served the urban poor, and instead of sequestering themselves in monasteries in rural areas, they actively sought to bring a more peaceful view of the church in a less hierarchical fashion directly to the people. Great patrons of the arts, Franciscans and Dominicans commissioned art as a means to glorify God and instruct the faithful. They both built churches on the edges of Florence, Santa Maria Novella (near the train station) by the Dominicans, and the Franciscans built Santa Croce on the opposite side of town. Generally, the Franciscans imbued Christianity with a mystical sense and the Dominicans had a rational and philosophical approach.
Fra Angelico, Scenes from San Marco monastery,1438-45, San Marco, Florence.
Risen Christ with Mary and St. Dominic, Lamentation over Christ,
Crucifixion with Mary and St. Dominic.
San Marco was built on the edge of Florence to house monks and for lay outreach as an urban monastery. There are forty-four frescoed cells plus additional frescoes in common areas and a library. The entire Florentine monastery makes for a unique viewer experience as the largest religious fresco series of its time. San Marco opened as the first European museum dedicated to a single artist in 1869. Visitors can imagine the contemplation each friar undertook in their sparse and plain cells meditating on religious themes. Today the quietude of the monastery is a welcome relief from street noise and tourists.
Angelico painted in tempera and fresco mainly in Tuscany, but also in Rome. Angelico’s prolific altarpieces feature Madonnas which shimmer in luxurious gold trimmed robes, adorned with golden halos accompanied by saints in brilliantly colored garments. His figures are graceful, respectfully depicted, while he gently pushed the artistic boundaries and brought a new vision to fifteenth century Italian painting. He incorporated a more naturalistic modern approach while using the popular decorative treatment seen in textiles. Angelico depicts believable recession into space and perspective. He arranges multiple figures in more complex compositions. Conventional gold backgrounds give way to Tuscan landscapes. Altarpieces for public view are more elaborate, colorful, and visually complex while the monastery frescoes are toned down and painted in subtle hues with a minimalist style.
There are three wings to the monastery, one for friars, novices, and lay brothers. Dominican monks devoted themselves to preaching, reading, theological scholarship, and reflection. Each cell fresco is about six feet high and most include either the Virgin Mary or a Dominican saint. They are simple, plain, and moving. The natural light of the cell window plays a part in where Angelico placed the fresco. San Marco was frescoed just thirty to forty years after the Black Death ravaged Florence. Artistic innovation, especially in religious artworks, was slow to come as tradition was favored.
Angelico was the “it” artist in Florence at this time. He was compensated well and had clients from elite Florentine families, guilds, and religious orders. The monk’s cells were commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici, who was a lay brother. Cosimo was an influential banker, politician, and patron of the arts, who wrestled Florence under his family’s control in 1434, creating a dynasty interrupted only in 1494. His cell is larger, at the end of the corridor, and his fresco has the most expensive paint, lapis lazuli, in the background. Supposedly Cosimo became a lay member and donated a lot of money to San Marco in order to atone for his misdeeds in unscrupulous money-lending.
As monks climbed the stairs to their private cells on the upper level they were met with the fresco of the Annunciation. The fresco separates the outer world the from the monk’s inner world, a transition aided by the fresco representing the angel telling Mary she will give birth to Jesus. The scene is the beginning for the remainder of the cell frescoes which tell the story of Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Mary sits in a Renaissance inspired loggia, surprised by the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance. His rainbow-colored angel wings compliment the pink garment trimmed with gold. Below the fresco in capital letters monks and lay people would read a hint to say “Ave,” or Hail Mary, when passing by. The enclosed garden is a nod to the cloister’s garden as well as to Mary’s virginity and the Garden of Eden. Angelico painted this fresco in his own hand.
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1438-45, San Marco, Florence.
The fresco measures about 7 by 10 feet.
Angelico broke with represented tradition in two cells depicting the Passion of Christ. Cell number seven depicts the Mocking of Christ with symbols of Christ’s torture: a man who spat on him, the hands that beat him, and the rod that beat him. Christ is seated on a raised platform holding a staff and orb in Resurrection white, but his tormentors float in space. Saint Dominic and the Virgin Mary sit below in contemplation. I’ve seen a lot of depictions of the Passion of Christ in my art travels, but this one is memorable. Angelico painted a similar treatment of his tormentors in another cell of The Risen Christ with Mary and St. Dominic.
Angelico had an able and accomplished assistant. Benozzo Gozzoli joined Angelico’s workshop in the late 1430s and was one of three artists who assisted with the frescoes. During the process of the San Marco commission Benozzo took on a greater role in painting and went on to have a successful career in Tuscany. Art historians can distinguish the style differences between Angelico and Gozzoli in some of the frescoes, and use documentation to determine who painted what. The assistants followed Angelico’s process of using an iron oxide pigment to draw directly on the prepared wall prior to adding pigments. The scale and proportion of the cell fresco figures is remarkably the same throughout the monastery.
In 1982 Pope John Paul II beatified Angelico, recognizing his piety and contributions to the Dominican order. The Italians call him Beato Angelico. Beatification elevates the deceased to a blessed state, sometimes followed by canonization to sainthood.
Ahl, Diane Cole. Fra Angelico. Phaidon Press, 2008.
Banker, James R. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Cennini, Cennino. The Craftsman’s Handbook: The Italian “Il Libro dell’Arte.’ trans. D. V. Thompson. Dover, 1960. Originally published in Italy c. 1400.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Pastoureau, Michel. Red: The History of a Color. Translated by Jody Gladding. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
Woods, Kim, M., ed. Renaissance Art Reconsidered: Making Renaissance Art. Volume 1. Yale University Press, 2007.
Zanker, Paul. Roman Art. Translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon. Getty Publications, 2010.