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Ahead of Renaissance Florence: City of Wonders, November 6-13 2023, we sat down with Tour Director Sarah Burles who told us what she enjoys about leading tours to Florence and what she is looking forward to seeing the most in November. Sarah told us:

 

Sarah Burles

 

“One of the great joys of taking an art tour to Florence is of course seeing

the major sites: …Santa Maria Novella with those wonderful frescoes by

Ghirlandaio or Santa Croce, the great Franciscan church with [its]

early frescoes.”

 

Marriage of Mary by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Marriage of Mary by Domenico Ghirlandaio, inside the Basilica de Santa Maria Novella, Florence, AD 1486 - 1490.

 

After our delightful conversation with Sarah we decided to investigate a small portion of her tour to Florence, exploring the art techniques that are frescoes and their importance to the Renaissance city.

 

Fresco restoration FlorenceA fresco restoration engineer working at Santa Maria Novella.

 

Buon or “true” fresco, gets its name from the Italian word fresco which means fresh. Buon fresco is a mural painting technique in which, as the name suggests, paint is added directly to freshly laid or wet plaster. What sets buon frescoes apart is the process of applying paint or pigment directly to fresh plaster. No binder is needed as the plaster acts as its own binder to the water-based paint. In contrast secco fresco is the technique of applying paint to dried plaster with a binder. The third technique is mezzo fresco which sits in between the previous two. Mezzo fresco involves adding the paint as the plaster is almost dry.

  

Frescoes have been a popular art form since antiquity thanks to how durable their finish is, allowing them to survive much longer than other art forms of the time. Due to the process of paint pigment binding directly to the plaster, buon frescoes are able to retain their colour and are resistant to fading.

 

 

The History of Frescoes

  

Although often associated with the Renaissance, during which they found their popularity, frescoes as an art form can trace their roots back to ancient times. Surviving examples of frescoes date back to a variety of ancient cultures and societies including the Egyptians and the Minoans.

  

Buon fresco is the oldest technique of fresco painting and was popular for its durability and how well it resisted the elements. Many buon fresco murals are still well preserved today owing to the durability of the technique. One of the most famous examples of these ancient frescoes is the Bull-Leaping Fresco that depicts a ceremony in which people are illustrated leaping over the back of a large bull.

 
Bull-Leaping Fresco

Bull-Leaping Fresco, Knossos Palace, Greece, 1600 - 1450 BC.

 
The earliest known frescoes were from Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis in Egypt. The fresco depicts an array of fighting scenes including a man standing off against two lions. The fresco is dated to around 3500-3200 BC. Frescoes from the ancient world give a unique, and well preserved, insight into the lives and cultures of the time.
 

Portrait of Terentius Neo

Portrait of Terentius Neo, Pompeii, Italy,  AD 20-30.

 

Alongside frescoes in the ancient Mediterranean civilisations, examples survive within India and Sri Lanka. The frescoes found in India, from more than twenty locations, date to around 200-600 BC, with those found in Sri Lanka dating to the reign of King Kashyapa I from AD 477-495. The frescoes in Sri Lanka are thought to depict women of the royal court with the use of striking bright colours.

 

Women of the Royal CourtWomen of the Royal Court, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, AD 477-495.

 

The Renaissance period famously saw the popularity and widespread use of the fresco technique. Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine are amongst some of the most famous frescoes to have been created.

 

The use of frescoes was mainly supplanted by oil paints by the mid-16th century. In contemporary usage some artists have taken to reviving or revisiting the fresco technique including its usage by artists of the Arts and Crafts movement of late 19th Century. Following the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 CE the fresco technique was reinvented under Mexican Muralism in which Mexican artists, such as Diego Rivera, sought to channel traditional Mexican mural works.

 

Detroit Industrial MuralsDetroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, Detroit Institute of Arts, United States, AD 1933.

  

Frescoes in the Renaissance

 

Florence is rightly considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. From the 15th to the 17th century Europe exploded with cultural and artistic change and Florence was the epicentre. ACE’s tour Renaissance Florence: City of Wonders focuses on exploring the transformation that took place within the world of art and architecture during the 15th century.

 

Woodcut of FlorenceWoodcut of Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle, AD 1493.

 

It was the skills and ingenuity of the Renaissance artists that brought refreshing compositions and innovative technologies to the fresco art form. It is this period that gave us the most famous and stunning frescoes.

 

Buon frescoes had been the most popular technique of fresco painting leading up to the Renaissance with the secco fresco method predominately being used to make alterations, changes and restorations. However, each of these two techniques had their shortcomings. The buon fresco technique took a more complex setup and only had limited windows for working on them before the plaster set but was incredibly durable. In contrast the secco fresco technique was simpler in process and had no time window but did not retain high levels of durability and required a binder.

 

The School of AthensOne of the most well-known Renaissance frescoes, The School of Athens by Raphael, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, AD 1509-1511.

 

During the Renaissance a third fresco technique joined the toolset of artists, mezzo fresco. Mezzo fresco involves painting onto the intonaco, a thin layer of fresh plaster, that is not quite dry so that the pigment only slightly absorbs into the plaster. The advantage of this technique is that it combines buon and secco as well as allowing the artist more painting time. This method also allowed for a wider vibrance in colour, especially the colour blue which performed poorly in buon frescoes, as the final colours changed away from their initial pigments.

 

The great period of frescoes that was the Renaissance gave us works by artists such as Fra Angelico, Raphael and Michelangelo.

 

 

Frescoes in Florence

 

The Renaissance Florence: City of Wonders itinerary is filled with plenty of opportunities to see beautifully crafted frescoes including the works of Ghirlandaio. Sarah Burles takes a moment to talk about one particular fresco she is particularly interested in visiting, Andrea Castagno’s Last Supper about which she says:

 

“Castagno painted his Last Supper in 1440 but the disciples who sit

around the figure of Christ in the middle feel alive to this day. There’s

often nobody there when you visit and you walk into the hall and are

suddenly confronted by this incredible Renaissance fresco.”

 

Last Supper by Andrea CastagnoLast Supper by Andrea Castagno, located in the refectory of the convent of Sant’Apollonia, Florence, AD 1445-1450.

 

Sarah Burles, MA, is an art historian who has worked in a number of museums and galleries, including the Accademia Italiana in London and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

 

To find out more about Sarah Burles’ upcoming tour, Renaissance Florence: City of Wonders in November 2023, click here:

  

View tour details

 

To hear more from Sarah Burles and to listen to her talk about what she is looking forward to most during Renaissance Florence: City of Wonders click below:

 

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Image credits:

Marriage of Mary | Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Fresco Restoration Engineer | Image by Taylor Smith via Unsplash.
Bull-Leaping Fresco | Image by Jebulon under CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Terentius Neo | Image by Tyler Bell under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Women of the Royal Court | Image by Gerd Eichmann under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Detroit Frescoes | Image by Carptrash under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Woodcut of Florence | Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The School of Athens | Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Last Supper (Castagno) | Image in public domain via |Wikimedia Commons.