This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking a field trip to a little medieval town called Casperia with Professor Bill Petit’s Painting, Materials and Techniques course. We had the honor and privilege of painting a fresco of the Madonna and Child on the outer wall of the local church. The medieval town’s streets are too small for any cars to drive on, so everyone must walk on foot through the steep, spindly passages of this little mountain town. We arrived late Friday afternoon and checked into our bed and breakfast before having a quick lesson in ravioli-making and preparing the sketch for our fresco. Our class chose to do a reproduction of a 15th-century fresco of the Madonna and Child from the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Legarano, near Casperia, so as learn technique based off of an original work while paying homage to local history.
Despite the forecasted rain, we woke up early the next morning, ate a quick breakfast and headed to the site to meet with the local priest to go over logistics and set up. Preparing a surface for a fresco, though laborious and painstaking, can be quite a meditative process. There are three layers of mortar, which must be applied to the brick of the wall prior to painting it. The first is called “arricio” and consists of three parts rough sand and one part lime. The layers are applied in order from roughest to smoothest. The first layer that is built up needs to be rough in order to build up the form quickly and stick to the wall easily. It is like scoring a piece of clay in ceramic-making. One must create a tooth for the two layers to grasp onto; if the clay is too smooth, it will fall away from the form one is building. After mixing and applying the arricio, it is time to let it set before the second layer can be applied.
After a long and delicious lunch at a local restaurant, we were ready to apply the second layer of mortar, called the “sand coat.” For this we had to create a mixture of two parts smooth sand and one part lime, apply it, smooth it down with a block of wood and wait for it to set again. After several hours, we were then able to apply the final layer of mortar called the “intonaco,” which consists of one part lime and one-and-a-half parts marble dust. This last layer must be particularly precise in its measurements and applications. If the mixture is off, the surface of the fresco will crack and be unpaintable. Once the application is finished, it must be smoothed down with a trowel, then a smooth block of wood. After several hours, the artist must come back with a fine pallet knife and smooth out any imperfections in the plaster before it dries. If the weather is humid or rainy, the layers of plaster will take even longer to set up. If there is too much moisture, the layers of mortar will remain too wet or too dry for the plaster to take the pigment.
After a splendid dinner, we fell fast asleep and awoke the next morning refreshed and ready to go! We took our drawing, which in fresco painting is called a “cartoon,” and traced the design onto the semi-dry mortar. The pressure from the pencil digs a small channel of plaster out from the surface and creates an engraving where the outlines of the form are. We then mixed one part organic pigments with three parts water and carefully applied the first layer of pigment to the semi-dry plaster. Because the surface had been drying for a day, it was very thirsty and our mixtures sank into the surface very quickly. Since frescoes dry so quickly, it is imperative that one paint with precision. If a mistake is made, a dry brush is kept on hand to quickly soak up the mixture before it sinks into the surface.
By the time we finished our first layer, we were met by a group of local school children studying frescoes in their art class. Here Professor Petit explained the process to the students, and my cohort and I demonstrated some painting. After our little visit, my cohort and I went in with three more layers of pigment mixture, bringing out the shadows, and leaving the highlights be; and voilà: our fresco was complete!
I had an absolute blast on this project. Not only did I get to indulge in the everlasting beauty of the Italian countryside, but I had an opportunity to participate in the legacy of one of the oldest forms of painting! I feel invigorated and enriched by my experience and cannot wait to bring my new skill set back to the States.