Frescoes and painting techniques in Italian art

Frescoes and painting techniques in Italian art

Italy’s art treasures are one of the main attractions for overseas visitors, including our own  Dante members. Therefore it seemed logical to take advantage of the posting at the embassy of Alessandro Giovine who not only loves to draw and paint but is also passionate about art theory and technique.

His passion and knowledge were on display Thursday 20 June when he outlined for us developments in oil painting and frescoes across the centuries. To illustrate these developments, he used images of actual artworks many of which are among the best known and most loved. Over forty people enjoyed his presentation.


Alessandro started with the Renaissance period when artists concentrated on naturalism and classical art. He gave us an intensive course in art practice, covering the mixing of pigments with either egg (giving tempera) or oil; the use of wood (heavier, less easily transportable) and canvas (more flexible) as a painting surface; primary colours; the use of ‘verdaccio’ (a greenish layer particularly suitable as an underlay before painting skin tones) and glazing (a succession of thin layers over ‘verdaccio’).

We learnt that the use of oil on canvas had descended from the Netherlands to Venice, where it was eagerly adopted, and had then moved down to Florence.

Alessandro stressed that an important feature of the Renaissance style was the sketch before the application of the paint (ie there was no improvisation). We were shown sketches and paintings by Leonardo (including the famous Mona Lisa as we know it) and Raffaello (including the fresco The School of Athens). Interestingly, he told us that Leonardo – the genius –left many of his paintings unfinished because he would get quickly bored with them and was keen to move on to something new.

Towards the end of the Renaissance a new technique was adopted – ‘a corpo’ – in which a thicker amount of paint was placed on the canvas. Tiziano was one of the first adopters as he did not like glazing, which required more time and patience than he had.

In the Baroque period the Catholic Church became a major promoter of art that expressed feelings therefore paintings of this period portrayed drama, action, energy and emotion. This was the period in which Caravaggio painted in his typical ‘chiaroscuro’ style, with the light reaching the subjects from holes in the ceiling or walls while the windows were covered.  Paintings became very large and, being painted in separate section, were then sewn together. The technique ‘alla prima’ developed in this period. It required all paint to be put on canvas at the same time rather than layering. This technique produced great results but only very good painters could handle it.

Alessandro then spoke about frescoes in which the artist paints on fresh plaster. The most famous fresco artist is Michelangelo who, being a sculptor rather than a painter, portrayed powerful, muscular figures. We were shown what is arguably the best known piece of Italian art – Michelangelo’s Last Judgment which is behind the Sistine Chapel altar.

We were told that there are four steps in fresco paintings: select a dry stone surface; place a grainy layer of mortar (arriccio); apply fresh plaster (intonaco); and finally apply a strong thick layer of colour. Alessandro explained that the chemical reaction happens in three hours therefore the painter needs to work very fast. In order to deal with very large works, the area is divided into segments and the same process is followed in each of these parts. To deal with the conjunction lines, tempera is often used to even up the finished work.

Alessandro then focussed on Leonardo’s Last Supper (L’ultima cena) which is found on a refectory wall in Milan and is seriously damaged. Leonardo, who liked to experiment, had used tempera (with egg) and oil on two layers (gesso and intonaco) on the wall instead of fresh plaster.  Additionally, he had added a wax as he expected the painting to be moved elsewhere. We learnt that egg and oil as media are porous when dry; steam, coming from the refectory kitchen, entered the miniscule cavities and froze in Milan’s cold winters and turned to water in summer, while dust and wax acted like a cork, trapping humidity. This meant that the volume of water in the cavities varied throughout the seasons, leading to the destruction of the painting. (Alessandro explained that this work is not strictly a fresco – “not all that’s on walls is a fresco”, he stressed). There are nine documented restorations of The Last Supper, the last one in 1999. There is now agreement that no further restoration of Leonardo’s great work should be attempted, just preservation by ensuring the room has filtered air and no dust particles can further damage it.

Alessandro finished his presentation by showing photos of a contemporary artist – the Russian Oleg Supereco – in the process of painting frescoes in the Cathedral of Noto, Sicily. We saw how the large areas he was covering were being painted in small segments to cope with the rapidly drying plaster.

Alessandro answered comprehensively all questions put to him, demonstrating amazing knowledge of the subject. A truly fascinating cultural evening.

Yvette Devlin