Art History Lab

Fresco Painting: A Timeless Journey Through Art History

Fresco: An Art Form Built to Last

The world of art offers an endless array of mediums and techniques, each one unique and beautiful in its own right. One such technique is fresco, a method of painting on wet lime-based plaster that has been used for centuries to create stunning works of art that stand the test of time.

In this article, we’ll explore the world of fresco, from its definition and history to the different types of techniques used in this art form.

Definition of Fresco

Fresco painting, from the Italian word “affresco,” meaning “on fresh plaster,” is a technique where water and pigment are mixed directly on a wet, freshly applied lime-based plaster surface. As the plaster dries, the pigments become permanently embedded in the wall.

Unlike other painting techniques, fresco paintings are distinguished by their long-lasting durability, with some frescoes dating back to ancient times, still as vibrant as they were upon creation.

Different Types of Fresco Techniques

There are three primary types of fresco techniques: buon fresco, secco fresco, and mezzo fresco. Buon fresco, also known as true fresco, involves applying pigments to wet lime plaster, which serves as an adhesive and bonds the pigments directly to the wall.

Secco fresco, on the other hand, involves applying pigments to a dry plaster surface, often with a binder such as egg yolk or glue. Mezzo fresco is a hybrid of buon and secco, where pigments are applied to partially wet plaster, with some areas being dry and some wet.

Buon Fresco Painting Process

The process of creating a buon fresco painting involves several stages. First, a rough plaster layer called the arriccio is applied to the wall.

Once this layer dries, a grid is created on the surface, and the artist transfers a sketch of the design onto the wall using a technique called pouncing. Next, a final, smooth plaster layer, called the intonaco, is applied on top of the sketch.

The artist then paints quickly, and the pigment is absorbed into the wet plaster. It is important to work quickly, though, as the plaster dries within a day or two.

Secco Fresco Painting Process

The secco fresco painting process starts with a dry plaster surface, which is roughened to allow the pigments to adhere better. The artist then applies a binder, such as egg yolk or glue to the surface, before applying pigments.

This method allows for greater flexibility in terms of color availability and technique, as the pigments are not absorbed into the plaster surface, and can be removed and corrected, if necessary. Fresco painting is a truly unique and fascinating art form that has stood the test of time for thousands of years.

With its durability and long-lasting quality, it is no wonder that fresco has been used in countless murals, paintings, and decorative arts. From the different types of fresco techniques to the processes involved in creating a fresco masterpiece, the world of fresco is both captivating and inspiring.

Mezzo Fresco Painting Technique

Mezzo fresco is a unique fresco painting technique that combines elements of both buon and secco fresco styles. This technique involves the application of pigments on partially dried plaster, allowing for more extended painting time and greater color control.

While less common than buon fresco, mezzo fresco has been utilized by many artists throughout history, including late Baroque painters to create large-scale frescoes.

Advantages of Mezzo Fresco Techniques

One of the primary advantages of mezzo fresco over traditional buon fresco is its ability to cover larger fresco areas without the same time pressure. The partially dried plaster allows artists to have more time to complete the painting process, which is particularly beneficial when working on large-scale paintings.

Mezzo fresco is ideal for landscape paintings, where detailed brushwork is required, and color blending is essential. Late Baroque artists, such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, used mezzo fresco in the ceiling paintings of the famous Wrzburg Palace, creating grand, colorful frescoes that still impress visitors today.

This technique allowed Tiepolo to achieve delicate shadings and fine details that would have been impossible had he used only buon fresco.

Early Fresco Paintings

Fresco painting has a long history with examples of it found in ancient Egyptian tombs, Mesopotamian architecture, Minoan Crete, and frescoes from the time of the Roman Empire. One of the most well-known examples is the Sigiriya Frescoes in Sri Lanka, dating from the 5th century A.D. These paintings are drawn in a unique style, featuring elongated female figures in vibrant colors, and capture the cultural traditions of ancient civilizations.

Frescos from Classical Antiquity

Classical antiquity saw a flourishing of fresco art, with stunning examples of frescoes found in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Italy, Greece, and India. The frescoes found in Magna Graecia tombs are particularly notable, as they feature vivid scenes from Greek mythology, including the tragic tale of Icarus.

Plasterwork perfectly preserved the paintings in Pompeii and Herculaneum after the cities were covered by ash during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. These frescoes offer insights into everyday life in ancient Rome, and the delicate techniques employed show clear proficiency in a range of painting styles.


Fresco art offers an incredibly diverse and engaging range of techniques and styles. Through its use, artists throughout history have captured the essence of their respective cultures and traditions.

From the earliest examples found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, to the astounding frescoes of Classical antiquity, the practice of fresco painting continues to inspire and create beautiful works of art. Utilized by painters to create stunning vistas in Baroque churches and palaces, it is clear that the legacy of this art form persists today and remains an integral part of art history.

Italian Renaissance Frescos

During the Italian Renaissance, fresco painting techniques were brought to new heights by artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. These artists experimented with methods of applying pigment to plaster, in pursuit of greater vibrancy and depth of color.

The most notable example of the use of fresco during this period is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, which features a range of techniques, including buon fresco, secco fresco, and mezzo fresco. Michelangelo’s work exemplifies the use of fresco to create incredibly detailed and beautiful works of art, capturing the essence of religious devotion and mythological narratives.

English Fresco Revival

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a revival of fresco painting in England, closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Artists such as Phoebe Anna Traquair and William Brassey Hole created stunning murals featuring highly detailed imagery with rich and vibrant colors.

Traquair’s frescoes can be found at the Church of the Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she painted over 3,000 square feet of murals covering the interior of the church. Her technique often incorporated intricate designs inspired by traditional Celtic and religious imagery.

Contemporary Fresco Artists

Fresco as an art form may seem old-fashioned, but it has never ceased to be an influential and relevant form of art. During the 20th century, Mexican artist Diego Rivera utilized fresco techniques to create powerful, political murals that conveyed Marxist ideals.

In his works, he vividly portrayed social struggles and political injustices, often using fresco as a way to connect with and honor Mexico’s indigenous cultures.

Francesco Clemente

Francesco Clemente is an Italian contemporary artist who has gained fame for his use of traditional fresco techniques, using them to explore themes of identity, spirituality, and the broader political and social landscape. Clemente has worked on a range of large-scale frescoes throughout his career, including one in the Neapolitan church of Santa Maria Donnaregina, painting scenes from Neapolitan history.

He has garnered a reputation as one of the most innovative and exciting artists working with fresco today, exploring a variety of modern and ancient techniques. Conclusion:

Fresco painting is a unique and ever-evolving art form that has been utilized by artists and cultures throughout history.

From the stunning works of Michelangelo and Raphael during the Italian Renaissance, the revival of fresco painting by English artists such as Traquair and Hole, to more recent contemporary artists sharing their vision, fresco has never lost its appeal. As new artists and movements continue to emerge, fresco painting endures as a timeless technique capable of producing rich and vibrant works of art that stand the test of time.

Famous Frescos from Antiquity and Modernity

Frescos are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of art, and many examples still survive to this day from both antiquity and modernity. The Bull-Leaping Fresco from the Minoan civilization of Crete is one of the most famous from antiquity, depicting a young acrobat jumping over a charging bull, part of a ritualistic performance.

The Sigiriya Rock Frescos in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 5th century A.D., depict a series of vibrant figures and scenes, notably including a group of female figures known as the “Sigiriya Maidens”. The Sappho Fresco, discovered in Pompeii and dating from the 1st century A.D., is a vibrant fresco of a young woman, which exemplifies the wealth of Roman art.

The Last Supper, The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, The School of Athens

During the Italian Renaissance, frescoes were taken to new heights, and some of the most famous frescoes to date were created. Perhaps the most iconic example is the highly elaborate painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, which took three years to complete.

Another famous fresco from this period is The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, painted by Michelangelo over the course of four years, featuring nine scenes from the first book of Genesis, along with a host of other biblical figures and scenes. The School of Athens, painted by Raphael for the Vatican Palace in Rome, depicts a gathering of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of Ancient Rome and Greece and is a celebration of human reason and intellectual achievements.

Recommended Reading: “Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743”

One valuable resource for exploring the art of frescos is “Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743,” by Ross King and Anja Grebe. This comprehensive book offers a detailed and informative overview of the various frescoes found in Florence during a 500-year-period.

It features over 400 photographs and full descriptions of major works, providing context and critical analysis of each piece of art. This book is an excellent resource for those wishing to explore the art of frescoes in Florence and beyond.

Recommended Reading: “Italian Frescoes: High Renaissance and Mannerism 1510-1600”

Another valuable resource for those interested in fresco art is “Italian Frescoes: High Renaissance and Mannerism 1510-1600,” by Steffi Roettgen. This book offers a collection of Italian frescoes, giving a historical and critical overview of the use of frescoes during the period of the High Renaissance and Mannerism.

The book includes photographs of well-known frescoes, along with detailed descriptions of specific works and artists. For art historians, art lovers, or anyone interested in understanding the evolution of frescoes in Italy, this book is a must-read.


Fresco art is a technique that has captivated audiences for centuries. From famous frescoes dating back to antiquity and modern times to the works of famous Italian Renaissance artists, fresco paintings fascinated viewers with their vibrant colors, intricate designs, and unparalleled beauty.

The art of frescos continues to inspire artists today, and there are invaluable resources to help people explore and understand this art form in more depth, including the books recommended above. Through the study and appreciation of these stunning frescoes, we can connect with the art of the past while appreciating its relevance to the present day.

Fresco art, a technique of painting on wet plaster, has spanned centuries and left an indelible mark on the art world. From ancient civilizations to the Renaissance and modern era, frescoes have showcased the ingenuity and skill of artists throughout history.

The article delved into various aspects of fresco painting, including its definition, different techniques like buon, secco, and mezzo frescos, as well as notable examples from different periods, such as the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. It also highlighted the importance of recommended books for further exploration.

By appreciating and studying frescoes, we gain a deeper understanding of art’s evolution, cultural significance, and the enduring beauty of this timeless medium.

Popular Posts