What is Fresco Painting? History of Art
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What is fresco painting?

Thera fresco
Fresco painting from Thera, Greece (about 1600 BC)

May 2016 - Fresco is the Italian word for "fresh", and that's because painters do fresco painting on fresh, wet plaster walls. That way the colors really sink in to the plaster, and you get a glowing kind of color that is very different from what you would get if you just painted on top of the dry plaster.

Villa of the Mysteries fresco
Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy (about 50 AD)

People have been doing fresco painting for a long time. The earliest frescoes we know of come from Bronze Age Greece, about 1600 BC. Only about a hundred years later, Minoan painters were traveling from Crete to Israel and to Egypt to paint fresco paintings on the walls of the palaces there.

Indian fresco
Indian fresco

The Etruscans and the Romans also did fresco painting. The Etruscans painted frescoes on the walls of rich people's tombs, showing them eating and drinking in the afterlife. Roman people who couldn't afford marble walls in their houses often had fresco paintings of marble walls, to make it look like they had marble. Sometimes they painted fancy columns and balconies, or false windows, too.

assisi fresco
Fresco by Giotto, Church of
St. Francis of Assisi (about 1275 AD)

By the time of the Han Dynasty (100 BC), people were doing frescoes in China, and there are famous frescoes from Ajanta, India, dating to about 500 AD in the Guptan period. These frescoes were on the walls of Hindu temples carved out of caves, and they showed scenes from Hindu stories like the Ramayana.

In the Middle Ages, frescoes were very popular in Italy. Frescoes were a lot cheaper than the older style of having mosaic pictures on the walls. Some famous artists who worked in fresco are Cimabue, Giotto, and Fra Angelico. These painters mainly painted on the walls of Christian churches, and they showed scenes from the Bible or from the lives of saints.

Learn by doing: make a fresco painting
More about plaster

Bibliography and further reading about fresco painting:

Ancient Greek Art, by Susie Hodge (1998)- for kids ages 9-12.

Minoan and Mycenaean Art, by Reynold Higgins (2nd revised edition 1997). The standard book for college students.

Roman Painting, by Roger Ling (1991). This is a detailed account of the different styles of Roman fresco painting.

The Art of Fresco Painting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by Mary P. Merrifield (2004).

More about Minoan painting
More about Medieval European painting
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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