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Magical American Fresco - Crafting the Sublime.

If fresco paintings existed alone, they would still be unique works of art. When seen in concert with the related crafts of their respective eras, the effect can be sublime. Three genres of historical note-- relief work, gilding, and scagliola--not only help showcase fresco work but stand on their own as capturing the creative spirit of highly creative periods.

Relief making, whereby sculpture is executed on a surface so that the figures project, without being freestanding, is found wherever art exists. It achieves its special "come alive" quality through a design made so that all or part projects from a flat surface, creating the illusion of three dimensions.

Types of relief are most basically broken down into two kinds. Alto rilievo ("high relief") is carved deeply enough to suggest that the main parts of the design are almost floating on their base. Bas-relief, or basso rilievo ("low-relief"), figures project less than half their true depth from the background. In both forms, the play of light, quality of craftsmanship, subject matter, and imagination of the viewer determine the success of the work.

Other categories of relief create a diversity of visual effect. Anaglyph is a low-relief sculpture, or embossing, which usually rises just above the surrounding surface. Mezzo rilievo is a relief sculpture in which figures and objects are seen in the half-round, with half their volume projecting from the surface.

Rilievo stiacciato, or rilievo schiacciato ("flattened relief") is a finely graded, low relief of flattened transitions where the overlapping parts are, to some extent, falsified for purely three- dimensional effects. This style was most elevated by Italian Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello. Cavo rilievo ("hollow relief"), or intaglio, is a hollow-cut design--the opposite of relief-- and is often used as a matrix from which a relief can be made for a coin, medal, or sealing.

Another craft with ancient origins is gilding, the process by which another metal is covered, most often, with a thin layer of gold or silver. The gilded surface can then be polished to a high shine, or tarnished or blackened if a lesser metal than gold is used. Sometimes the object must be sealed with varnish to prevent blackening of a surface through oxidization. But if a darkened look is sought, the metal surface can be exposed to air until the desired appearance is achieved, then sealed over. Gold can be melted and remelted without losing weight, becoming so soft that it can be beaten into very thin sheets and worked easily.

Gold was first turned into foil by the ancient Egyptians and pre- Columbian Amerindians, followed by artisans in China, Japan, and ancient Greece and Rome. Gold- and silver-gilded objects such as furniture, wall carvings, plaster moldings, mirror frames, and candlesticks were originally used in churches and palaces to evoke admiration from the masses but then became the desired chattels of the more prosperous members of society, as gilding workshops flourished. Gilding was used extensively to decorate furniture of the Baroque, Rococo, and Empire periods.

The craft reached its high point in eighteenth-century France. Chairs and sofas were often decorated with gold leaf patterns applied to a colored background, a form called part-gilding. This was also a popular treatment for smaller items that would be lacquered before gold leaf were designed. Later, a black background was fashionable for classical gold motifs in the Directoire and English Regency periods. The European--East Indies trade generated an insatiable appetite for gilded lacquerwork.

Today, the ancient craft of gilding is still taught at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Students undergo an intensive gold-leaf- gilding course. First they learn the proper Renaissance technique and then apply delicate gold leaves to parchment and panels, polishing them into a golden blaze. The Gilding Practicum workshop costs $450 and is offered along with the other traditional arts of fresco painting and stained glass. The instructor is a practicing illuminator and specialist in sculpture restoration. Cennino Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook, a how-to book from the fourteenth century, serves as a text. Inspired by Gregorian chants and the glow of candlelight, one student remarked that she felt "an aura" around her in class, while another said she wanted to do a "fresco in gold" at her church.

Another lost art, scagliola ("scales or chips of marble"), involves painting hard plaster to resemble marble. This imitation marble was initially made of powdered gypsum, sand, and a solution of glue (later isinglass). It is studded while still soft with fragments of stone, concrete, and colored clay and then smoothed and polished to a high gloss.

Scagliola was known in ancient Egypt and rediscovered in the sixteenth century. In Italy, it was favored for interior architectural features, especially columns and pilasters, and for ornamental tabletops and pedestals. Museums and designers often use these pedestals to display sculptures and busts. They are generally made in traditional colors: porphyry, verte antique, and gallo sienna.

Today, ornamental plasterwork and scagliola, flexible and relatively inexpensive, are being used worldwide in construction, renovation, conservation, and refurbishment. Used in ornamental ceilings of all shapes and sizes, scagliola spans a wide range of historical- architectural styles. Plasterwork can be reconstructed by using ancient techniques (lime, hair, and split lath), modern technology (molds and fibrous plaster), or a combination of both.

The columns of the rotunda in the U.S. Capitol are scagliola, composed surprisingly of milk, ink, marble dust, and yarn. Underneath is a cement pillar with a steel rod through the middle. In 1910 it cost about $100 to make a scagliola column, compared to $1,000 for a marble column. Following this stately example, today nearly half the states are renovating their capitols, and much of the cost has been earmarked for scagliola and other ornamental plasterwork.

Stephen Henkin is an Arts editor at The World & I.
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Publication:World and I
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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