Anna de Riso, from Studio Sottosopra Anna de Riso Paparo conservation laboratory in Rome, led a two-day fresco-making workshop which was attended by both Humanities and Art award-holders and Assistant Directors, Martina Caruso and Harriet O’Neill. We were also delighted that artist Helen O’Leary could join us from the American Academy. We started with a lecture during which Anna outlined the history of fresco-making and the main techniques used. This theoretical session was quickly followed by the practical, mixing the plaster and preparing our surfaces before deciding whether to trace and then pounce an existing image or paint directly, onto the topmost layer. We then began applying our pigments.
The paragraph above outlines what we did, what we learnt was far more complex and arguably more meaningful. As an art historian I was familiar with written descriptions outlining the process of fresco-making and canonical examples of the technique. I also had the opportunity to inspect fragments of frescoes such as A Group of Four Poor Clares (possibly about 1336-40) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti during my time at National Gallery, but experiencing the medium through making transformed my thinking. Understanding how the plaster is applied, dries and feels, the strength needed to mix it, often using our hands, combined with getting to grips with how the pigment behaves once applied to the surface, provided a new appreciation of the subtlety and confidence artists such as Lorenzetti possessed, particularly in their approach to flesh tones. It also provided an insight into how a workshop might have worked, especially in relation to the transfer of drawings to the plaster.
More striking was the fact that frescoes in museum collections have been removed from their original context. This is an obvious point, but hitherto I had considered frescoes more decoration than wall and yet it became obvious as the workshop progressed that they were part of the physical structure of the buildings they came from, bestowing them with an aura and poignancy I had not previously considered. It was enormously productive to work alongside artists who were able to articulate the opportunities and limitations of the medium and classicists and archaeologists who could illuminate the context and subject matter of ancient frescoes.
BSR serendipity struck again when a number of newly trained fresco-makers joined Professor Rosamond McKitterick on a study trip to Catacombe di Priscilla, to see amongst other things, its frescoes. It was surprising to observe how our looking and understanding had been enriched through practical knowledge.
Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences)