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Fresco painting 101 in Florence, Italy

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If there was thing I never thought I would ever get to try in my life, it was probably learning the basics of fresco painting techniques in my city of Florence. When I think of frescoes, all I have to do is look around me. They hold such an important artistic role from the Medieval and Early Renaissance period in Florence with frescoes done by famous artists such as Botticelli and Masaccio. This ancient technique was largely used by the Etruscans and Romans with some of the best work happening during the fourteenth century & the Renaissance period in Italy.

To learn more about frescoes in Florence, I loved this post about frescoes in Florence by Jenna from ‘This is My happiness’ blog.

Always appreciative of any kind of majestic art, I really never dreamed that I would get my chance to recreate Michelangelo’s Adam & Eve in the Sistine Chapel {yeah right}. But instead I got the very awesome invite by to a fresco painting workshop organized by Alexandra Lawrence taking place at the Accademia d’Arte San Giovanni Firenze located on a small street in my beloved Oltrarno.

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You can read my friend Alexandra Korey’s account of our mediocre attempts here. I was 100% game for a chilly and sunny Saturday morning participating in the adult version of finger painting, or so I thought. Because the studio can only fit a certain amount of people, around 15, we all had our own work station with paints plus a guide – we were attempting to recreate a piece of Brancacci’s chapel. The group was fun – think visiting professors, a few on sabbatical and people who just enjoy art.

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Fresco Painting 101

Obviously this isn’t really the kind of activity I do everyday, my most creative latest talent is creating personalized bitstrip comics on my Samsung Galaxy S3. Fresco painting is way harder than it looks and I can honestly tell you that after participating in this workshop, I have a profound and deep respect for fresco artists as its extremely difficult to task to undertake.

The basic premise of frescoes is a special artistic technique that uses different colored pigments diluted in water on the wet plaster of a wall. When the plaster has dried and undergone carbonation, the color will remain forever (well that’s the hope).

The process works as follows

1. First is the actual wall or some sort of support/special board to hold the artwork. We were provided with small tiles that we could later take home which was pretty awesome since I loved that I would get to bring something home with me from this experience.

2. The arricio (first layer of preparation) which for us was on a tile, plaster or veil which is a second, thinner layer. The first layer is prepared using lime and coarse sand from the river (not from the sea which can damage the fresco). This needs to then dry for 24 hours which means the workshop had to do a fair amount of preparatory work before we could try our hand at painting. The second layer, or plaster, is then added in order to receive the colors, marble dust can also be added. 

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3. Ready, set.. color! Well not so fast actually since this really was only the beginning. Next was doing the ‘cartone’ or  preparatory drawing. While normally done directly on the wall, we used a pencil to sketch our fresco on a cardboard piece the same size as our tile and pressed in the drawing using a stylus. This design is then dusted with red coal dust which was really, really cool. I did think about giving myself some extra blush but somehow resisted the urge.

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Alexandra in deep concentration

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I bet he could ‘blush’ someone’s cheeks like a pro!

look mom - all that tracing came in handy!

look mom – all that tracing came in handy!

I was super excited when we finally got to start painting after we outlined our red-dust design with red paint on the tile. The colors are diluted in water, you can only use mineral colors since the lime burns the other colors. Tips include adding your lighter colors first and to remember that when dried, the colors will appear lighter.

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Though all of us were painting the same scene from one of Masaccio’s famous frescoes, you can tell some had true, natural technique while I would describe my own attempt as ‘bold but not beautiful’ to put a soap opera spin on things. For me personally, some of the colors seem to really take to the tile while others much less. I did manage to write my last name in one corner and add a small drawing of a hedgehog which just needed to be a part of my Masaccio masterpiece. I regretted not taking more time to really solidify that outline before attacking the tile with my messy paintbrush, but I had fun and I liked my amateur final product.

Do you think I could have assisted Michelangelo?

Do you think I could have assisted Michelangelo?

I took a break to walk around and see how everyone else was doing, which seemed all a lot better than mine. Some followed the picture with precision while others added their own interpretation {I spotted a pirate in one window just to give you an idea}. After we were done, they dried our tiles instantly with some sort of machine that looked like it would blow any fuse at my apartment. After the tiles were dry, they were covered and bubble wrap and given to us to take home.

We then headed to Piazza del Carmine to visit the Brancacci Chapel to see the real version of our design in person with a wonderful, informative intro from Alexandra Lawrence. What I appreciate about the way she explains art is the way she humanizes the characters in each artwork as if she personally knew them. She has a certain talent for enveloping the listener into the back story, so much so that often after her tours I am instantly on google search researching the place we visited like you normally do after seeing a really intriguing film.

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Creating art often works up an appetite so after this we all went to lunch at a nearby trattoria I’Brindellone in front of the Piazza del Carmine with a special lunch menu of 15 euros for primi, secondi, water and wine. Nico joined us for the feast and did the good boyfriend act of marveling over my ‘art.’ If anyone’s a saint – its definitely him, his poker face is unbeatable.

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One can never underestimate the power of art to work up a feirce appetite. Luckily we enjoyed Tuscan favorites such as ribollita, tuscan beans and peposo washed down with red wine and water. I’m certain Masaccio did the same ;-). 

The question is: Would I ever do something like this again?

Um yes, even though I lack true artistic talent, if I could do this every Saturday morning in Florence, I would. The fact that I can trace a fresco and then later look at that same famous one in person is pretty damn cool. I highly recommend a workshop like this for someone looking to get their hands a little dirty and learn something at the same time, all in a sunny afternoon.

Interested in this tour? 

Luckily this workshop/tour wasn’t a one-hit wonder. The next was in schedule for February 22nd and to register email Alexandra at a.lawrence@theflorentine.net and keep in mind the workshop also includes a visit to the Brancacci chapel.

Fresco workshop + Brancacci Chapel
Saturday, February 22 at 10am
Meeting point: via San Giovanni, 23 (Oltrarno)
42 euro

*This initiative is born from the series So you think you know Florence. Visits and walks for locals, semi locals, or visitors (usually long-term) who are interested in going deeper into Florence’s history by visiting unusual places in town.

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  1. Alexandra Lawrence

    Great post, Georgette, and great photos! It was so fun seeing everyone’s different results though all using same pigments, materials and subject. Totally agree that it enhances respect for the maestri–past and present–who excel at such a difficult technique!

    • ggnitaly84

      Thanks Alexandra :). It was a lot of fun and I think something really unique to do in Florence whether you are a tourist OR a local. Its inspired me to get back into art even if Michelangelo I am not..

    • ggnitaly84

      It was so much, I actually want to go back and try this again myself. Who knows, perhaps I can manage to make my next fresco to look less ‘blurry’. If you do come back, let me know and we can get coffee :)


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