How to Read a Fresco

The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431–1600

by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin
University of Chicago Press, 406 pp., $65.00

Fresco painting was the main means of visual communication available to Italian painters from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Vasari describes the technique of fresco as “more virile and long-lasting than any other form of painting,” and as requiring greater resolution and confidence of touch. Frescoes were thought out slowly, but they were executed sectionally, with great speed, in what are called giornate (days), that is, in periods in which the smooth layer of plaster—the intonaco—of the area to be painted remained damp enough to absorb paint. They were the result of cogitation, but of cogitation that had, once a final solution was arrived at, to be transferred speedily on to the wall.

In monographs about Italian artists published early in this century frescoes were treated pari passu with panel paintings, as images not as things made. But especially since 1945 a great body of study has been devoted to them, and hundreds of frescoes have been stripped off the wall and transferred to some form of stable backing. A transferred fresco is a diminished fresco, and this policy may have been overradical, but it was implemented with great courage, and as a result an immense number of the drawn or painted sinopie, or sketches that lie under the paint surface, have been revealed.

With secondary artists the sinopie are often the botched jobs one would expect. But with great painters key aspects of their creative procedure have been revealed. We know how, at Assisi, Simone Martini drew out the fresco of Saint Martin and the Beggar, and what changes he introduced at quite a late stage in its design. We know, from the sinopie at Prato, that Uccello cannot have painted the chapel in the cathedral with which he is so often credited, and that Castagno’s original design for his fresco of Saint Jerome in the Annunziata in Florence was very different from the fresco that he carried out.

When the new Uffizi comes into being, it is to be hoped that both transferred frescoes and sinopie will be shown there. That paragon of intelligence and taste, the Museo delle Sinopie at Pisa, where the sinopie of the lost frescoes in the Camposanto are shown alongside reproductions of the frescoes, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Bologna, where the frescoes and sinopie of Jacopo da Bologna from Mezzaralte are shown together in adjacent rooms, are pointers to what can be done.

The challenge of the fresco, by virtue of its scale and durability, elicited from almost every artist his best work. It did so with Gentile da Fabriano, whose marvelous Madonna in the cathedral at Orvieto was cleaned recently with spectacular results; with Filippo Lippi in the choir of Prato Cathedral; with Botticelli, whose Annunciation from San Martino alla Scala in Florence is perhaps his strongest, most resilient painting; with Uccello, whose brutal Flood in Santa Maria Novella in Florence would have been unthinkable in any other medium than fresco; with Pisanello, who has been revealed in the…

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