Centuries ago, skill and mastery of technique got an artist a lucrative commission or helped secure a patron’s favor. Innovation had its place, but skillful execution was key—an artist was only as good as his last work. The ability to perform was crucial, but that wasn’t always easy to pull off given the complexity of certain techniques.
One of the most difficult artistic skills to master is fresco painting. It is a labor-intensive process where plaster is applied to a wall, images are traced onto the plaster (usually using charcoal and a perforated preparatory sketch) and paint is applied. All of this must be done quickly and without error because the plaster hardens within a matter of hours, sealing the image inside.
I’ve never frescoed myself, so maybe the hype is just that, but most accounts claim that this is a tough way of painting. Michelangelo struggled with it in the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo had trouble working quickly and getting it right the first time, so he invented his own way of doing things, much to the detriment of conservators later working on his Last Supper.
But now there’s an artist in Pisa, Luca Battini, who plans to bring fresco back. He’s planning a 1,700-sq-ft mural of the life of Pisa’s patron saint. What is fun about the project is that Battini is holding casting calls to find figures he’ll feature in the work. Some are prominent citizens; others just have the look the artist wants. People are taking this pretty seriously because the shelf life of a fresco is often hundreds of years, so those who are picked will be a part of history. I can’t wait to see if he can pull this off, but it turns out I’ll be waiting quite a long time—three years or so, which is about how long it takes to finish a project of this magnitude.
Image above: Detail from an earlier mural depicting the life of Pisa's patron saint, St. Rainerius.