One of the great pleasures of researching my novel The Merchants of Light was learning more about the painting techniques used by Giambattista Tiepolo and his contemporaries. It surprised (and pleased) me to discover how little many of these techniques have changed over time, and how many are still being used in exactly the same way by painters today.
This was as true in Tiepolo’s time as it is in ours. The materials and techniques he used in the 1700s had been employed by painters for centuries before him.
Fresco, or buon fresco as it is sometimes called, is an example of a techniques the young Tiepolo would have learned as an apprentice and used throughout his long career. Famous examples of fresco are the Sistine Chapel, The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompei, and of course the stupendous vault frescos in the Residence of Würzburg, painted by Tiepolo together with his sons Domenico and Lorenzo (see image above).
Fresco involves painting colored pigments directly into to wet plaster, which absorbes them and hardens to create a very durable, vivid painted surface. Though less familiar to us today than oil painting, fresco is an ancient practice used by the Romans.
In this video Guggenheim curator Paul Schwartzbaum talks us through a demonstration of the techniques used by Michelangelo when he frescoed the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These would have been familiar to Tiepolo. In fact, he would have used almost identical methods in the frescoes he painted some 200 years later.
By the time Tiepolo came along, the use of fresco had fallen out of favor in Venice due to its tendency to molder and crumble in the damp conditions of the lagoon city. Tiepolo took to the medium, however, and singlehandedly revived its popularity, winning fame for stunning frescos like those in Venice’s Scalzi and the Carmini.
And, when you study Tiepolo’s work, you come to understand why he loved fresco so much. Michelangelo, who always thought of himself as a sculptor, struggled with the technique and complained (a lot) about how hard it was. For Tiepolo, fresco plays to all his artistic strengths, calling as it does for speed, flawless draughtmanship, decisiveness, physical stamina and bravado on the part of the painter. These are the qualities that I love about Tiepolo and some of the reasons I devoted a book to him and his amazing artistic family.