Marmorino in Ancient Times

The use of coloured and polished plaster finishes dates back many millenia.  At least four thousand years ago in Egypt, the interior chambers of pyramids were finished with an extremely refined and durable plaster.  It is believed that although they were familiar with lime, and used it in their base layers, the material most favoured by Egyptian craftsmen was based on burnt gypsum.

The Egyptians went on to greatly influence the civilisation of Minoan Crete.  The plaster arts were used extensively in their design and architecture.  However, there was one difference: instead of using gypsum, it appears that the Minoans favoured lime.  In their palaces and temples, rather than painting murals using the fresco secco technique as the Egyptians did, the Minoans preferred to use buon (true) fresco.  This meant that the pigments were applied to the plaster while it was still wet, so the artist had to work extremely quickly, and resulted in the fluid nature of the murals.

It's the ancient Greeks who are accredited with being the first to use marmorino stucco (lime and marble dust), although they no doubt picked up the idea elsewhere.  The interior and exterior surfaces of their temples, both stone and marble, were coated in dazzling pure white marmorino.  This acted as a decorative finish, and also a sacrificial layer which could be replaced or repaired as required, while protecting the marble or stone beneath.

When the Romans absorbed Greece and its art, architecture and culture, included were Greek plastering techniques and materials.  Military engineer Vitruvius goes into great detail in Chapter Two of his seventh book on architecture, explaining the importance of aging lime putty, and the exact process to produce a marmoratum (marmorino) finish - a process still employed today.

The Romans used marmorino to line aqueducts - but they valued it not only for its durability, but also for its decorative qualities.  They used marmorino along with other decorative plastering techniques such as encaustic painting, sgraffito, and buon fresco.  Examples of this still remain intact within the ruins of Pompeii.

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Marmorino during the Renaissance period 

During the Italian Renaissance, the use and development of decorative polished plaster techniques experienced radical progress, principally in Venice and the Veneto region.

The Venetians learned much from the people among whom they travelled, including their decorative skills.  They no doubt absorbed advanced plastering techniques and material science from the Orient, and added these to the knowledge that they already had.

 

 

Venetian craftsment had a unique set of problems to overcome, and this led to their rediscovering old techniques.

A visit to Venice will reveal the widespread use of cocciopesto (brick dust or crushed tile) in the base layers of all the marmorino on the facades.  Venetian plasterers were doing exactly what the Romans had done centuries before; they were producing artificial hydraulic lime which was more durable and resistant to moisture.

Although Venice is the city credited with the development of marmorino techniques, arguably the best examples of marmorino can be seen around Vicenza, where the work of Andrea Palladio was concentrated, between the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  He used marmorino as the principal material for his facades.

During the Renaissance, experiments with use of pigments, coloured marble dust and layering techniques would change what had chiefly been a functional material into a highly decorative medium.  The techniques which were discovered by these craftsmen are still used today.

 

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Marmorino in the 20th Century

During the subsequent eras, the use of polished lime plaster as a decorative medium fell in and out of favour.  There were also further developments, such as spatolatopastellone and hot iron techniques.

It would be impossible to describe decorative lime plaster finishes in the 20th century without mentioning the great architect Carlo Scarpa.  Starting in the mid-1950s, he took what was by then a dying tradition and reinvented it.

 

A visit to his works such as Castelvecchio, the Olivetti showroom or the Banco Popolare di Verona reveals how he used marmorino finishes in what is even now, a strikingly contemporary way.

Scarpa's designs, for example Venice's Fondazione Querini-Stampalia, often use stucco lucido and encausto: finishes that can be seen elsewhere in the city, but in the context in which Scarpa uses them, they look much more emotive. 

The colours produced by his team of craftsmen are inspiring, and have to be experienced in real life to be truly appreciated - testament to the fact that a polished plaster finish in the right colour and setting never dates.

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Present-day use of Marmorino

Over the last twenty years, there has been an explosion of interest in stucco finishes.  Materials that would have been produced by stuccodores themselves are now manufactured on a large scale.

In the US, it is possible to buy "Venetian plaster" in virtually any DIY store.  There are now myriad possibilities open to craftspeople and decorative artists:

  • buying raw materials from small suppliers and making your own finishes (this is the best option for those involved in restoration)
  • ready-mixed but high-quality lime-based materials with less than 3% glue
  • hybrid materials that may contain cement and resins
  • materials composed of a completely acrylic binder mixed with marble dust

There is a place for all of these materials, and when applied with imagination, and in the right context, they can all look amazing.

For anyone involved in the stucco crafts, it is very important to be familiar with old techniques and materials so that ancient buildings can be maintained, but with such a creative art, it's also essential that we continue to experiment.

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