From prehistory to the current days, artistic developments reflect the societies in which they occur and their geographic locations. The history of fresco painting is closely related to, and a reflection of, the history of art generally.

Fresco, meaning “fresh “ in Italian, is a form of mural painting in which earth pigments are applied directly to wet lime plaster.

Prehistoric and early fresco painting

The first fresco-type paintings date back to no less than 30,000 years ago with the paintings created in the Chauvet cave in France. Some 15,000 years ago frescoes were created in other caves in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain. These early examples of fresco painting are testimony of the long and varied history of this art form. The early frescoes, painted on the limestone walls of the caves, contained remarkably expressive and realistic figures of horses, bison, bears, lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses, which continue to fascinate researchers and art historians.

By 1500 BC the techniques of fresco painting evolved to painting on wet plaster, allowing more flexibility in the use and location of frescoes for decorative purposes. The earliest known examples of such frescoes around 1500 BC are to be found on the island of Crete in Greece. The most famous of these, The Toreador, depicts a sacred ceremony in which individuals jump over the backs of large bulls. While some similar frescoes have been found in other locations around the Mediterranean basin, particularly in Morocco, their origins are subject to speculation. Some art historians believe that fresco artists from Crete may have been sent to Morocco as part of a trade exchange, a possibility which raises to the fore the importance of this art form within the society of the times.

Frescoes were also painted in ancient Greece, but few of these works have survived. In southern Italy, at Paestum, which was a Greek colony, a tomb containing frescoes dating back to 470 BC was discovered. These frescoes depict scenes of the life and society of ancient Greece, and constitute valuable historical testimonials. One shows a group of men reclining at a banquet and another shows a man diving into the sea.


 Roman frescoes, found in Pompeii and Herculaneum and dating from the first century AD, include remarkably realistic scenes of homes and gardens

.Wall Fresco in Pompeii

Above:  Wall fresco in Pompeii

It is inevitable that those who view the frescoes in Pompeii are struck by the irony of history in that a tragic event, the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD, allowed the preservation and maintenance of one of the most significant fresco art treasures of the ancient world, protecting it under the enduring lava from the barbarians initially and subsequently from inefficient maintenance. The tragedy for the citizens of Pompeii was thus transformed into a mirror of the marvels of the city that could be viewed by posterity.

The prosperity of Pompeii as an agricultural and trading center gave impetus and support to many artistic forms, and particularly to the fresco artists who depicted all aspects of the life and society of the times. It is noteworthy for example that a sports event, narrated by Tacitus, was illustrated in a fresco by one of the many artists of Pompeii. The event, a competition between Pompeii and a rival town, degenerated from verbal insult to stone throwing and finally the use of weapons such as daggers and swords. The various aspects of this event were depicted in the fresco with careful attention to detail, and included the image of a vendor preoccupied by the effect of the disturbances on his trade.

The austere style of building of houses in Pompeii and their very sparse furnishings, as was the custom of the times, encouraged the use of fresco painting for decorative purposes. The walls were painted in monochrome colors of red, yellow and black and were embellished by paintings of figures, landscapes, masks and garlands. The techniques of application of the colors were so refined and perfected that they allowed the frescoes to survive for thousands of years. It is noteworthy that even to this day, researchers have not been able to fully discover the secrets of their techniques and endurance.

POmpeii Villa Dei Misteri

Naturally, the richness of the decorations was often a function of the wealth of the commissioner of the fresco paintings, and one aspect of the decorations was thus their Baroque flavor. Baroque style is an innate manner of expression in populations of southern regions, brought to levels of ostentation through wealthy patronage. The need for Baroque expression is often attributed to the underlying insecurity of a consumer focused society, in particular fear of return to poverty and misery. Interestingly enough the social and economic concerns attributed to Pompeii which led to the prevailing art forms have over the centuries been experienced by other countries and regions worried about the permanence of their wealth and security.

Our Reproduction of a pompeian fresco

Above : Our Reproduction of a pompeian fresco

The houses of Pompeii, even those of the wealthiest owners, were surprisingly limited in size. However, the smallness of the rooms was disguised by the broadened horizons deriving from the fresco paintings. These fresco paintings depict harmonious country scenes, or magnificent views of the sea and limpid blue skies, or scenes of splendid and laden fruit trees. Particularly outstanding examples of the decorative heights reached by the fresco artists of Pompeii are to be found in the Villa of the Mysteries. Without entering in to the interpretation of paintings, it suffices to note that the frescoes that occupy all of the walls show enigmatic figures engaged in a sort of magic ballet.

The inhabitants of Pompeii were quite superstitious, as proven by the many amulets and objects against bad luck found in the ruins. These ranged from simple amulets to be worn to small bronze hands forged in a gesture to ward off the evil eye and to attract the good grace of the divinities.

In addition to these were the phallic symbols painted or sculptured at the entrance of nearly all of the homes and shops. The phallic symbols gradually were extended throughout the fresco paintings of Pompeii, and were not representative so much of sex but rather of health and wellbeing. Thus, the images that are currently considered as erotic or even pornographic were actually standard features of everyday artistic expression in Pompeii. Sexual relations were portrayed explicitly in all of their variations and combinations, and the inhabitants lived side by side with these images as though they were still life or landscape paintings. The erotic frescoes of Pompeii certainly underline the immense gap existing between their culture and current day more. The erotic frescoes of Pompeii are not generally open to the public, and only adult visitors are admitted.

Another significant aspect of the frescoes of Pompeii (as well as of the other prevalent art form of mosaics) was the earthly treatment of religious subjects. In their various representations, the divinities are “humanized" and above all are given decorative attributes to beautify the houses of the wealthy patrons. Decorative religious frescoes of this sort include The Wedding of Mars and Venus, The Marriage of Jupiter, Narcissus at the Fountain and other subjects of a historical/mythological nature. However, the divinities closest to the hearts of the inhabitants of Pompeii were those linked to agriculture, health and good fortune. Moreover, the earthquake of 62 AD that preceded the eruption of the Vesuvius must have increased their attachment to divinities which would protect them from disasters, and these are pictured extensively in the fresco paintings of Pompeii.

Other major early period fresco painting

A different spirit permeates the frescoes painted by early Christians living in Rome during the late second and third centuries AD. The early Christians frescoed the walls and vaults of their underground tombs, or catacombs, with Christian symbols and scenes from the Bible.

The sacred nature of fresco painting was also prevalent in the Asian and Eastern European civilizations. Archaeologists have found frescoes in China, at Liao-yang (100 BC) and Tun-Huang (AD 500-800), as well as Ajanta, India (AD 500-700). The latter depict scenes from the life of Buddha and stories of his early incarnations. The Byzantine culture produced frescoes from AD 500 to 1300 in what is now Russia, Ukraine and the Balkans. In France, during AD 1100 to 1300 there was fresco painting of Gothic inspiration.

Fresco history 1 | Fresco history 2