During the European Middle Ages, plaster continued as a craft but was largely diminished as an art. With few exceptions, the prevailing Romanesque and Gothic architecture principally utilized stone both for construction and ornamentation. However, by the Late Middle Ages, a significant societal shift was underway. The Moors had established themselves as the dominant cultural force on the Iberian Peninsula. Islamic architecture, which originated a decoration based on an interlaced geometry of the infinite as well as a formalized depiction of natural vegetal forms, “the Arabesque,” culminated in triumphant fervor with the completion of the great Alhambra palace in the 14th century. The prominent artistic medium was plaster.
The magnificence of Islamic art certainly did not go unnoticed in Western Europe. It perhaps served as the final impulse for the Early Renaissance dawning in the Republic of Florence at the close of the 14th century. The Florentines looked back to a glorious Imperial past drawing inspiration to reassert their own cultural values. One Florentine family in particular, the Medici, established a unique liaison between wealth, power and patronage of the arts.
THE HIGH RENAISSANCE IN ROME
Towards the end of the 15th century the rich and powerful Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici of Florence funded excavations of the newly discovered Domus Aurea or “Golden House” of Emperor Nero in Rome. The 17-year-old prodigy Raphael and his 13-year old assistant Giovanni di Udine received the Cardinal’s patronage and were granted unfettered access to the excavations, allowing them opportunity to study the epitome of Hellenistic luxury. Awaiting them in the grottoes were perfectly preserved, highly ornamented plaster panels framing bas-relief grotesques, candelabras and arabesques, all modeled in “stucco duro” lime plaster, as well as myriads of exquisitely realized frescoes depicting mythological histories.
Cardinal Medici, now Pope Leo X, extended Raphael’s commission to decorate the loggias of the papal palace of St. Peter’s, which were then under construction. Concurrently, Vitruvius’ architectural treatise of the 1st century, De Architectura, which included a book on manufacture and application of lime for stucco and buon fresco, had significantly influenced Raphael’s contemporaries Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. According to Vasari’s account, Giovanni di Udine uncovered the ancient stucco duro formulation and took the lead in the ornamentation, while Raphael focused his considerable talents on fresco. Their teams of apprentices would diffuse the resurgent art of plaster to northern Italy and eventually the entire European continent.
THE LATE RENAISSANCE IN VENICE
Venice had a basis of power and wealth nourished by a flourishing trade with the East, separate from that of Rome and Florence. Venetian architecture was influenced by Byzantine and Islamic themes, and the Venetians were slow to fully adopt the resurgence of the classical forms typical of the High Renaissance. However, after the sack of Rome in 1527 a number of stuccoists and fresco artists found employment among the wealthy patrons of the Veneto region. Together with painters, they established the “Venetian School” and created a distinctively Venetian classical style.
Andrea Palladio was perhaps the most influential architect of the Renaissance who achieved the purest expressions of classical design. Apprenticed as a craftsman of traditional stone carving he extensively utilized plaster as a medium for architectural expression. Palladio’s Villa Rotunda near Vicenza is a signature example of symmetry and articulation of the Ionic order; the exterior being completed with lime stucco. Similarly, the interior was finished with lime plaster and adorned with beautifully modeled ornament and buon frescoes. Palladio would become a case study, an ideal example of an architect who had apprenticed in a trade and possessed a tactile understanding of craftsmanship. His numerous masterpieces were not just the result of his individual genius but also of the cooperation he engendered between himself, the patron, and respected artists and craftsmen who both contributed to the design and executed the work.
THE GERMAN BAROQUE
The first stirrings of the Baroque began in Rome. Architects like Bernini felt the best of Roman classical design had been explored, understood and recreated, and were eager to push its boundaries. The result was a distinct stylistic departure that could be best described as exuberance. Formal panels, symmetry and bas-relief gave way to flowing, unbounded ornamentation in alto-relievo. Strong yet lightweight, easy to sculpt and affix, plaster excelled like no other medium in conveying the dynamic vigor of the Baroque.
The conflict arising from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century culminating in the devastating 30 years war hindered artistic development of the High and Late Renaissance in Germany until the first half of 17th century. The Church, quick to understand the emotional power of the Baroque style, increasingly dictated its inclusion in the architecture of the period. Baroque reached its zenith in Germany as an architectural manifestation of the Counter Reformation. It was a determined architecture bearing the message of the grandeur of the Church. The focal point of the great Baroque cathedrals was always above, heavenward. Floors were plain, walls were relatively unadorned at eye level but the ceilings were transformed into the very archetype of heaven itself and the altar, the Most Holy. The feeling conveyed was one of astonishment and humility. Dynamic volumes, shadow, and suspended angels with hidden armatures manifested a divine reality only possible with plaster.
By the close of the 17th century great societal changes were underway across the globe. The Age of Discovery and subsequent colonization had enriched and empowered an ascendant of European nobility. Coupled with the emerging Age of Enlightenment, a dramatic shift of power from church to state was occurring across Europe.
In our next article, we will explore the history of plaster in the architecture of French Rococo and English Neo-Classical.
Read his first article "The History of Plaster in Architecture: The Ancient and Classical Periods" online here at wconline.com or W&C August 2012.