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The Birth of Frescoes in Ancient Rome

The fresco is widely celebrated as one of the most significant and earliest forms of art, having been traced as far back as the Minoans. The techniques and skills developed by the ancients have inspired Renaissance artists and modern day patrons alike, as it has proven durability and as, a result, is able to preserve moments of the past. The ancient Romans covered the walls and ceilings of all buildings with a grand display of such artwork, though the surviving frescos only represent a fraction of what was created during the era. This article will examine the materials and techniques required in the making of a fresco mural painting.

Fresco, from Italian al fresca meaning 'fresh', is a form of mural painting that relies on pigments applied directly to wet lime plaster. The process is slow and meticulous, as well as dependent on the chemical bond between the pigment layer and the surface of the wall it is painted on (Gealt, 1989). Fresco painting is one of the oldest forms of art, and the most permanent form of a mural. The walls for which a fresco is painted should have a foundation of brick or stone for which layers of plaster are then added. The first coating of plaster is made of two parts gritty sand and one part lime, and would measure to just under one inch. The surface is then roughed out by the artist, by scratching it with a coarse tool, but is then left to thoroughly dry for almost a year, before receiving the second coat of plaster (Henig, 1994). The second and final coat of plaster is then added to the wall with a wooden trowel, called the intonaco, for which the limestone is burned then slaked, meaning water was added, to turn it into a putty substance that adheres to the paint (Ward, 1909).

Figure 1: Pictorial Representation of Roman Wedding (n.d.)

As every part of a fresco’s design must be planned for, there are prepared copies of tracings and finished drawings to use as a reference when painting. These drawings can be smaller than the intended painting and enlarged, or the artist can use a prepared drawing of the same size and then trace it onto the plaster leaving an indented line in the plaster (Fresco Painting, 1961). Such drawings allow the artist to determine proportions, form, lights, and shadows, but a colored sketch is necessary as there was no time to experiment with color or correct any errors (Heing, 1994). The prepared drawings, as well as colors to be used, are ready at hand for the artist in order to begin painting.

Painting is executed on the freshly laid intonaco, composed of finely sifted river-sand and lime. The fresco painters' color palette in the ancient Rome was limited to the few pigments that could be obtained naturally and from the earth. The pigments used by the artist could be found in paint shops throughout the Italian peninsula, coming in various shades of earthly colors (Heing, 1994). They are not so vibrant as colors seen during the art of the Italian Renaissance, rather they become muted as they bond with the lime in the plaster, but will remain unchanged and are preserved as the plaster dries and sets.

The most apparent and readily available colors used in frescos are black, red, yellow, and blue, though many other colors are used in addition. During the Roman empire, black was obtained through charred bones, or burning wood. Extracted from the mines, one could collect ochre to serve as yellow, and red from cinnabar or red ochre (Painting in Rome and Pompeii, 1987). Blue is the most profound color in mural paintings, coming in shades such as ultramarine and cobalt, but was rarely used by fresco artists. Ultramarine is vibrant and exquisite but proves disagreeable when employed among other colors as it either outshines or muddies the hues and color scheme of the rest of the painting (Heing, 1994). All colors used are first ground in water and mixed with lime when applied to this surface. During the process of drying, the lime on the surface rapidly absorbs carbonic acid gasses from the air and forms into a carbonate of lime, which locks in the color and creates an impenetrable bond between the pigment and the plaster (Fresco Painting, 1961).

Figure 2: Fresco from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale (n.d.)

The greatest limitation set by use of paint on wet plaster is that of time; an artist can only add as much plaster as he can cover and complete in one day, or rather just five hours. Color requires at least this length of time to properly adhere to the wall: if any paint is laid onto a semi-dry state of plaster, it would eventually flake and fall off the surface of the painting (Gealt, 1989). The time constraints set by the fresco requires significant time and planning of the image, colors, lights, and shadows. As a result, the artist must keep all materials that will be needed readily available. Once a fresco painting has been completed and dried, it is impossible to retouch or make changes, and any prior attempts creates an undesirable muddy or lackluster effect (Ward, 1909). Thus, the alternative would be to cut a piece out and lay down new plaster to begin the section again.

The Roman frescos that have been discovered were largely found in the region around Naples, having been buried in the countryside after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Frequently depicted in such paintings are mythological tales, villas, nature, and activities of daily life. Wealthy or elite Romans of the first century A.D. often had more than one residence, and the rise of luxury villas in the countryside called for an increased desire for frescos as a display of wealth and status. Roman art was heavily inspired by the ancient Greek Classical and Hellenistic periods, eventually developing an individual style that was used heavily for decorative purposes (Moulton, 1998). The ancient Romans largely used art as a means to complement and enhance architectural design and spatial organization. As a means of displaying ostentatious wealth, fresco paintings were largely seen in grand display throughout households that reflect the villa owner's intellectual and cultural ideologies (Silberberg-Pierce, 1994).

Bibliographic References

Fredrick, D. (1995). Beyond the Atrium to Ariadne: Erotic Painting and Visual Pleasure in the Roman House. Classical Antiquity, 14(2), 266–288.

Fresco Painting. (1861). The Crayon, 8(1), 15–18.

Fresco Painting (Continued). (1861). The Crayon, 8(2), 38–41.

Gealt, A. M. (1989). Fresco Painting. In J. R. Strayer (Ed.), Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Henig, M. (1994). A Handbook of Roman Art. Phaidon Press.

Painting in Rome and Pompeii. (1987). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 45(3), 3–16.

Roman Painting. (2005). In E. I. Bleiberg, J. A. Evans, K. M. Figg, P. M. Soergel, & J. B. Friedman (Eds.), Arts and Humanities Through the Eras (Vol. 2, pp. 435-439). Gale.

Silberberg-Peirce, S. (1993). The Muse Restored: Images of Women in Roman Painting. Woman’s Art Journal, 14(2), 28–36.

Trimble, Jennifer F. (2002). Greek Myth, Gender, and Social Structure in a Roman House: Two Paintings of Achilles at Pompeii. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, 1, 225–248.

Ward, J. (1909). Fresco Painting: Its Art and Technique, with Special Reference to the Buono and Spirit Fresco Methods.

Visual Sources


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Kyra Nelson

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