Not So Fresh

Frescoes are a disappointing lot. The idea behind the technique sounds promising: get to work before the plaster dries, work fast, and let the paint sink into the wall to form a deep bond without any other binding medium. Any touch-ups you want to do can be done later when the thing has dried and settled down. It’s as if artists were thus able to engage in some sort of molecular sculpting of plaster and color and able to leave behind a carving so fine our eyes see it as painting. However, when you actually see these things and read about their maintenance it quickly becomes clear that frescoes do not freeze in time when they are dry but start to crumble fast. The most famous fresco (which actually isn’t a proper fresco at all but a mural painting in tempera), Leonardo’s Last Supper, started falling apart just about the time Leonardo walked out of the room thinking “Another job well done!” And probably the most famous bit of the most famous proper fresco ever, the fingers of God and Adam on Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, were not painted by Michaelangelo at all. They fell off and some anonymous pawn just slapped on a new pair. And that was way before the recent nineteen years (!) of restoration work began in 1980 and transformed the scene from this:

Source: Wikipedia

To this:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s much better now and no doubt the restoration team did a fantastic job, but it nevertheless makes one think that it’s not a Michaelangelo anymore. Of course, most artworks fade and change over time and are eventually destroyed, but in frescoes this is different from (say) the green tint that has settled over the Mona Lisa and made its colors something very different from the originals. Whatever damage time has done to it, it is not literally falling to pieces just yet.

There are a number of paintings by the Florentine Quattrocento master Botticelli in the Louvre and they have pulled through alright. Actually, they are pretty amazing and their colors are as bright as ever. But Botticelli was a very busy guy and managed to create a good number of frescoes as well. A couple of these are placed in a corridor of the museum and they carry on the disappointing spirit of frescoes.

Source: Wikipedia

First, there’s a scene with a young man being led to the presence of the Seven Liberal Arts.

Source: Wikipedia

Second, there’s Venus and the Three Graces presenting something to a young girl. I sat in front of these on a bench next to a very distracting young lesbian couple. To the credit of the frescoes, I managed to take a good look at them anyway.

Pictures of artworks usually don’t do justice to the originals, but here there’s no need to apologize. The first fresco is actually missing two large chunks and the colors in both have faded into mere shadows of their former glory. It seems like Venus has lost most of her head in the second and there’s another big rectangle missing in the middle lower portion, another on the right, and the left side is torn. These were originally painted for the Villa Lemmi in Florence and it looks like someone just tore them off with a jackhammer and FedExed them to Paris. Or maybe they were lovingly extracted in their current state of degradation and placed on the wall by a careful restorer. I don’t know. In any case, they look sad. They make one remember that the beauty and profundity man is able to create turns into a rotting carcass as soon as it becomes materialized.

Perhaps it’s possible to think of the transformation and destruction of these artworks as a continuation of their life, not a sign of the disappearance of the presence of some former glory. The stories behind them, at least, travel through time without material damage. Or do they? Are the legends behind these images like the retained shape of a sand dune when it collides with another, traveling with the wind instead of being eroded by it, or do they too change with time so that the story Botticelli is telling in his frescoes is nothing like the stories we know?


PS. Louvre’s website tells me the Botticellis were pretty beat up when they were found: “This fresco [Venus and the Three Graces] is one of a set of three discovered under a coat of whitewash in the loggia of the Villa Lemmi in 1873. The Louvre purchased two of them; the third, being too badly damaged, remained in situ.”

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