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Fabulously Faux: The Rockford Frescoes
Art, Science, Social Studies
8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Title – Fabulously Faux: The Rockford Frescoes
By – Becky Fitzgerald
Primary Subject – Art, Social Studies, Science
Secondary Subjects –
Grade Level – 8-12
The Erlander Home Museum, 404 South 3rd Street, Rockford, IL 61104
Fabulously Faux: The Rockford Frescoes
A Three Week Curriculum Teaching the Interpretation, Appreciation, and Principles of Fresco Painting
Fabulously Faux: The Rockford Frescoes
A Recommended Three-Week Itinerary
- “What I Know About Frescoes” is completed and turned in before the introduction.
- Introduction to Frescoes
- Small groups are established and the presentations are assigned
- “What I Want to Know About Frescoes” is completed and turned in
- Fresco vocabulary
- Vocabulary worksheet
Day 6 – Allotted time for group work in class
Day 10 -
- to the Erlander Home Museum; Call (815) 963-5559 to address any questions
Day 11 – Group Presentations
Day 12 – Group Presentations
Day 13 – Group Presentations
- Review (based on optional quiz)
- Optional Fresco Quiz (created by the educator)
- Students complete “What I Have Learned About Frescoes”
Archeologists date the earliest murals back to prehistoric man 30,000 years ago to the Old Stone Age. Scenes of the great hunt depicting an extremely primitive culture and early human’s first means of survival grace the interior cave walls of prehistoric shelters. Some of the most famous cave paintings were found in Lascaux, France.
Throughout history, painting directly on either interior or exterior walls has remained a very popular painting method. Even today, one can stumble across murals painted on the sides of downtown city buildings, or even in the halls of local schools. The artists of these building murals often are trying to relay a feeling of communal pride. One type of mural that dates back to early civilizations, was mastered in the Middle Ages, and remains one of the most prestigious forms of painting today is the fresco.
The term fresco is commonly defined as the method of painting which involves applying an egg white-based pigment to wet lime plaster. As the plaster dries, the pigment is chemically bonded to the wall. When an artist is working in fresco, she or he must work quickly, for the plaster must be damp. Because of these time constraints, teams of artists and various trades-people (masons, plaster-workers, laborers, and hired artists) work together to complete frescoes.
Faux (French for false, pronounced “foe”) frescoes, or secco (Italian for dry) is a form of fresco painting on dry plaster. The secco or faux fresco is very susceptible to peeling and cracking.
Humidity and dampness can ruin frescoes, so they are most commonly found in dry climates. Spain, and later Mexico, are well known for their work in fresco; however, Italy seems to have perfected the art during the Renaissance or “rebirth” of the classical age. The Italian Renaissance made frescoes extremely famous with such works as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and Leonardo’s Last Supper.
- Resources: Library (either school or local), internet access
- Objective: The students will learn about art history through their own studies, helping their research skills through group collaboration. The students will then present the information to the class in an orderly method, sharpening their speech and language skills.
- The educator will assign groups of three or four. The group will follow the following directions:
- Chose one of the following fresco painters:
- Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti
- Visit your school or local library to research your group’s artist.
- With your group, construct a ten-minute presentation, sharing your findings with the class. Present to the class one fresco that the given artist created and speak about it.
- The following are helpful hints on what your project should include. Your presentation is in no way limited to the following ideas:
- When the artist lived
- The artist’s accomplishments
- The artist’s contributions to both art and the community and/or world
- The artist’s most famous works
- The artist’s beliefs and/or interests
- Be creative, and use visual aids.
- * arriccio:
- the seconds, or “brown,” layer of plaster in fresco painting
- * fresco:
- the method of painting, which involves applying color to wet plaster
- * cartoon:
- a charcoal drawing of a fresco panel done to scale on a large sheet of heavy paper
- * giornata:
- “day section,” or the area of freshly applied plaster that the artist must cover with color each day
- * intonaco:
- the third, final, and most delicate layer of plaster in a fresco painting, which becomes the fresco painting
- * muller:
- a stone mallet-like tool used to grind natural colors to a smooth consistency
- ** mural:
- painting applied to the inside or outside wall surface, especially in a public building or space
- * pouncing:
- the process of transferring a cartoon’s traced and perforated image onto a wall or ceiling by dusting it with a charcoal-filled bag
- * pricking:
- perforating a cartoon’s traced image with a stylus in preparation for its being pounced
- * secco:
- Italian for “dry”; specifically, fresco painting on dry plaster
- * sinopia:
- a reddish brown color used to sketch the outline of an
art work on the arriccio (done by connecting the dots
transferred by pouncing); the artist uses the sinopia to check the
entire work before applying color
- * tempera:
- paint made of earth pigments combined with egg yolk
- * trusillatio:
- the first, rough layer of plaster, also called the scratch coat
SECONDARY – Day 2 – Vocabulary Worksheet
SECONDARY – DAY 2 – Vocabulary Worksheet
1_h_ 2_e_ 3_b_ 4_g_ 5_j_ 6_f_ 7_i_ 8_c_ 9_d_ 10_a_
The Fresco Artist’s Needs
A great fresco artist must meet many demands of the trade and be extremely skilled in various areas. The fresco artist must be a fast, diligent worker, a leader and organizer, and she or he must, of course, be a talented artist.
Many times, throughout the Middle Ages and on through the renaissance, fresco artists were commissioned, or hired, by political or religious heads to paint a particular work for their living quarters or churches. Many cathedrals and churches in Italy are adorned with frescoes. The pope may want a grand painting of a biblical scene on the wall of his cathedral, and the most permanent of paintings is of course that which is part of the plaster. The artist must then listen to the wants of this particular commissioner and paint accordingly. Therefore, the fresco artist must have strong communication skills, and be able to accept criticism from an authority over his work.
Such commissioning was present with works such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or, his rival, Leonardo da Vinci and his Last Supper. In the case of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II hired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel in 1508. Michelangelo was famous as a sculptor, and loved carving marble more than any other form of art. He had little desire to paint, yet reluctantly accepted.
For four years, Michelangelo spent most of his days and nights on his back painting the 5,074 square foot ceiling (Barter 75). Many days Pope Julius would walk in and holler up to Michelangelo, “When will this be complete?” A frustrated Michelangelo would simply reply, “When I’m done.” At one point, Michelangelo became angry with the pope and walked out, leaving the work unfinished. Pope Julius understood that nobody else in the world could create this work like Michelangelo, and apologized and pleaded for Michelangelo’s return. Michelangelo did return, and completed arguably the greatest work ever painted, solidifying his legendary status as a true “renaissance man,” or, a person who masters many trades.
When working on frescoes, Michelangelo, like any fresco painter of his time, worked with a team of craftsmen and artists. Masons and assistant painters worked under him because the work must be done quickly, before the plaster dries. His work on the Sistine Chapel, however, was completed with relatively little help. Michelangelo wanted to complete most of the work himself, and allowed assistants to aid him very little.
Hold a class discussion on artists’ needs and in particular fresco artists’ needs. Include the following:
What types of hardships might a fresco artist face today?
What types of hardships might a Renaissance fresco artist have faced?
How are the hardships of today’s fresco painters and the hardships of Renaissance fresco painters similar? How are they different?
(educator’s help: i.e. technology, resources, materials)
What other needs, skills, or traits do you (the class) feel that a fresco artist might need and why?
(educator’s help: i.e. patience, education, knowledge, people skills etc.)
How do the needs, skills, and hardships differ from other types of artists – painters, sculptors, poets, writers, songwriters, musicians?
As one has learned through the previous introduction to fresco, many different techniques and steps must go into creating a successful fresco. After extensive sketching and dimensional planning, the artist must then prepare the wall.
The first preparatory step that the artist takes is to brush the dampened wall. A layer of plaster is then applied. This first layer is called ariccio, and is a coarse, roughly finished plaster. The artist could then wait up to three years before applying the next layer, but if the ariccio is old, the artist must again brush and dampen the plaster.
The second layer of plaster, or the intonaco is then applied. Usually the artist will paint directly onto the intonaco; occasionally, however, the artist will apply yet another layer of plaster, the intonchino.
The plaster is primarily composed of two components: lime and inert filler. Lime is obtained by heating calcareous rocks (rocks composed of mostly calcium carbonate) at extremely high temperatures. By adding water to the resulting “quicklime” (CaO), the artist or mason would slacked lime (Calcium hydroxide, Ca[OH2]). The inert filler was made of sand, ground marble, and/or pozzolana (a baked clay of volcanic origin). The make up of arricio and intonaco are similar in some ways and very different in others. They both contain the same proportions, but the aggregate in the arriccio is coarse grained, while the intonaco is a fine grain.
The artist does have some choices in the process. Each plaster has two different mixes, one is a strong or fat mortar, the other is the lean mortar. The strong mortar has one part lime to two parts filler, and tends to crack as it dries. The lean mortar is one part lime to three parts filler (if this mixture contains pozzolana the proportion could be one part lime to two parts pozzolano, and the final result will not crack.) Depending on the artist’s desired final appearance of his work, he would chose either the fat or lean mortar.
Turner, Jane ed. The Dictionary of Art. Vol. 8, New York: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 1996. p 761 – 764.
Day 4 – Wall Preparation Follow up Activity
Objective: to further understand a solution
- A small bowl
- A paper towel
- Green food coloring
Procedure: Cut a strip of paper towel nine inches long and two inches wide.
Place a drop of food coloring three inches from one end of the strip. Dip the end nearest the spot of food coloring in a bowl of water. Leave about a half an inch of the strip in the water. Let the remaining strip hang over the bowel into a sink. Do not let the food coloring spot get in the water.
Observations: Does the water move along the paper towel? If so, how does it move? What happens to the spot of color? Describe any occurrences.
Discussion: “Chemists have developed many ways to separate a mixture of molecules. The technique used in this experiment is called chromatography. Chromatography means color writing.
To separate different molecules by chromatography, the mixture of molecules is first placed on a material called the absorbent. The molecules stick to the absorbent. In this experiment, paper is the adsorbent. The mixture of molecules is the food coloring. The different molecules in the mixture separate from each other when a liquid flows through the adsorbent. The liquid is called the solvent. The solvent in this experiment is water.”
Different molecules are affected by water in different ways. As one is able to see through this experiment, some molecules are attracted more to the water, and others are attracted more to the paper (Mebane 32).
Connections: The solution of food coloring can be thought of as a solution of plaster. Instead of lime and filler to make plaster, you may have blue and yellow to make green. When plaster is mixed, no one can differentiate the lime from the filler by looking at it. The same holds true for the blue and the yellow in the green food coloring.
Experiment idea and discussion from:
Mebane, Robert C., and Thomas R. Rybolt. Adventures with Atoms and Molecules. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1985.
Objective: To engage the students in an intelligent group conversation, aiding in interpreting a work of art.
Time: 20 to 40 minutes
Materials needed: Color copies of two or three frescoes, able to be viewed by the entire class. (Slide projections or posters work well.)
- Present one print of a fresco to the class. Allow the students to view the piece for sixty seconds before the conversation begins. If the fresco chosen is of a work that has many parts or segments (i.e. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel), focus on one particular segment of the work.
- Lead the class in a discussion of the work.
- Ask specific open-ended questions. The following are some good examples:
- “What do you see?”
- “What is going on in this picture?”
- “What does it mean to you?”
When the students offer interpretative questions, ask the class, “What do you see that makes you say that?”
- Try to incorporate every student into the conversation, and acknowledge every answer.
- After a sufficient discussion, repeat the exercise with another work.
Materials needed: A pen and a notebook.
Objective: The student will learn and sharpen both analytical and critical thinking skills. The student will begin to develop an appreciation for local art and understand his or her community better.
Visit a local mural in your town or school. Spend some time viewing this mural and take notes on your thoughts. Try to include the following information, but you are in no way limited to the ideas listed below. Try to expand with what you see that others may not. Remember that there are no wrong answers when interpreting art, but you should always try to support your answer.
- Estimate an approximate size of the mural.
- What type of material is the mural painted on? (i.e. brick, plaster, etc.)
- How long would you expect it took the artist to create the mural? Why?
- Was it probably one artist, or a team of artists that completed this work? Why?
- In a brief narrative of two or three paragraphs, explain what you see.
- How old do you think this mural is? Why?
- Based on your assessment of the mural’s age, and what you know about American and local history, what events (either locally or nationally) were taking place at the time the mural was painted.
- What theme(s) do you feel the artist is trying to incorporate? Support your answers.
- Does this artwork affect your mood at all when you view it? Explain.
- How do you think the artist intended you (or any viewer for that matter) to feel when looking at the piece?
- If you were to give this work a title, what would you call it?
- Include any information about the mural that you feel you have not addressed in the previous ideas.
The planning and transferring of the plan to the wall is a very time consuming process. In fresco painting, more work goes into planning and transferring the image than goes into painting. For this reason, a team of individuals will work to produce a single fresco.
Since frescoes are usually rather large in size, and portions must be completed quickly, a common method the fresco artist will use is to grid the work and work small sections one at a time. The sections will be small enough to complete in one day. These sections are called pontante or giornate. The artist will pull chords tight over the arriccio, pushing the lines hard and taught against the plaster leaving faint indented lines. These lines, laid out in a checkerboard pattern are how the artist will designate the different areas that he or she will paint and in which order. In some circumstances, as in large ceiling paintings, the artist will use a bright light with a mesh or metal grid-like pattern over the light. The resulting shadow will then be the artist’s guide. The artist will correspond a similar grid pattern to his or her preliminary sketches, and will then begin planning accordingly and paint to scale.
In Renaissance fresco, the plans were laid out in charcoal and then brushed in. The final plan was called the cartoon and was a full-scale plan of the fresco. The cartoon was then cut into sections and placed in the appropriate position on the wall. As each section of the intonaco was applied, the image was transferred from the cartoon. In order to transfer the image the artist used a tool called a stylus and performed an act called pouncing. Pouncing was simply running the stylus over the outlines leaving a guide to paint by. This method was much more time consuming and costly than the grid-like approach, and worked best with smaller areas and ceiling frescoes. After the image is transferred, the fresco artist can then begin painting.
- One symmetrical picture or design
- One piece of white drawing paper
- Chose a symmetrical picture or design from a magazine, newspaper, or other publication.
- Take the symmetrical picture that you have chosen, and using the scissors, cut it directly down the line of symmetry.
- Using the ruler and the scissors, trim your white paper down to the same size as the picture.
- Place the paper on the side of the picture that was just removed, and tape it into place from the back.
- Use the ruler and pencil to grid out even 1″ x 1″ squares across the paper and the picture.
- Using the picture as a guide, draw what you see in each of the gridded boxes on the symmetrically corresponding box on the white paper.
- When you are complete, the line of symmetry will separate your hand drawn image and the original picture.
Only few colors could be used in fresco because of the paint’s reaction to lime. Analyzing color is then one way that conservators can tell today if the work is a true fresco. These colors include – vine black, black earth, ivory black; red ochres, . . . cinnabar (which is mixed with white to give a pink flesh color); yellow ochre, yellow earth, Naples yellow, green earth, umber, raw and burnt sienna; . . . and finally, smalt (Turner 762).
In frescoes, the colors could not simply be mixed on a palate, for if they were to dry they would change color and lose intensity. For this reason, the pigments were mixed into water. The artist would mix enough pigment to be used on the entire work, and the water-based colors were jarred. The jars were then taken individually and rationed to the section that they would be needed.
The artist must work quickly, as the most efficient time to apply the paints is two hours after the intonaco, and for no longer than four hours after it is applied. After four hours, the work becomes increasingly harder, and the artist must wet the plaster over and over, for when the white carbonate crust forms at the top of the plaster, the paints will not adhere. The plaster is later carved into to add highlights. When all is complete, a protective varnish is applied.
Project: Create a color-wheel
Objective: To aid the student in learning how to mix colors and create new colors. To offer the student a better understanding of primary and secondary colors and their uses.
Need: Tempera or watercolor paint, paper to apply paint to (minimum 12×12), brush, water dish.
- On the paper provided, draw a six-sided star, consisting of one equilateral triangle with six-inch sides, overlapped by another identical triangle, but tuned upside down.
- Each of the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue) should be placed in about a two-inch circle each at the points of the triangle that points to the top of the paper (see sketch).
- The colors should be evenly mixed with one another (red and blue = violate, red and yellow = orange, blue and yellow = green) to achieve the secondary colors to be placed at the three points of the other triangle.
- The secondary colors should then be mixed with the closest primary color on the wheel (i.e. Red and violet = red-violet, blue and violet = blue-violet). These colors are placed in-between the existing points.
In The United States, very few true or “buon” frescoes exist. There are some in the eastern colonial states, but very few anywhere else. A famous and rather modern fresco series by Reginald Marsh, for instance, appears on the walls of the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C. Other buon frescoes appear in government headquarters in D.C. and some in late 18th and 19th century homes in the east.
There are very few true frescoes in the United States, yet the term is thrown around very loosely. A mural often times is mistakenly (or sometimes purposely) called a fresco, and some artists paint murals to resemble frescoes. In the 1800’s, for example, it was very popular for a muralist in the Mid-West to advertise as a fresco artist. Records of existing murals very often call them frescoes for this reason. Records with false terminology mixed with a mural painted on altered plaster to make it look like a fresco can lead to difficulties in identifying frescoes. At times, only very skilled and trained experts using modern technology and chemical analysis can say for sure whether or not a mural on a plaster wall really is a fresco.
Very little is known about the Northern Illinois faux frescoes, and in particular, those found on walls and ceilings of old 19th century homes in Rockford, Illinois, such as the Erlander Home on South Fourth Street, or the Tinker Swiss Cottage on Kent Street. There was, however, an advertised “fresco” artist in Rockford in the 1880’s by the name of Aaron Lawson. It is documented that Lawson did work on the murals in Tinker Swiss Cottage, and until recently, curators and executives at the cottage were positive that some of these were true frescoes. Expert conservators have recently negated this idea, and have shown that these are faux, or fake frescoes. Aaron Lawson also probably created the faux fresco on the ceiling of the dining room in the Erlander Home.
- Discuss the following:
What are some reasons that someone like Aaron Lawson would advertise as a fresco artist, even though what he was creating were not true frescoes?
The term fresco was not used as strictly as it is now, and what they considered a fresco is not the same as today’s standards.
Lawson was trying to fool the uneducated workers by telling them what they had in their home was a fresco.
Lawson and his workers believed that what they were making were frescoes.
Acknowledge every answer and then discuss the possible reasons why these answers may or may not be correct.
*Explain to the students that nobody knows the real answer for sure, but that the looseness of the term fresco is probably the most acceptable explanation.
- Pass out the given advertisement from an 1850’s Rockford city directory.
Ask the students: How would you have advertised if you were Aaron Lawson?
- Using an available medium, and the advertisement as a resource, the students will create advertisements for Aaron Lawson.
Field Trip to Erlander Home Museum
404 South 3rd Street
Rockford, IL 61104
– 3rd through 5th grades –
- Barter, James. Artists of the Renaissance. Lucent Books; San Diego: 1946.
- Corrain, Lucia. Masters of Art: The Art of the Renaissance. Peter Bedrick Books; New York: 1997.
- Lace, William W. The Importance of Michaelangelo. Lucent Books; San Diego: 1993.
- *Peppin, Anthea. The Usborne Story of Painting. Usborne Publishing; Belgium: 1980.
- www.pbs.org/fresco/teach.html PBS Fresco: Teaching Resources. 5/18/2001.
– 6th and 7th grades –
- All books previously listed, and the following:
- Janson, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art for Young People. 3rd Ed. Abrams; The Netherlands: 1987.
- Janson, H.W. and Dora Jane Janson, The Story of Painting for Young People: From Cave Painting to Modern Times. Abrams; New York: 1969.
- Michaelangelo: Artist and Man. A&E Biography. 50 min. VHS.
- Nordmark, Olle. Fresco Painting: Modern Methods and Techniques for Painting in Fresco and Secco.
– 8th through 12th grades –
- All books previously listed, and the following:
- Murray, Linda. The High Renaissance. Praeger; New York: 1967.
- Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Abrams; New
- York: 1997.
* The Usborne Story of Painting is a highly recommended children’s book for students of any age. This book is a general overview of many artistic eras throughout world history, and contains many helpful illustrations and pictures.
- Cochran Hirzy, Ellen ed. True Needs True Partners: Museums and Schools Transforming Education.
- Institute of Museum Services: Washington, D.C., 1996.
This is a resource put out by the government agency for museums that deals with museum education and its
importance. This work is a good overview to the rising interest in museum educators.
- How to… Use the IAM Lending Library. Illinois Association of Museums, 2000.
This resource lists dozens of other resources for museums and museum educators. It is produced as an alphabetical list by headings
(i.e. “Accreditation, Advocacy, Ethics . . . etc.”).
- Library Resources Division and Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission, The. A Guide For Teachers and Librarians With Suggestions for Teaching Indian Students. Oklahoma State Department of Education: Oklahoma City, 1972.
This is an older document that served as a guide of museum education in Oklahoma. Reading through this package lead to a good influence in creating my curriculum.
- McDougall, Donna M., PhD. The Fury of the Northmen: A Simulation. Teacher’s Discovery, 2001.
Much like the previous listing, this is an older document that served as a guide of museum education in Oklahoma. Reading through this package lead to a good influence in creating my curriculum.
- Oberg, David M. “Teacher’s Packet for An American Adventure.” Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum.
“This is a curriculum created by the museum educator at Tinker Swiss Cottage. Dave Oberg has created many curriculums like this one, and has served as a strong influence.”
- Woodward, Patricia. The Teacher’s Almanac: The Professional Teacher’s Handbook. Lowell House: Los Angeles, 1996. Chapter 2, p21-31.
“This book is a great guide for almost ever aspect of teaching. I used chapter two dealing with lesson planning.”
- “Fresco: Teaching Resources,” PBS Online 5 May 2001. http:/www.pbs.org/fresco/themes.html (1999).
“This web page is a great resource for any educator, and this particular program is extremely similar to the one I was assigned to create. This museum-education package on frescoes is the closest source I’ve found to what I am working on.”
- “Teachers.net Lesson Plans” Sorted by Category,– Teachers.net 6 June 2001. http:teachers.net/cgi- bin/lessons/sort.cgi (25 Feb. 2001).
“This web page is another great resource for educators. It lists hundreds of lesson plan ideas for all ages and all subjects. It is primarily helpful for the elementary educator, but there is some good plans for secondary teachers as well.”
A Closing Message to the Educator:
The Swedish Historical Society of Rockford’s Erlander Home Museum would like to take this opportunity to truly thank you for choosing the Fabulously Faux curriculum. It is our deepest hope that your class has gotten a worthwhile experience out of our program and at the very least, has begun to appreciate and understand more fully fresco, the Renaissance, Sweden, and/or Swedish Immigration to this area. We hope that you have found that education working directly through cooperative and collaborative museum and classroom educators can be a wonderful experience for the students and the educators alike.
The Erlander Home Museum
404 South 3rd Street
Rockford, IL 61104
E-Mail Becky Fitzgerald!