With the popularity of Venetian plaster, not many people realise the long history of this ancient plastering technique. The plaster is made from slaked lime, to which added colourants may be used to create a rich, deep colour. Venetian plaster is made of up to 40% marble dust, giving it a beautiful shine.
Layers of this amazing plaster are applied over one another to create an illusion of texture and depth. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of Venetian plaster, along with how the plaster is used in modern times. Let’s get started!
The Ancient History of Venetian Plaster
While this plaster is called “Venetian,” it has a much more ancient history, predating the city of Venice by thousands of years. Experts believe that Venetian plaster dates back to 9,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. From there, different versions of this plaster were used in other ages and countries. Each age and country created a more developed version of Venetian plaster.
Some examples of ancients using this plastering technique are tombs in Egypt covered with lime and gypsum plaster. Entire cities in India were plastered with a similar plaster, as were walls in China. Then we reach the time of Pompeii, that ill-fated, ancient Italian city.
The plaster was used extensively in Pompeii, Italy, until the city was destroyed by the famous explosion of Mt. Vesuvius, which covered the entire city with molten lava and ash. After thousands of years, archeologists began to excavate the city and found Venetian plastered walls still intact. It’s reported that they found the walls looking as beautiful as the day they were covered with volcanic ash and debris.
During the Middle Ages, Venetian plastering wasn’t as popular; however, by the time Venice became one of the most famous cities in Europe, Venetian plastering came into its own.
The City of Venice & Venetian Plaster
The city of Venice, Italy, was built on water to avoid Germanic and Hun invasions. The people who settled the city mostly traced their ancestry back to Rome. These people chose a marshy area that was easier to defend than the mainland. Here, in the marshes, they built their homes.
Marshes are notoriously watery and can make construction challenging. To keep their homes and other buildings from sinking into the marshes, the people of Venice built all their buildings on top of wooden stilts. In many cases, the original stilts are still holding these buildings up today!
As you can imagine, homes built over the water have problems with humidity, damp, and other issues. They’re also not able to hold heavy household contents. Over the centuries, Venetians wanted to make their homes beautiful with marble walls; however, they soon found that the marble was too heavy for their homes. The marble caused their homes to sink, so another solution needed to be found.
Two Venetian architects, Palladio and Carlo Scarpa, rediscovered Venetian plastering and learned how to apply it to walls and ceilings. Not only that, but they also improved the method of using this plaster.
Scarpa, in particular, learned how to add resins and other components to the plaster to increase its durability and flexibility. You can still see one of his most famous works today in Venice, the Olivetti shop near the Piazza San Marco. Today, the shop is a museum and exhibition centre. You can see the smooth, mirror-like finish of the Venetian plaster done in the Marmorino technique. It’s a beautiful example of modern Venetian plaster.
You can also see the application of Venetian plaster used in interior and exterior applications from the Italian Renaissance. Some great works, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel use a method similar to Venetian plaster. In that chapel, the room and painted figures seem to glow from within. This is the effect of the plaster shining under the paint. This method is called Fresco and is a technique of mural painting over a fresh, wet lime plaster.
From that time to now, the art of making and applying Venetian plaster has been handed down from generation to generation. It’s this plaster that brought beauty to Venice’s walls without the weight of marble. They have the look of stunning marble you can still find today in this amazing city.
Almost Lost Once Again
Over time, Venetian plaster lost favour once again, and the plaster formula and techniques were almost lost. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, a small number of Italian companies began to rediscover the plaster and techniques used in their traditional decorative work. By 1980, it was possible to find “Stucco Veneziano” (Venetian plaster) applied with the same techniques used by the historical plasterers of ancient times.
Vibrant Glowing Color
Venetian plaster has a certain quality that allows it to provide a room or space with vibrant, glowing colours. Walls come alive with colour when natural or synthetic colourants are mixed with the plaster.
The Making of Venetian Plaster
Venetian plaster was made from slaked lime (it’s still made with slaked lime to this day). The process involves cooking mined limestone (also called calcium carbonate) in ovens or kilns at temperatures between 850 to 1300 C. This produces quicklime (also called calcium oxide), which is then slaked with water to create calcium hydroxide. At this point, the mixture is left to mature or age.
Roman law required slaked lime to be aged for a minimum of three years; this is a process called hydration. It created lime putty or grasselo. The slaked lime putty was then filtered and mixed with marble flour, kaolin (clay), and marble dust to create a wide range of decorative plaster.
Summing It Up
Today, Venetian plaster continues to be a popular treatment for walls, ceilings, and other surfaces. This durable, beautiful material is versatile, easy to maintain, and can be used to create bespoke finishes and decorative elements in residential and commercial applications.
There’s no question that Venetian plaster has the ability to achieve more than paint or wallpaper could ever hope to accomplish!
Q: Is Venetian plaster suitable for DIY projects?
A: While Venetian plaster can yield stunning results, it requires a high level of skill and expertise. It’s advisable to work with experienced professionals for optimal outcomes.
Q: Can Venetian plaster be used in humid environments?
A: Yes, Venetian plaster’s breathable nature makes it suitable for humid environments. It regulates moisture, preventing mould and mildew growth.
Q: Does Venetian plaster require special maintenance?
A: Venetian plaster is relatively low-maintenance. Regular dusting and occasional waxing can help preserve its lustrous finish.
Q: Can I customise the colour of Venetian plaster?
A: Absolutely, Venetian plaster offers a wide range of customsation. Artisans can create custom colours by blending natural pigments.
Q: Is Venetian plaster environmentally friendly?
A: Yes, Venetian plaster is eco-friendly, primarily composed of natural materials like lime and marble dust.
Q: Can Venetian plaster be used outdoors?
A: Yes, Venetian plaster’s durability and breathability make it suitable for outdoor applications.