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Of Stucco And Gesso








Few things are more disheartening to the pursuer of plastic art than
finding that, when he has carried his own labour to a certain point, he
has to entrust it to another in order to render it permanent and useful.
If he models in clay and wishes it burnt into terra cotta, the shrinkage
and risk in firing, and the danger in transport to the kiln, are a
nightmare to him. If he wishes it cast in plaster, the distortion by
waste-moulding, or the cost of piece-moulding, are serious grievances to
him, considering that after all he has but a friable result; and though
this latter objection is minimised by Mrs. Laxton Clark's ingenious
process of indurating plaster, yet I am persuaded that most modellers
would prefer to complete their work in some permanent form with their
own hands.

Having this desirable end in view, I wish to draw their attention to
some disused processes which once largely prevailed, by which the artist
is enabled to finish, and render durable and vendible, his work, without
having to part with it or pay for another's aid.

These old processes are modelling in Stucco-duro and Gesso.

Stucco-duro, although of very ancient practice, is now practically a
lost art. The materials required are simply well-burnt and slacked lime,
a little fine sand, and some finely-ground unburnt lime-stone or white
marble dust. These are well tempered together with water and beaten up
with sticks until a good workable paste results. In fact, the
preparation of the materials is exactly the same as that described by
Vitruvius, who recommends that the fragments of marble be sifted into
three degrees of fineness, using the coarser for the rough bossage, the
medium for the general modelling, and the finest for the surface finish,
after which it can be polished with chalk and powdered lime if
necessary. Indeed, to so fine a surface can this material be brought,
and so highly can it be polished, that he mentions its use for mirrors.

The only caution that it is needful to give is to avoid working too
quickly; for, as Sir Henry Wooton, King James's ambassador at Venice,
who greatly advocated the use of stucco-duro, observed, the stucco
worker "makes his figures by addition and the carver by subtraction,"
and to avoid too great risk of the work cracking in drying, these
additions must be made slowly where the relief is great. If the relief
is very great, or if a figure of large dimensions is essayed, it may be
needful even to delay the drying of the stucco, and the addition of a
little stiff paste will insure this, so that the work may be
consecutively worked upon for many days.

From the remains of the stucco work of classic times left us, we can
realise how perfectly workable this material was; and if you examine the
plaster casts taken from some most delicate low-relief plaques in stucco
exhumed some ten years ago near the Villa Farnesina at Rome, or the
rougher and readier fragments of stucco-duro itself from some
Italo-Greek tombs, both of which are to be seen in the South Kensington
Museum, you will at once be convinced of the great applicability of the
process.

With the decadence of classic art some portion of the process seems to
have been lost, and the use of pounded travertine was substituted for
white marble; but, as the bassi-relievi of the early Renaissance were
mostly decorated with colour, this was not important. The ground colours
seem generally to have been laid on whilst the stucco was wet, as in
fresco, and the details heightened with tempera or encaustic colours,
sometimes with accessories enriched in gilt "gesso" (of which
hereafter). Many remains of these exist, and in the Nineteenth Winter
Exhibition of the Royal Academy there were no less than twelve very
interesting examples of it exhibited, and in the South Kensington Museum
are some few moderately good illustrations of it.

It was not, however, until the sixteenth century that the old means of
producing the highly-finished white stucchi were rediscovered, and this
revival of the art as an architectonic accessory is due to the
exhumation of the baths of Titus under Leo X. Raphael and Giovanni da
Udine were then so struck with the beauty of the stucco work thus
exposed to view that its re-use was at once determined upon, and the
Loggia of the Vatican was the first result of many experiments, though
the re-invented process seems to have been precisely that described by
Vitruvius. Naturally, the art of modelling in stucco at once became
popular: the patronage of it by the Pope, and the practice of it by the
artists who worked for him, gave it the highest sanction, and hardly a
building of any architectural importance was erected in Italy during the
sixteenth century that did not bear evidence of the artistic craft of
the stuccatori.

There has just (Autumn, 1889) arrived at the South Kensington Museum a
model of the central hall of the Villa Madama in Rome, thus decorated by
Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine, which exemplifies the adaptability
of the process; and in this model Cav. Mariani has employed stucco-duro
for its execution, showing to how high a pitch of finish this material
is capable of being carried. Indeed, it was used by goldsmiths for the
models for their craft, as being less liable to injury than wax, yet
capable of receiving equally delicate treatment; and Benvenuto Cellini
modelled the celebrated "button," with "that magnificent big diamond" in
the middle, for the cope of Pope Clement, with all its intricate detail,
in this material. How minute this work of some six inches diameter was
may be inferred from Cellini's own description of it. Above the diamond,
in the centre of the piece, was shown God the Father seated, in the act
of giving the benediction; below were three children, who, with their
arms upraised, were supporting the jewel. One of them, in the middle,
was in full relief, the other two in half-relief. "All round I set a
crowd of cherubs in divers attitudes. A mantle undulated to the wind
around the figure of the Father, from the folds of which cherubs peeped
out; and there were many other ornaments besides, which," adds he, and
for once we may believe him, "made a very beautiful effect." At the same
time, figures larger than life, indeed colossal figures, were executed
in it, and in our own country the Italian artists brought over by our
Henry VIII. worked in that style for his vanished palace of Nonsuch.
Gradually, stucco-duro fell into disuse, and coarse pargetry and
modelled plaster ceilings became in later years its sole and degenerate
descendants.

Gesso is really a painter's art rather than a sculptor's, and consists
in impasto painting with a mixture of plaster of Paris or whiting in
glue (the composition with which the ground of his pictures is laid)
after roughly modelling the higher forms with tow or some fibrous
material incorporated with the gesso; but it is questionable if gesso is
the best vehicle for any but the lowest relief. By it the most subtle
and delicate variation of surface can be obtained, and the finest lines
pencilled, analogous, in fact, to the fine pate sur pate work in
porcelain. Its chief use in early times was in the accessories of
painting, as the nimbi, attributes, and jewellery of the personage
represented, and it was almost entirely used as a ground-work for
gilding upon. Abundant illustration of this usage will be found in the
pictures by the early Italian masters in the National Gallery. The
retables of altars were largely decorated in this material, a notable
example being that still existing in Westminster Abbey.

Many of the gorgeous accessories to the panoply of war in mediaeval
times, such as decorative shields and the lighter military
accoutrements, were thus ornamented in low relief, and on the
high-cruppered and high-peaked saddles it was abundantly displayed. In
the sixteenth-century work of Germany it seems to have received an
admixture of finely-pounded lithographic stone, or hone stone, by which
it became of such hardness as to be taken for sculpture in these
materials. Its chief use, however, was for the decoration of the
caskets and ornamental objects which make up the refinement of domestic
life, and the base representative of it which figures on our
picture-frames claims a noble ancestry.

Its tenacity, when well prepared, is exceedingly great, and I have used
it on glass, on polished marble, on porcelain, and such like
non-absorbent surfaces, from which it can scarcely be separated without
destruction of its base. Indeed, for miniature art, gesso possesses
innumerable advantages not presented by any other medium, but it is
hardly available for larger works.

Time and space will not permit my entering more fully into these two
forms of plastic art; but seeing that we are annually receiving such
large accessions to the numbers of our modellers, and as, of course, it
is not possible for all these to achieve success in, or find a means of
living by, the art of sculpture in marble, I have sought to indicate a
home-art means by which, at very moderate cost, they can bring their
labours in useful form before the world, and at the same time learn and
live.

G. T. ROBINSON.





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