The History of Plaster

Ancient and Classical Periods

Çatalhöyük fresco (ca. 7500 BC)
The art of plastering is as old as civilization. In fact, stated more emphatically, without plaster there is no civilization.  Mankind’s ability to leave the cave, raise a shelter of stones or reeds and coat that shelter with an earthen plaster enabled him to create the “cave” wherever he desired. Building permanent dwellings close to fresh water, upon a fortifiable position or adjoining arable land allowed extended families to gather and the first cities to be born.

The very first plasters were earthen. Being simple mixtures of clay, sand and straw they required no furnaces and dried with the sun. The mixture was cast as bricks and the same basic formula was used as the mortar and stucco. Earthen plasters such as cob and daub are still the most commonly used plasters worldwide. 

Calcium plasters such as gypsum and lime were likely discovered through the process of pottery making. By chance, rocks of gypsum or lime were selected to form the crude kiln for firing pottery. The heat of the fire drove off water (gypsum) or carbon dioxide (lime) leaving friable rocks quickly falling to powder. With water thrown on the embers to quench the fire it was soon discovered that this powder formed a paste that quickly hardened.

The Ancient World

One of the earliest archeological examples of both civilization and plaster is that of Çatalhöyük (ca. 7500 BC) located in present day Turkey. A densely populated town, Çatalhöyük‘s dwellings had mud brick walls and floors coated with a locally available clayey marl that made a suitable plaster. What little we know of this ancient civilization survives in lime frescoes depicting numerous scenes of hunting, volcanoes and geometric patterns of purely decorative expression.

The best preserved examples of plasterwork in the pre-Classical period are found in the monumental architecture of ancient Egypt dating from the 3rd millennium BC.  Practical construction uses include the pyramids of Giza containing gypsum and lime mortars, the exteriors of which originally received smooth lime stucco. Countless surviving works of frescoes and ornament such as the renowned gypsum bust of Nefertiti attest to the parallel artistic development of plasterwork. In fact, the lime and gypsum plasters produced in Egypt were in many cases of superior quality than commercially available today. This gives testament to the fact that the empirical refinement of plaster manufacture extended many generations further back in time. 

The Minoan civilization emerged in the 2nd millennium BC on the Mediterranean isle of Crete. The Minoans were greatly influenced by the still flourishing Egyptian culture as evidenced by the architecture of the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos. However, the Minoans were to distinguish themselves by the extensive use of plaster in their interiors. In contrast to formalized Egyptian motifs typically carried out al secco, the Minoans had an exuberance of colored decoration realized al fresco. Although maintaining the profile view and stark outline typical of Egyptian art, the buon fresco techniques employed by Minoan artisans obligated a faster pace and improvisation resulting in a fluid, vibrant aesthetic.

The Classical Period

The Mycenaeans would succeed as the dominant culture of Crete and the Greek archipelago maintaining and refining the Minoan architectural style. However, as Rome would fall centuries later to the barbarians plunging Europe into a Dark Age, a similar fate befell Mycenae primarily at the hands of the Dorian and Ionian conquering tribes. During this Greek Dark Age much of the knowledge of construction and architecture was lost for a period of centuries. Finally, in the 8th century BC, the two rival groups would join to form the Hellenes and establish a culture that left an indelible mark on human civilization.

Although the use of plaster never ceased entirely, it too would experience a renaissance in Hellenic Greece. Thanks to the Greeks we have the English word “gypsum”, directly derived from the Greek gypsos (γύψος). Similarly, it is easy to see the correlation between our word “plaster” with the Greek emplastron (εμπλαστρον) meaning “to daub on”. Beyond our debt of vocabulary, we owe the very foundation of our Western architectural heritage to the Greeks. The highest expression of ornament and representation of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian Greek architectural orders to this day continues to be realized in plaster.

The Greeks were conquered militarily by the Romans in 146 BC. Yet culturally the Romans were simultaneously enthralled by Greek culture adopting and incorporating their philosophy, architecture and art. The Romans continued the tradition of temple architecture; however, they extended their monumental architecture to include secular basilicas, imperial monuments and palatial villas. Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea or “Golden House” and similar discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum are well preserved examples of how lime plastering was brought to an artistic zenith for the Roman elite. These sites offer a glimpse into a bygone era of opulence, of lavish interiors realized in fine plasterwork, entire rooms painted al fresco and barrel vaults coffered with sumptuous ornamentation in bas relief. 

Pompeiian Thermae
The Romans produced not only great artists and architects but formidable engineers. A treasure remains to us in the exhaustive architectural treatise, De Architectura, by 1st century BC Roman military engineer Marcus Polio Vitruvius. In this work known commonly known as the Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius dedicates three chapters of Book II to the selection of sand, lime and pozzolans for stucco and concrete works. He further devotes the majority of Book VII to proper lime stucco preparation, application and fresco work. 

The greatest civilization of the ancient world coincided with the greatest understanding and development of plaster. The Romans expanded upon a significant discovery made by the Greeks: the additions of pozzolans to lime would create a plaster that sets in water. Concrete was born, architectural engineering was ascendant and the Romans would go on to construct roads, aqueducts and ports that endure to this day. Roman engineering prowess and the discovery of concrete culminated in their unparalleled architectural achievement, the Pantheon. Having an interior diameter of 142 feet at its base the Pantheon remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever constructed.

The Pantheon, Rome
Vitruvius treatise began to achieve widespread publication in the early 15th century. By the late 15th century there is written and archaeological evidence of Vitruvius’ hydraulic stucco recipes being utilized in Venice and Murano, 300 years before the advent of modern cement. Later we will explore how his writings together with archeological discoveries at the Domus Aurea would inspire creative geniuses such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rafael to attain to dizzying heights of artistic expression in buon fresco and the modeling of stucco during the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance and Baroque

The Alhambra
During the European Middle Ages plaster would continue as a craft but was largely diminished as an art. With few exceptions the prevailing Romanesque and Gothic architecture principally utilized stone both for construction and ornamentation. However, by the Late Middle Ages a significant societal shift was underway. The Moors had established themselves as the dominant cultural force on the Iberian Peninsula. Islamic architecture, which originated a decoration based on an interlaced geometry of the infinite as well as a formalized depiction of natural vegetal forms, “the Arabesque”, culminated in triumphant fervor with the completion of the great Alhambra palace in the 14th century. The prominent artistic medium was plaster.

The magnificence of Islamic art certainly did not go unnoticed in Western Europe. It perhaps served as the final impulse for the Early Renaissance dawning in the Republic of Florence at the close of the 14th century. The Florentines looked back to a glorious Imperial past drawing inspiration to reassert their own cultural values. One Florentine family in particular, the Medici, established a unique liaison between wealth, power and patronage of the arts.

The High Renaissance in Rome

Domus Aurea
Towards the end of the 15th century the rich and powerful Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici of Florence funded excavations of the newly discovered Domus Aurea or “Golden House” of Emperor Nero in Rome. The 17-year old prodigy Raphael and his 13-year old assistant Giovanni di Udine received the Cardinal’s patronage and were granted unfettered access to the excavations, allowing them opportunity to study the epitome of Hellenistic luxury. Awaiting them in the grottoes were perfectly preserved, highly ornamented plaster panels framing bas-relief grotesques, candelabras and arabesques, all modeled in “stucco duro” lime plaster, as well as myriads of exquisitely realized frescoes depicting mythological histories.

Vatican Loggia

Cardinal Medici, now Pope Leo X, extended Raphael’s commission to decorate the loggias of the papal palace of St. Peter’s, which were then under construction. Concurrently, Vitruvius’ architectural treatise of the 1st century, De Architectura, which included a book on manufacture and application of lime for stucco and buon fresco, had significantly influenced Raphael’s contemporaries Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. According to Vasari’s account, Giovanni di Udine uncovered the ancient stucco duro formulation and took the lead in the ornamentation, while Raphael focused his considerable talents on fresco. Their teams of apprentices would diffuse the resurgent art of plaster to northern Italy and eventually the entire European continent.

The Late Renaissance in Venice

Venice had a basis of power and wealth nourished by a flourishing trade with the East, separate from that of Rome and Florence.  Venetian architecture was influenced by Byzantine and Islamic themes, and the Venetians were slow to fully adopt the resurgence of the classical forms typical of the High Renaissance. However, after the sack of Rome in 1527 a number of stuccoists and fresco artists found employment among the wealthy patrons of the Veneto region. Together with painters, they established the “Venetian School” and created a distinctively Venetian classical style. 

Villa Rotunda
Andrea Palladio was perhaps the most influential architect of the Renaissance who achieved the purest expressions of classical design. Apprenticed as a craftsman of traditional stone carving he extensively utilized plaster as a medium for architectural expression. Palladio’s Villa Rotunda near Vicenza is a signature example of symmetry and articulation of the Ionic order; the exterior being completed with lime stucco. Similarly, the interior was finished with lime plaster and adorned with beautifully modeled ornament and buon frescoes. Palladio would become a case study, an ideal example of an architect who had apprenticed in a trade and possessed a tactile understanding of craftsmanship. His numerous masterpieces were not just the result of his individual genius but also of the cooperation he engendered between himself, the patron, and respected artists and craftsmen who both contributed to the design and executed the work. 

The German Baroque

The first stirrings of the Baroque began in Rome. Architects like Bernini felt the best of Roman classical design had been explored, understood and recreated, and were eager to push its boundaries. The result was a distinct stylistic departure that could be best described as exuberance. Formal panels, symmetry and bas-relief gave way to flowing, unbounded ornamentation in alto-relievo. Strong yet lightweight, easy to sculpt and affix, plaster excelled like no other medium in conveying the dynamic vigor of the Baroque. 

Rohr Abbey, Bavaria
The conflict arising from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century culminating in the devastating 30 years war hindered artistic development of the High and Late Renaissance in Germany until the first half of 17th century. The Church, quick to understand the emotional power of the Baroque style, increasingly dictated its inclusion in the architecture of the period. The Baroque, reached its zenith in Germany as an architectural manifestation of the Counter Reformation. It was a determined architecture bearing the message of the grandeur of the Church. The focal point of the great Baroque cathedrals was always above, heavenward. Floors were plain, walls were relatively unadorned at eye level but the ceilings were transformed into the very archetype of heaven itself and the altar, the Most Holy. The feeling conveyed was one of astonishment and humility. Dynamic volumes, shadow, and suspended angels with hidden armatures manifested a divine reality only possible with plaster. 

By the close of the 17th century great societal changes were underway across the globe. The Age of Discovery and subsequent colonization had enriched and empowered an ascendant European nobility. Coupled with the emerging Age of Enlightenment, a dramatic shift of power from church to state was occurring across Europe. In our next article we will explore the history of plaster in the architecture of French Rococo and English Neo-Classical.

The Rococo and Neoclassical 

Hôtel de Soubise, circa 1740
The vigor of the Baroque and its departure from the purer Classicism of the Renaissance quickly led to controversy among humanists and architectural theorists. In France this culminated at the close of the 17th century in the “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes” or “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”. At question was whether “modern” society had reached a state of enlightenment surpassing that of the Greeks and Romans (and by implication the Church also). If this was indeed the case, perhaps there was justification for liberation from the authority of the ancient philosophies and institutions as well.

During the same period France and England were engaged in an economic, military,and cultural struggle to decide which nation would become the singular,dominant influential force of a reinvigorated and empowered Western civilization. Among the most significant battlegrounds for establishing each one's cultural authority was development of a national architecture. France would side with the “Moderns” and proceed to develop a powerful secular artistic style that was decidedly their own. 

French Rococo

The Baroque may have reached its greatest expression in Germany as an architectural manifestation of the Counter Reformation. However, Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, was determined to capture the emotional power of the Baroque for the glory of the French monarchy. This he did to grand effect in the expansion of the Palais du Louvre and the Château de Versailles. As with church architecture, secular French Baroque floors were plain, walls informed by classical design being relatively unadorned at eye level whereas exuberant grandeur was reserved for the ceilings above. 
Galerie des Glaces, Château de Versailles, circa 1684

His great grandson and successor, Louis XV would continue to expand and embellish Versailles and under his regime a residential style was formalized that became the envy of Europeon nobility. Rococo was a significant reinterpretation of the Baroque that would forever change interior design. The intimacy, delicacy and lightness of French Rococo supplanted the exuberance and majesty of the former Baroque. In so doing it created more comfortable, livable spaces. Columns and pilasters were replaced by panelized walls, rich entablatures by soft coves, applied surface ornament in low relief displaced modeled sculpture in high relief. Advances in plaster compositions allowed ornamental appliqués to be applied directly to furniture, doors, panels and wall surfaces alike.

Cabinet de la Pendule, Château de Versailles, circa 1740

There was a conspicuous materialism associated with French Rococo. Quite often the floors were a simple wood parquet, an archetype of the physical earth. Likewise the ceilings, save for a central rosette, were largely unadorned often painted a soft blue in imitation of the literal sky in direct contrast to the Baroque depiction of an idealized spiritual heaven represented with allegorical frescoes and sculpture in high relief . Panelized walls of Rococo featured ornament at eye level, at a human scale of natural asymmetrical forms of flora and fauna as well as the signature “rocaille” shell-like centerpieces evoking turmoil, variety, surprise and movement. 

English Neoclassical

Arbury Hall, Warwickshire
The Rococo was never warmly embraced in England and where the “French style” existed it was generally a more subdued version. The English initially turned to the Gothic for inspiration igniting a revival that frequently utilized plaster in a decorative manner where stone had been originally used structurally. The return to the Gothic has been attributed to the more conservative character of the English; however, one might imagine political animosity also played a role in the rejection of French influences.

Syon House, circa 1762
Inspired from a visit to the Veneto in 1714, Architect William Kent would lead the charge of bringing England back to its architectural senses, turning to Palladio for inspiration. For the first time since the beginning of the Renaissance the English would be establishing their own decorative style that others, including the French, would soon emulate. In complete contrast to Rococo, the embrace of Palladio's interpretation of the Classical resulted in a comparatively restrained and ordered aesthetic.

A few years later a Scottish stone mason turned architect by the name of William Adam would also embrace the incoming Palladian influence. In the mid-18th century his sons James and Robert Adam would take a four year tour to Rome to study the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and other notable classical and early Renaissance sites. The Adams brothers were astute businessmen, patenting their signature “Adams style” designs perfectly suited for reproduction in plaster. Variations of Neoclassical design would dominate English style and that of her former colonies until the early 20th century.

Osterly Park, circa 1767

Palladianism in Colonial America

Drayton Hall, circa 1742
The influence of English Neoclassicism was immediately felt in colonial America, a precursor to a federal style. Although the virgin forests of the continent meant a steady supply of wood for years to come, interior plaster, especially ornamental plaster would see widespread use in fine homes and government buildings. With its Anglican lineage plaster thus became an inherited contribution to an emerging American architectural and cultural patrimony. In many respects the United States has now takes the cultural lead in the Western world. Our next article in the series will explore a brief history of plaster in the United States and the current state of the art.

Pre-Colonial and Colonial

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
The arrival of Europeans to the New World meant the introduction of architectural and craft traditions, plaster among them. Of course there were native peoples already present. Plastering was and continues to be an important craft for Native American traditional architecture. Clay and earth are the raw materials. The English and French populating the East coast would have found the thatched roofed huts with walls of “wattle & daub” earthen plaster over reeds utilized by the Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee similar to their own vernacular traditions. Likewise, the Spanish colonizing the West must have been amazed to see villages constructed of adobe and earthen plasters not unlike their “pueblos” back home.

Pre-Colonial Earthen Plaster

Navajo Hogan, Monument Valley
One of the building techniques existing throughout North America prior to European settlement was the earth lodge, a central space with wattle and daub walls covered with a dome roof, having a smoke hole at the apex. The Navajo of the dessert Southwest developed a variation of the earth lodge called a “hogan”, featuring earthen floors and timber walls packed with a thick, clay-rich earthen plaster on the exterior. Hogans are extremely energy efficient benefiting from natural ventilation and evaporative cooling during hot days whereas just a small fire is needed to take advantage of the thermal mass properties of the earthen plaster, maintaining the interior warm during long winters and cold nights.

Structures constructed entirely of clay-rich subsoil reinforced with straw were also common, essentially forming a plaster building. One method was to shutter the mixture between boards with a light tamping, something between a rammed earth and a cob technique. Alternatively, the mixture might be formed into rectangular "adobes", left to dry and used as mud bricks bonded with an earthen mortar. For both methods the surface would be rendered with an earthen plaster and finished with an "aliz" or clay slip that would be reapplied annually for maintenance. In a region with little rainfall and scant resources for fuel, hogans and adobe structures are comfortable, healthy and efficient.

Taos Pueblo

Spanish Colonial

San Miguel Mission
The Spanish were quick to adopt adobe and earthen plaster for their missions in the West. The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico began construction in 1610, making it the oldest church in the United States and a testament to the durability of adobe construction. The earthen plaster acts as a "sacrificial" coat being replaced occasionally to protect the adobe walls underneath.

Castillo de San Marcos
On the East coast and in the Caribbean the Spanish utilized lime for mortar and for plasters. With plenty of wood for fuel and oyster shells readily available, lime was easy to produce. The Spanish already had a tradition of producing lime plaster from the continent and it was a more durable material for the subtropical, wet climate. Both the 16th century Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the 17th century Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida are well preserved examples of the durability of limestone construction utilizing lime mortars. The fort would have been a brilliant white when constructed. Some lime plaster of the Castillo de San Marcos is still visible. 

British Colonial

St. Paul’s Chapel, NYC circa 1764
By the early 18th century the British had firmly established their colonies on the East coast of North America. Increasingly elaborate public buildings both governmental and religious were being constructed in a Georgian style based on Palladian archetypes. Emerging cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston all have surviving examples of colonial era Anglican churches featuring plasterwork, most notably coved and groined ceilings.

Kenmore Plantation, circa 1776
Meanwhile in the agricultural South and mid-Atlantic, crops such as rice, tobacco and indigo were generating incredible revenues. Wealthy landowners began to construct palatial plantations modeled after English country houses again in a Palladian style. Interior details including ornamental plaster ceilings were a symbol of wealth, status and cultural sophistication. The Kenmore plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia is one of the best preserved examples featuring room after room of highly ornamented neoclassical plaster ceilings.

I last mentioned that this was to be the concluding article in the series. However, upon preparing for this article it became evident that there is a larger story to tell in the United States. Next time we'll continue by considering our own national history of plaster from the Federal period into the 20th century.

Federal and Beaux Arts

Plaster eagle, Monticello
The founding fathers of the United States lived and were educated during an era later known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period espousing values such as reason, individual merit and greater liberty in philosophical inquiry as legitimate bases for authority. A measure of that inquiry harkened back to the days of Classical Greece, an age of prosperity and high culture. The democratic city-state of Athens harbored schools of philosophy led by the great minds of men such as Plato and Aristotle. Another significant influence was the ancient Republic of Rome. Its representative form of government was to largely serve as a referential blueprint for the political structure of the emerging nation.

A Federal Style

Perhaps no other single figure embodied the ideals and values of the new American Republic as that of Thomas Jefferson. A gentleman architect himself, Jefferson would lead the way in establishing a national style of civic architecture for the now federated states of the former British colonies. Jefferson held the works of Palladio in particular high esteem, seeing them as of direct lineage from the Roman Republic. Political connotations were thus to be embedded in Federal architecture. Likewise symbolic meaning was an important component in conveying values and plaster was an excelling medium of expression in architecture. For example, in 1782 the bald eagle was chosen as the preeminent emblem of the new republic. The eagle symbolized qualities such as long life and majesty; however, its ability to soar above conveyed the most treasured value of liberty. Jefferson's own commission of a modeled plaster eagle at Monticello in 1812 featured 18 plaster stars, coinciding with Louisiana's admission as the 18th state.

"Justice", Old Supreme Court chamber
Close colleagues of Jefferson were the "Father of American Architecture", Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch, widely considered the first native born American born to practice architecture professionally. Latrobe initially designed the Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol with its domical, ribbed plaster vaulting whereas Bulfinch led its restoration and elaboration after damage suffered to the Capitol building during the War of 1812.  Commissioned to Carlos Franzoni in 1817 was the plaster relief sculpture "Justice". Rich in iconographical meaning, Justice, the most important of the four cardinal virtues, is personified in the figure of a classical maiden. Her scales represent impartiality, her sword signifies her authority. The owl at her side represents the very embodiment of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom whilst to the right the eagle as symbol of the republic surmounts the books of law. Finally, to the left a winged "genius" presides over the Constitution under a sunburst halo symbolic of truth.

One of the greatest civic spaces ever conceived and a national treasure is the Capitol Rotunda. The cupola was designed by architect Thomas U. Walker and completed in 1863. The crowning feature filling the oculus is the "Apotheosis of Washington" added in 1865. This enormous work, 65 feet in diameter, was realized in plaster, painted al fresco by Constantino Brumidi over the course of 11 months. The fresco quite literally represents the deification of George Washington. Ascending with him at either side are the Roman goddesses Victory and Liberty. In turn, he is surrounded by the Roman gods Minerva, Neptune, Mercury, Vulcan and Ceres symbolizing Science, Maritime Power, Commerce, Industry and Agriculture respectively. Of particular interest is the American goddess Columbia, the personification of both Freedom and War.

Vulcan depicted as a symbol of Industry

L'École des Beaux-Arts

The Breakers, Newport RI
In the 1840's a young American living in Paris, aspiring architect Richard Morris Hunt, was the first American to be admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. The École was the most prestigious school of art, sculpture and architecture in the world offering a rigorous study extending from Classical Greece, Imperial Rome through the Italian Renaissance and the French Baroque. After the Civil War, Hunt began designing one mansion after another for wealthy industrialists of the burgeoning Gilded Age. His most opulent commissions came from his primary patron, the Vanderbilt family. Hunt was to inspire and soon be followed by scores of architects practicing in the US: the firms of Carrère and Hastings as well as McKim, Mead and White provide prominent examples. Lavish ornamentation was characteristic of Beaux Arts architecture and plaster was routinely specified.

Foreign architects were also active in the US. Beaux Arts trained French architect Ernest Sanson was engaged for two prominent American commissions: the Perry Belmont Mansion in DC and notably the Carolands Chateau south of San Fransisco. The Carolands is immense with an inner volume of over 1 million cubic feet. Both properties introduced to the US the French plaster tradition of Stuc Pierre, an integrated colored and aggregated gypsum lime plaster in emulation of limestone.

Carolands Chateau

Well this concludes my series on Plaster History. Personally, it has been both educational and enjoyable to explore the richness of the trade and all of the beautiful works folks just like us have created. I look forward to writing upcoming articles concerning what is happening in the trade today in both education and practice.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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