The coolest place to be in Vittorio Veneto in June is almost certainly in the studio of Proffessorio Alma Ortolan, not just because the temperature outside is well into the nineties, but because she is a leading expert in the making and conservation of the ancient and mysterious art of making Frescoes.
The heat flows languidly through the fourteenth century cobbled streets wafting the heavy fragrance of jasmine and roses over the castellated walls and the business of this old part of the town, subsides into an afternoon siesta.
Venice is an hour to the east and the magnificent Dolomite mountains create a stunning backdrop to the north, which send us cooler air later in the evenings.
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In the studio the ever present sour dampness of the fresh plaster we have laid, with painstaking application, to the terracotta tiles is slowly drying. We have been taking the tiles outside to dry against the Gothic arches along the street of this beautifully restored town house below the castle walls.
The art of making frescoes is an alchemy of elemental ingredients and processes. Few painters practice this laborious technique in these more immediate times, but there is still a raw power in using the earth pigments on the freshly laid plaster, making a permanent and lasting image that goes on deepening and brightening over the centuries, due to its mysterious chemistry.
With Alma’s experienced help I learn a lot more about the way in which the ancient Roman painters worked by practising on some terracotta engineering tiles. The secret of good fresco is a well laid and balanced arrechrio layer beneath a very thin layer of damp intonnaco. We spend hours mixing a blend of fine and varied aggregates with mature lime putty in a builders mini cement mixer, adding an egg for good measure, and of course its emulsion properties.
At last we have a surface that satisfies Alma’s perfectionist eye, and she coos lovingly over it. But before we can lay anything else on it we have to go up for lunch. Alma’s mother, Leonora is a marvellous Italian cook and as well as running the B & B side of things, still unstoppable at seventy, indulges guests with dishes fresh from the garden and local chilled prosecco. I was in Heaven over one of my favourites, in common with the Doge of Venice apparently, Rissotto Milanese; made with fresh peas and parmesan. We are joined by one of Alma’s illustrious friends, Alessandro, who is a well known sculptor. He has brought a copy of the journal that describes the special research that Alma is also so well known for, the restoring of some early Christian frescoes beneath the second largest church in the Vatican. There is a photograph of her meeting with first Lady of Azerbyjan and the cardinal in charge of the Catholic Church’s cultural collection. We discuss the haunting nature of the atmosphere in these catacombs with some awe.
I am lulled into a delicious stupor listening to the sound of this seductive language, on top of the wine and wonderful repast, that finished with fresh melon and liqueur with the unsurpassed Italian coffee of course.
After three days in this fashion I had finally achieved a small piece of fresco, a copy of a fragment of the Roman garden paintings when they came to the British Museum last year.
On my return to Blighty I found the piece a little smeared. But in my mind and soul I feel I have something with the substance and clarity of Gothic architecture’ made of stone, plaster and cool shadows and light, with the graceful figures of the Renaissance artisans moving amongst arches. In their hands they hold brushes and glasses of wine. It is a calming and civilising vision.