Largely unchanged in the last 500 years, we look back at the one of the most historic building materials around.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of polished plaster within the interiors industry. Used by many of the world’s top design studios for it’s decorative qualities and natural benefits, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a relatively new material. In fact this finish is one of the oldest in existence with examples discovered as far back as 9000 BC.
Typically formed using a lime stone base mixed with marble powder or stone chippings, this recipe remains largely unchanged to this day. The ancient Egyptians, who recognised the anti-mould properties and durability of plaster, often used this finish to decorate the walls of their Pharaoh’s tombs. Similar techniques have also been discovered in ancient China and India where they used gypsum and clay plasters to render rough stone or brick walls with a smooth finish.
Although the Greeks were first to be accredited for using Marmorino Stucco (a mixture of lime and marble) it was the Romans who were responsible for developing this technique. Used throughout the Roman Empire, the practice almost completely disappeared at the end of their rule only to resurface during the Italian Renaissance.
Over this period and predominantly in Venice and in the Veneto region, the use and development of decorative polished plaster experienced radical progress and experimentation. Venetian craftsmen, and their unique set of problems to overcome, can largely be held responsible for the rediscovery of the technique.
The Renaissance period brought an explosion of creativity. As a major trade route, Venice was both wealthy and culturally diverse with constantly evolving fashions and exotic influences. During this time craftsmen and decorators developed variations such as Scagliola and Sgraffito. These increasingly refined methods were often used to mimic semi-precious stones and more exclusive marbles in the fashionable Rococo and Baroque styles.
Whilst Venice is considered the modern birthplace for polished plaster, it is in Vincenza where the best examples are found. This is where the majority of the architect, Andrea Palladio’s, work was concentrated.
Spanning between 1537-80, Palladio’s work with Marmorino Stucco is regarded as the finest in existence. Seen as the father of Palladian architecture, his approach had considerable influence on 16th to 18th century British architects including Christopher Wren, Inigo Jones and later Sir John Soane and Robert Adam.
Falling out of favour in the 19th century, lime plaster finishes (at this point almost a dying art) was once again reinvented in the 1950s. Much of this can be attributed to Carlo Scarpo, whose decorative style became a model for young designers wishing to revive luxurious materials and techniques with a contemporary approach.
POLISHED PLASTER TODAY
The trend towards preference for sophisticated design has seen polished plaster and similar techniques return to the forefront of design. Both economic and low maintenance, this finish is increasingly seen as an alternative to wallpaper.
Introduced to the UK in the 1970s, advances in technology such as, Novachem have allowed today’s craftsmen to improve plaster’s durability and water resistant qualities. The market now offers countless variations to the traditional theme; although all are still applied by hand.
The London based company, Calfe Crimmings, have been working with polished plaster since 2001 and have created an impressive selection of different styles to meet the growing demand. From the traditional Marmorino Stucco to more experimental and textured finishes featuring mesh, precious metals or weathering techniques it is now easier than ever to create a truly unique home.
POPULAR STYLES AND VARIATIONS
Derived from the Italian ‘scaglia’ (a local Italian term for limestone) this gypsum based plaster is primarily used to imitate decorative stonework. Commonly seen as a finish applied to fixed architectural features such as walls, columns, floors and fireplaces; this technique can also be applied to loose furniture.
Originally an ancient Roman technique, it was rediscovered during the Renassaince period in Venice. It’s ability to mimic the finest marbles and exotic materials saw this method flourish in the Baroque and Rococo eras. It was introduced to the UK in the 17th century where it has been predominately used as an alternative to rare marble. Famous examples can be found in Buckingham Palace where William Croggon used Scagliola to form faux lapis lazuli columns and also in London’s Reform Club.
The most famous style is Marmorino Stucco, a variation that rose to prominence in 15th Century Venice. Traditionally formed using a base of lime putty and crushed stone or marble, this method enabled craftsmen to recycle existing and surplus building materials. This was a key factor in it’s popularity as it reduced the reliance on the city’s notoriously poor transport system.