Why was stucco invented?

On the cultural history of stucco

Seeing and recognizingMaterialCraftsDecember2005S

The architecture and the icing

Even its Italian names melt like meringue on the tongue: stucco, stucco lustro, scagliola. The German terms stucco and stucco marble still sound very appetizing, but are far less airy. Disillusioned by the modern architecture theorists, who vilified ornament as a crime, most of them, when they hear about stucco today, get the taste of icing.

Günzburg, Sankt Martin © Roland Rossner, German Foundation for Monument Protection, Bonn
Looking west. Dominikus Zimmermann was the creator of the baroque splendor.

An association that is one-sided, but not so wrong at all. Because stucco work is jewelry like marzipan roses and nougat garlands, which are used solely for decoration and seduction. Bavarian chapels and Darmstadt town houses, like the pink wedding cake, could just as easily stand upright without decoration.

But stucco is more. He is a cultural-historical phenomenon, not an outgrowth of South German Rococo craftsmen or exaggerated Art Nouveau artists. But we only realize this when we take a closer look at the material itself, which, depending on its composition, is quite unpoetic and heavy as stone, also called gypsum mortar and gypsum-lime mortar.

The raw materials plaster of paris, sand and water (apart from the ingredients) have always been inexpensive, and so stucco was often used as a painting surface, for modeling individual motifs, for reliefs and even for free-standing figures. It was used both in the Old World and in Asia in material and technology almost unchanged over the years.

We encounter stucco everywhere - even where we do not suspect it: the oldest stucco is found in Egypt, where, for example, in the XVIII. Dynasty (1567-320 BC) sculptors made the portrait of ruler Amenhotep II and his son out of stucco. The portrait head of Nefertiti received its expression of immortality because the soft limestone was covered with finely painted stucco. At that time, mummy masks were also modeled with a stucco surface. In Classical Greece and Rome, artists coated their limestone sculptures with a layer of stucco to smooth their bodies for painting and to make their skin appear less porous. Even the Roman chariots in the vault of the Colosseum are made of stucco. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the history of the material that was called stucco or stucco lustro also crumbles. For over a thousand years, the remains of classic ornamental stucco marble lay buried and forgotten under the ruins of the buildings.

Restored with the help of the German Foundation for Monument Protection: the Frauenkirche in Günzburg

With the Middle Ages we open an almost unknown chapter in the history of stucco. The plaster mortar of that time, mostly mixed with lime, is not a Roman legacy, but rather a loan from the Orient. The stucco of that time also has little in common with the floating and carefree lightness of later Rococo decorations. It was just as "serious" a building material as marble, wood and terracotta. The earliest source on medieval stucco technique comes from Hrabanus Maurus, a contemporary of Charlemagne, who writes in his work "de universo": "Plastic is the design of ornamental and figurative wall decorations made of plaster and colored painting."

We have to expand our concept of stucco considerably when we turn to the rather brittle main works of medieval stucco art. In the Church of St. Cyriacus in Gernrode, instead of indulgent weightlessness, a light-dampened, domed tomb complex with the crumbling, weakly colored stucco sculptures of a bishop, three women at the grave and a Noli-me-tangere group at the holy grave awaits us. Her attraction is the morbidity, not the boisterous zest for life. Before they were attached to the burial chamber, the sculptures were pre-cast, and details such as feet or parts of clothing were subsequently modeled and processed with cutting tools. The outer part of the tomb, on the other hand, consists of cast relief stucco panels that have been joined together.

Stucco sculptures in Gernrode, created between 1050 and 1075

In Halberstadt, the stucco figures of Christ and the enthroned Mother of God between the apostles, inscribed in wooden markings and probably made between 1200 and 1210, have a captivatingly serious, cosmopolitan, almost mystical effect. Such works could be mistaken for sgrafitto figures (sgrafitto: a scratch coat applied in different layers) if they had not been identified as stucco by chemical tests.

It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that scholars rediscovered the stucco recipes of antiquity, which formed the basis for the later heyday of stucco. The chronicler Georgio Vasari described in his book "Lives" (1550) how Giovanni da Udine, a pupil of Raphael, dug in the ruins of the Titus palace and found rooms with figures and scenes in bas-relief stucco. After long studies he managed to determine the old stucco formula. The most important addition he came across was "shards of the whitest marble that can be found, crushed and reduced to fine flour, then sifted. This substance he added to crystalline limestone (travertine) and river sand and water."

Stucco figures on the choir barriers of the Liebfrauenkirche Halberstadt, originated at the beginning of the 13th century

"He has undoubtedly succeeded", continues Vasari, "to imitate the real stucco of the ancients." With an almost unchanged composition, this process was retained as the basic formula for all later stucco in Europe. He acquired the charm of the shrouded in mystery, the mixture, the ingredients of which are only revealed to the initiated. Here, too, there is a parallel to the confectionery, to the well-guarded original recipes of Lübeck marzipan and Christmas stollen.

"Every plasterer mixes the ingredients as he thinks it is right after his experience. He puts sand, plaster and lime, everything well mixed with water, into a paste. [...] After plaster sets quickly - which the artist could prevent the careful elaboration of his work - he has to add glue water, because glue water delays the setting of the plaster ", explains PN Sprengel, one of the stucco theorists of the 18th century, 1772.

In addition to the glue water mentioned by Sprengel, other substances such as milk, fermented grape juice, beer, sugar and powder made from marshmallow roots delayed the rapid drying. Traces of wine were found mainly in the stucco work of the churches in Rheinau, Einsiedeln and Lucerne. In Einsiedeln, craftsmen processed 57 buckets of wine during the three-year construction period (1724-1726).

Stucco experienced its heyday in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries - especially during the Rococo - when the joy of decorating was combined with the pleasure of lightness, which denied the attraction of the earth and the weight of the stone.

Nuns loft of the Frauenkirche in Günzburg

Winding figures of the Virgin Mary, delicate flourishes and tendrils, hanging acanthus branches and asymmetrical waves are associated with the names of South German plastering families who, like the builders in the late Middle Ages, stepped out of the shadow of their craft. At the end of the development of the stucco and on its summit, there are artistic personalities such as the brothers Egid Quirin and Cosmas Damian Asam, Johann Baptist and Dominikus Zimmermann as well as Johann Michael Feichtmayr, who lent wings to the stone-heavy material.

When the enthusiasm for the exuberant subsided and with classicism in Germany the understanding triumphed over the feelings, the love for decoration went downhill again. The statement of the master builder Leo von Klenze at the beginning of the 19th century - "every ornament, everything colorful and glittering damages the ideal work of art" - was only one of those critical voices that grew louder in the 19th and 20th centuries, ornament in general and Stuck in particular damn it. But as violent as critics railed against turquoise Art Nouveau decor or snow-white townhouse stucco, the tendrils, garlands and curlicues still hold their own on house facades and in living rooms. And some city dwellers like to dig deeper into their pockets to spend their evening a little more festively under the stucco ceiling in the town house.

Dr. Christiane Schillig

For the preservation of the Saxon-Anhalt collegiate church in Gernrode, the Bodenstein Foundation was established as a trust foundation under the care of the German Foundation for Monument Protection, as was the W.-A.-H.-Meyer Foundation for the preservation of the Halberstadt Church of Our Lady.