Docent Profile: Alan Pascuzzi

alan11.jpgReviving the Frustrating Art of Fresco: A Conversation with Alan Pascuzzi

Professor Alan Pascuzzi teaches art and art history at New York University (NYU) in Florence. In addition to drawing and sculpting, Alan works in fresco, the art of painting in wet plaster prized as the test of an artist by Renaissance masters and the medium of the Sistine Ceiling, Massacio’s Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, and other masterpieces. In September, Alan joined Context:Florence as a docent. He leads our Fresco Workshop, a three-hour hands-on tutorial in the difficult but ultimate rewarding art of fresco. In Alan’s opinion, this is one of the best ways to understand the art that one sees throughout Florence—to get your hands dirty. We caught up with Alan after one of these workshops and asked him a few questions about life among the art in Florence.

Context:Florence: What brought you to Florence initially, and how long have you lived here?
Alan Pascuzzi: I first came to Florence in 1990 for a summer program at Michigan University. I then returned to do my masters in Renaissance art history on fellowship through Syracuse University in Florence. I returned in 1994 to do doctoral research on a grant, and then came again in 1995 as a Fulbright Fellow to research and write my dissertation on Michelangelo’s drawings. After the grant, I stayed on to teach and work as an art historian and artist. I have been here about 10 years total.

CF: How did you first get interested in fresco painting?
AP: I first heard of fresco painting as an undergrad in art history class. I experimented with it in the States but could not find the right materials. When I came to Florence I studied with a Spanish restorer who gave me the basics and was hooked. I rented a small shed in the garden near Piazza Donatello and covered the walls with fresco in order to learn the technique.

CF: Are there many artists working with fresco these days?
AP: Fresco is taught in many schools but actual fresco artists are rare. In Florence I know of three other working fresco artists. It is a very labor-intensive technique and unfortunately there are not many commissions for true fresco.

CF: What do you mean by “true fresco”?
AP: Fresco is the art of applying paint to wet plaster. As the plaster dries the paint is fixed into it. It actually becomes part of the wall.

CF: Is this why we still have so many, well-preserved frescos from the 15th and 16th centuries?
AP: Yes, if it applied right it will last forever. We have frescos from the 1st century.

CF: But you’re using modern fixatives and other tricks. Right?
AP. Absolutely not. By “true fresco,” I mean the art and technique of fresco as it was practiced by the masters of Renaissance. In my research for my dissertation, I came across several Renaissance treatises such as Cennino Cennini’s Craftsman’s Handbook that explains how the great masters painted in fresco. I use his text as a guide and stick to the materials he mentions. I use the exact same materials as mentioned by Cennini: sand, lime paste, natural colors, and boar’s hair brushes. I also use the same techniques such as doing all my studies from life and not from photos, enlarging all my studies by hand to make a large cartoon, and following the same sequence of execution as all of the great masters.

CF: Gosh, it sounds tough.
AP: Fresco is the most challenging medium because you have to prepare everything beforehand and then execute the work in a very short time. It is like being on live TV: You cannot make mistakes. The mortar is drying and you have to paint fast. This means you have to be decisive, precise and fast. For some artists, like Leonardo who was too slow, fresco is too stressful.

CF: And now you teach fresco too?
AP: I teach painting and drawing at New York University in Florence and also for the Palazzo Rucellai in the center, which is where I have my studio. I also teach Renaissance art history in the summer for NYU.

CF: You work in other media besides fresco, no?
AP: I also work in oil and I sculpt. I do drawing in a variety of traditional media such as silverpoint (technique of Leonardo) and sanguine -red chalk (Michelangelo). When I am not painting a fresco (which is most of the time), I work on portraits and religious scenes in oil. I also work in clay and in stone.

CF: I noticed that your subject matter is also similar to that of the Renaissance painters. Why is this?
AP: I don’t know. When I was studying art I began by trying to be modern and imitate abstract painters. But it just never felt right. Realism has always felt much more natural to me. Today, I specialize in religious art: saints, life of Christ, and Old Testament scenes. Michelangelo was my master (I studied his work the most) so I tend to use his anatomical structure. But I have developed it into my own style. I also use Leonardo’s painting technique of layering color in transparent veils. I also like to call on Titian and use his brushstroke, and Caravaggio’s heavy use of chiaroscuro.

CF: Do you have any recent commissions?
AP: Fresco commissions are rare, in part because they are so labor intensive and therefore expensive. I have recently finished a Madonna for the Calcio in Costume (Soccer Game in Costume) parade thatFlorence holds each year. It was brought in a parade in the streets of Florence to the Duomo and blessed by the bishop of Florence on the steps of the cathedral. I have also recently finished a large stone Pietà for a small town in Abbruzzo, near Chieti. This was put in the piazza by the main church. I am also in the process of finalizing a commission for five tabernacles in the center of Florence , for which I am planning to execute five scenes from the life of Christ in marble, terra cotta, bronze and fresco.

CF: So, you just makes frescos and sleep?
AP: [laughs] No, I have a life too. In my spare time I run marathons, bike, and I am a flag waver for the city of Florence.

CF: A flag waver?
AP: Yeah, I belong to the Bandierai degli Uffizi, which is a group of standard bearers who participate in—lead actually—the annual summer parade through the city of Florence as part of the Calcio in Costume festival. Calcio in Costume is this wonderful soccer match that’s been taking place in Florence for 500 years, in front of Santa Croce.

CF: So, you’ve gone native?
AP: I will never be Florentine for I wasn’t born here. However, I can truly feel the spirit and soul of the city, and because of this I have been embraced by its people and its traditions. It is an honor to be able to live and work here, flag wave in the streets, and contribute to its art and beauty. Because of this, I feel that Florence will forever be a part of me whether I remain here or leave.