Background on Sgraffito & Art Nouveau

Sgraffito

Sgraffito is a technique of wall decor, produced by applying layers of cement plaster tinted in contrasting colours to a moistened surface.

Sgraffito and sgraffiti come from the Italian word graffiare (“to scratch”), ultimately from the Greek γράφειν (gráphein) “to write”. Related terms include graffito and graffiti.

Sgraffito on walls has been used in Europe since classical times, and it was common in Italy in the 16th century, and can be found in African art. In combination with ornamental decoration these techniques formed an alternative to the prevailing painting of walls. Of late there has been an unmistakable growing interest in this old technique. The technical procedure is relatively simple, and the procedures are similar to the painting of frescoes.

Sgraffito played a significant role during the years of the Renaissance in Italy, with two of Raphael’s workshop, Polidoro da Caravaggio and his partner Maturino da Firenze, among the leading specialists, painting palace facades in Rome and other cities. Most of their work has now weathered away. During the 16th century the technique was brought to Germany by the master builders of the Renaissance and taken up with enthusiasm. As a simple native art old examples of sgraffito can be found in the wide surroundings of Wetterau and Marburg. In Germany the technique is most predominant in Bavaria. The use of sgraffito was common in the creation of housing façades for the purposes of advertising. The technique was also used in Thuringia, the Engadin, Austria and Transylvania. In Catalonia, sgraffito was implemented in the early 20th century by the Noucentista neo-classical architects and became a recurrent technique in façade decoration.

Art Nouveau

Examples of graphic work on facades saw a resurgence circa 1890 through 1915, in the context of the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Vienna Secession, and particularly the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium and France. The English artist Heywood Sumner has been identified as this era’s pioneer of the technique, for example his work at the 1892 St Mary’s Church, Sunbury, Surrey. Sumner’s work is sgraffito per se, scratched plaster, but the term has come to encompass a variety of techniques for producing exterior graphic decoration.

Other examples include:

  • ceramic panels on the Grande Maison de Blanc, Brussels, architect Oscar François, artist Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896–1897
  • the Hôtel Ciamberlani, Brussels, architect Paul Hankar, 1897
  • Princess of Dreamstile tympanum and other work, Hotel Metropol, Moscow, architect William Walcot, artist Mikhail Vrubel, 1899–1907
  • the Cauchie house, Brussels, architect Paul Cauchie, 1905
  • ceramic Homage to Prague tympanum of the Municipal House in Prague, architect Osvald Polívka, artist Karel Špillar, 1905–1912

Perhaps the best source of information on sgraffito can be found in William Millar’s book published in 1899, Plastering Plain & Decorative.