The long and colourful History of Polished Plaster

The term 'Polished Plaster' immediately conjures up an impression of being something entirely new to the world of building/ decorating materials. In reality, however, polished - Venetian plaster, as it is also often referred to - has a very long history dating back many thousands of years.

Polished plaster history

Some of the oldest plasters - dating back to around 9000 BC - were discovered in Mesopotamia, the west-Asian region located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (today known as Kuwait, modern Iraq, south-west Iran, south-eastern Turkey and eastern Syrian regions). Typically lime stone based and mixed with marble chippings or powder, some of these early plasters also contained weird and wonderful ingredients like goats’ milk or even blood.

Excavations at Ain Ghazal (Jordan) revealed that around 7500 BC, the people of this region used plasters created from a mixture of lime and rushed, unheated lime stone to cover floors, hearths and walls. Floors and walls were then often decorated with finger-painted, red designs/ patterns.

Gypsum and clay plasters were also used in ancient China and India to render mud brick and/ or rough stone walls with a smooth surface. Early Egyptian tombs show walls coated with gypsum and lime plasters, often decorated and/ or painted.

The Tarxien complex, a scene of excavations on the island of Malta, also revealed decorated plaster remains dating back as far as 3000 BC. Used for architectural spaces by ancient Egyptians - who recognised the anti-mildew/ mould properties and durability of plaster - from around 900 BC, Venetian - or polished - plaster gradually spread into southern parts of Europe, mainly Rome and Greece.

Greek builders took the Egyptian recipe for plaster and proceeded to improve it, and around 360 BC, Theofrast, the Greek historian and philosopher, described both plaster fabrication and application in precise detail.

Throughout the whole Roman Empire, preparatory layers of sand-lime mixtures were followed by fine applications of plasters made from sand, marble dust, lime and gypsum. After discovering lime's hydraulic set principles (4th Century BC), Romans also added pozzolanic materials (predominantly volcanic ash containing highly reactive forms of alumina and silica) to produce rapid sets.

The use of marble dust in plaster - which allowed for production of hard, smooth finishes and fine detail on moulded/ hand-modelled decorations - almost completely disappeared from the end of the great Roman Empire until being rediscovered during the Renaissance period.

Hydraulic plaster also all but disappeared until as late as the 18th Century. Mid-13th Century Europe, however, continued to see both internal and external decorative use of gypsum plaster. Using animal hair to reinforce this material, builders used a whole list of additives - including beer, eggs, malt and milk - to improve plasticity and/ or set.

Targeting, a decorative trawled plaster, became a popular method of decorating timber framed buildings' exterior surfaces in Southeast England during the 14th Century. A form of modelled, moulded or incised ornament, targeting was executed using lime-gypsum mixtures or lime putty. Skilled Venetian workers proceeded to develop a new external coating, Marmorino, during the mid-15th Century.

The 16th Century saw several developments in the fabrication and use of plaster. In Bavaria, innovative stuccoists came up with a highly decorative, new type of internal plaster work, known as scagliola.

Consisting of gypsum plaster, pigments and animal glues - to which lime, marble dusts and/ or sand were occasionally added - scagliola was used to imitate the decorative art of pietre dure (or pietra dura; an inlay technique using highly polished, cut and fitted coloured stones to produce images) and/ or coloured marble effects.

The scagliloa-type plaster experienced somewhat of a 'golden age' and was brought to near-perfection by so-called scagliloa artists - predominantly Italian monks - during the 17th Century.

During the same period, Italian artists introduced the sgraffito technique (scratch or graffito work), which was then combined with stucco (modelled) decoration) into Germany. Practised in antiquity, this technique was described by Italian architect, historian, painter and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574) as a 'durable and quick method of decorating the facades of buildings'.

Andrea Palladio (1508 - 1580), the Italian architect famous for his neo-classical, Palladian style villas and houses - as well as several books (including the 'Antiquities of Rome' (1554; used as a prime reference until the mid to late 18th Century) and the 'Four Books of Architecture' (1571; still a classic text read by world-wide architects today) - in the meantime rediscovered the traditional techniques of Venetian plaster.

His work and use of Venetian plaster influenced significant 16th to 18th Century British architects, such as, for instance, Inigo Jones 1573 - 1652; famous for Whitehall's Banqueting House, his Covent Garden Square area design and his influence on future West End developments); Christopher Wren (1632 - 1723; famed for St. Paul's Cathedral, Greenwich's Royal Naval College, Hampton Court Palace's south front and more) and a whole host of British architects well-known for their pioneering efforts in the Georgian architectural style.

Over time, polished plaster was endowed with a variety of different names, including Italian or Venetian plaster, Stucco, Marble plaster, Spatulato and many other variations. Whatever it may be called, one thing is for sure - it has provided great finishes throughout its long history.

In 1982, Novacolor took the ancient art of plaster fabrication and used innovative ideas, the finest, carefully sourced/ selected raw materials combined with state-of-the-art technology to bring polished plaster into the 20th/ 21st Century.

Based in Forli, Italy, since 1998, Novacolor no longer uses blood, animal hair/ glue or other weird and wonderful ingredients to create their stunning range of polished plasters and decorative finishes.

Suitable for an infinite range of exterior and/ or interior uses, Novacolor polished plaster is instead formulated using high quality, modern ingredients. Extremely sensitive to an ever increasing need to protect the environment/ ecology of the planet, Novacolor research and development teams continually strive to improve the quality/ eliminate use of harmful toxins and solvents within all of the company's products.

The results of their efforts are extremely durable, easy to apply and highly attractive products that will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on the history of polished plaster.