Maria Gabriella Matarazzo

Maria Gabriella Matarazzo

Melville J Kahn Fellow
Beyond «Buon Fresco»: Experimenting with Oil in Wall Painting (c. 1500-1700)
Maria Gabriella Matarazzo


Maria Gabriella Matarazzo holds a PhD in Art History from the Scuola Normale Superiore (2020). She was subsequently rewarded a postdoctoral fellowship to develop a project on Baroque stucco decoration, funded by the SNS, the Fondazione 1563 and the Fondazione Archivio del Moderno (2021-2022). Her research has also been supported by visiting scholarships at New York University (2016) and at Johns Hopkins University (2018-2019). Her forthcoming monograph builds upon her PhD dissertation on the theory and practice of light and shade in the Roman Baroque. It focuses on chiaroscuro considered as a pivotal critical category in 17th-century art literature and as a key formal principle at the intersection of the mediality of the visual arts.

Project Summary

While Vasari described fresco as the «most certain, most resolute and durable» – therefore, the most «manly» – medium for murals, extensive restoration interventions have proved that the process of wall painting in Vasari’s time throughout Italy was far more heterogeneous. Not only was combining fresco and secco techniques common practice, but oil binders were adopted on a large scale. The main purpose of this technical endeavor was to transfer the stylistic properties of oil painting (morbidezza, unione, and a deeper range of tones) from portable supports to the wall. Starting with Leonardo’s experiments in his late murals (the Anghiari Battle and the Last Supper), this project will explore the formal qualities intrinsic to the oil material that painters intended to engage, despite the oil’s defects in preservation when applied on the wall. Through a selection of case studies spanning from Raphael’s Iustitia and Comitas in the Room of Constantine to Caravaggio’s Deities in the Ludovisi Casino, and Carlo Maratti’s altarpiece in the Cybo Chapel, this project will assess how the use of oil painting on wall served as a stylistic update and aided in the expression of new narrative contents between the 16th and the 17th century. Altogether, my aim is to undertake the first comprehensive study of the use of oil as an alternative to fresco, thus providing a counter-history of wall painting between the Renaissance and the Baroque that goes beyond Vasari’s rhetoric of “buon fresco”.