Baroque fresco painting in Hungary

The painting by Maulbertsch in the ceremonial hall of the Bishop’s Palace, Szombathely

Research began at the Department of Art History, Péter Pázmány Catholic University, in autumn 2008. The aim of the research is to document the entirety of Baroque fresco painting in Hungary and to publish detailed, technical and iconographic descriptions similarly to the project conducted in Munich Corpus der barocken Deckenmalerei in Deutschland. The research is based on the possibilities offered by up-to-date technology and IT: detailed digital photographic documentation is being made of all the works and all the images with key-word descriptions are to be included in a database which will be accessible on the internet. Besides the printed corpus containing scientific theses, the database represents a new and flexibly applicable medium of classifying research results and their publication, enabling searches from different aspects, continuous updating and the release of a vast quantity of reproductions. The research also constitutes part of an international project, thus the database containing the Hungarian works of art will link up to similar databases produced by other research teams in central Europe. Since the aim, participants and results so far have been presented at several forums, here I present the method and direction of the project with a single work, the frescos by Maulbertsch in the Bishop’s Palace in Szombathely. Maulbertsch, one of the period’s greatest fresco painters, was commissioned by Bishop János Szily to paint the ceremonial hall of the palace in 1783. One of the most significant art works of late Baroque in Hungary confronts the researcher with various issues and provides a good example of a research subject suitable for analysis, even in the case of well documented works of art which are often referred to in professional publications. By zoom photography of the fresco surfaces, high resolution pictures rich in detail can be made and as a result the researcher can inspect the work as if from the position of the artist painting on the platform – each brushstroke and pigment trace become visible. In the 18th century the word fresco was used in a broad sense, usually for painting on walls and ceilings. The technique Kalkfresko (lime) applied on a fresh coat of plaster, when the artist used fresco paints mixed with lime, was characteristic in central Europe and the area north of the Alps. The advantages of the material included a bright and lustrous colour effect and a surface similar to oil paintings. All that corresponded to the aesthetic expectations of the period, which held virtuosity and spontaneous painterly manifestations in high esteem. After the lime fresco surfaces made in daily portions had dried, they were developed further with secco procedures. That was how the modification of colours due to drying could be adjusted and that was when the non water soluble pigments, the deeper tones, were also rendered. Tempera and even pastels were used for this last phase (this layer has often been lost for ever, due to its vulnerability). Intensive research into Maulbertsch’s workshop method and technique of painting has recently experienced an impetus. As a result, earlier opinions regarding the genesis or attribution of the works have had to be reviewed in many cases. Maulbertsch put his working method and technique at the service of the free flow of his painterly fantasy. His impromptu compositions and courageous rendering complemented by his spontaneous zeal characterise not only his drawings and oil paintings but also his frescos. Maulbertsch did not make detailed sketches for his monumental works and when making his wall and ceiling paintings he did not use cartoons like most of his contemporaries, but outlined the compositions with freely rendered brush lines on the surface itself.Needless to say, fresco painting is not an individual undertaking and Maulbertsch worked with apprentices and specialists. The latter had to paint the architectural parts, ornaments and monochromatic elements or those imitating statues or reliefs. The decoration of the ceremonial hall in the Bishop’s Palace in Szombathely was created with such a division of labour. Artists under Maulbertsch’s management usually had to work simultaneously at different locations, especially when the painter took on a series of large-scale decorative jobs with tight deadlines. The same happened in this case. Before Maulbertsch began creating the scenes the architectural painting had already been completely rendered. This is shown by traces of plastering by the outlines of the figures. The story of Savaria, the Roman town preceding Szombathely, is recalled on the side walls but it was not painted by Maulbertsch. Yet the artist’s signature appears here, showing that the signature is not a personal mark but the testimonial of the painter managing the undertaking – it could be called the ‘hallmark’ of the workshop. ‘Scanning’ the ceiling with digital photography, the fresco in Szombathely turned out to be in rather good condition, without any restorers’ intervention. Maulbertsch’s characteristic compositional and painterly approach can be studied well in the main figures created by the artist himself in the central parts of the frescos.