Lime’s early origins
Perhaps the earliest known examples of
decorative plasterwork are from the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Painted plaster
masks adorned the linen wrapped head of a mummy, and stone walls would have had their
irregular surface smoothed with plaster before being carved or shaped and painted. This
plasterwork was formed with fast setting gypsum plaster.
Roman stucco work, though mainly painted, shows widespread use of lime plaster, for
example; as a wall covering for landscape painting, as can be seen in Hadrian’s villa in
Tivoli in the 1st century AD; or as a theatrical backdrop of mythological figures and
theatrical figures in the upper class Hang houses in Ephesus, c 5th century AD.
Instructions by the Roman architect Vitruvius on the means of ensuring that stucco relief
decoration remains sound and firmly attached to the wall are as relevant today as they were
in the 1st century BC. His advice on the need for cane and metal support for relief work to
prevent distortion is, of course, common sense, as are the rules he describes for obtaining
a flat wall surface using three coats of plaster: a coarse base coat of rough sand and lime
reinforced with hair to prepare the wall surface, followed by a levelling coat of medium
graded sand, lime and hair to level the wall, and finally, a finer finish coat, much thinner
than the rest, of fine lime, sand and possibly goat hair.
Vitruvius’ advice on how to make lime plaster adhere to a damp wall has a particular
resonance today. To combat wet conditions, he recommended a pozzolanic additive of brick
shards and brick powders for the first of the three layers of lime plaster. The combination
of brick and lime, well mixed, provides a hydraulic set for the plaster (‘hydraulic’
literally means having the ability to set under water), enabling the mortar to set whilst
still wet, without carbonation.
In addition to brick dust, a multitude of other additives were used to accelerate the set of
lime, but perhaps the one ingredient that carries the most historical significance must be
marble flour. This aggregate was the key ingredient of the finest mid 18th century plaster
work, Stucco duro, which was largely confined to Italy and southern Europe. Marble
flour allegedly aids both the plasticity and the set of stucco. Although it was never widely
used as an additive by English plasterers, the style of the stuccodurists was much admired
and imitated. The twists and turns of a fine Rococo ceiling, with all its convoluted curves
and intertwining shapes, could not have been easily made without the setting properties of
marble dust or, as was later discovered by the English imitators of the stuccodurist, a
lacing of gypsum plaster.