Historical Origins of Lime-Based Plaster and Venetian Plaster



In the world of interior design, few decorative techniques exude the timeless allure and artisanal charm of Venetian Plastering. Whilst hugely popular in contemporary design, it is thought that Venetian Plaster could date back almost ten thousand years. Join us on a journey through time as we delve into the captivating history and origins of this age-old craft. 



The Key Component of Venetian Plaster - Where Does Limestone Come From?



One of the key components of Venetian Plaster is lime putty, or slaked lime, which is derived from naturally occurring limestone. 


Limestone is formed by the compression of many layers of crushed sea-shells, coral and skeletal debris, over thousands and millions of years. Limestone usually forms within calm, warm and shallow marine waters; some areas which facilitate limestone formation are the Carribean Sean, Indian Ocean, around the Pacific Ocean Islands and within the Indonesian Archipelago. On land, limestone is often prevalent in areas which were, at one point in history, beneath sea level. 


As a naturally occuring material, limestone has been prevalent within the construction industry for thousands of years, with lime-based plasters having been utilised for the construction of many key architectural landmarks, as well as for subsequent renovation, restoration and decoration projects. 



7500BC - 7000BC: Early Origins of Lime-Based Plaster in Ancient Mesopotamia

Research suggets that lime-based plasters may have first been used over 9000 years ago, in around 7000BC, in Mesopotamia, a historical region which encapsulates modern-day countries including Iran, Iraq and Syria. 


Calcined lime plaster has been identified in wall and floor coatings in several Neolithic excavation sites in Anatolio, a West Asian peninsula, and large-scale statues comprised of reed and lime plaster have been discovered at the archaeological site of Ain Ghazal in Jordan. 


During this ancient era, early artisans are thought to have crafted plaster using a mixture of lime, marble dust and finely crushed limestone. To enhance the plaster's adhesive qualities and durability, various additives were introduced, including animal blood which acted as a binder, and finely chopped straw or fibres to reinforce the mixture. Other materials thought to have been used include animal urine, faeces, hair, eggs, beeswax, wine and beer. This ingenious blend of natural materials not only fortified the plaster but also granted it the ability to adhere to a variety of surfaces, making it an invaluable tool for creating intricate statues, embelleshing tombs, and adorning the architectural wonders of the ancient world. 



6500BC: Lime-Based Plaster in the Indus Valley



Around 6500BC, in the Indus Valley region (modern-day Pakistan), an ancient precursor to lime-based plaster was being employed for both construction and artistic purposes. Early inhabitants of this thriving civilisation used a mixture of readily available accessible materials such as mud and clay in combination with crushed limestone, to create a form of plaster. This plaster, though distinct from the refined Venetian Plaster techniques we know and use today, displayed the ingenuinity of the Indus Valley people in creating durable and decorative surfaces. They applied it to walls of their homes, temples and structures, showcasing an early understanding of the material's adhesive properties, and it's ability to provide both structural support and aesthetic appeal. This early use of plaster in the Indus Valley region represents a significant milestone in the history of construction and decorative arts, foreshadowing the more sophisticated lime-based plasters and in turn, Venetian Plasters, that would emerge in later civilisations across the world. 



4000BC: Discovery of the "Lime Cycle" Principles in Ancient Egypt



Around 4000BC, during the Ancient Egyptian era, lime-based plasters played a pivotal role in the construction and adornment of the magnificent structures and monuments that still to this day define this ancient civilisation. 


The Ancient Egyptian civilisation are thought to have discovered the principles of the "Lime Cycle" - that limestone which was burned, and then combined with water, produced a durable material which would also harden with age. 


Egyptians combined lime, gypsum, and fine sand to create a versatile material which not only served structural purposes but also added a touch of aesthetic opulence to their architectural wonders. These plasters, often tinted with pigments, provided the perfect canvas for intricate hieroglyphics and vivid frescoes, adorning the walls of temples, tombs and palaces. The longevity and enduring beautify of these lime-based plasters have allowed us to marvel at the skill and artistry of ancient Egyptian craftsmen, showcasing the indellible mark they left on the world of architectural and decorative arts. 


Lime plaster is thought to have been used during the construction of the pyramids in around 2500BC. As we now know, lime-based Venetian Plaster boasts several impressive qualities including anti-bacterial and mould and damp-repellent qualities, and it is likely that this material helped to regulate the internal environment of the pyramids and other structures, and therefore contributing greately to the preservation of the contents of these historical structures and tombs. 



400BC - 150BC: Lime-Based Venetian Plastering in the Roman Empire



Similarly to the Egyptians, the Romans also harnessed the principles of the Lime Cycle to create durable lime based plasters. 


By 150BC, lime plaster was widely utilised by the Romans, however around this time, the Romans also discovered the principles of hyraulic setting lime mortar. They learned that combining lime with pozzolanic materials such as silicia, alumina, volcanic ash and brick dust would create a mortar which hardened much faster than those used previously, and which was able to be used in wet areas such as ponds and aqueducts. 


Around the same time, China was also experimenting with their plaster composition, and there is evidence to suggest that glutionous rice was added to their lime mortar which was used during construction of the Great Wall of China. Rice was used an an alternative to the pozzolanic materials adopted by the Romans, due to the lack of availability of volvanic ash in China. 


The Romans later introduced marble dust to their lime plaster, resulting in an even harder, smoother finish as well as a product which could be moulded to produce beautiful decorations. Lime plaster was often reserved for buildings and spaces belonging to those of wealth and privilege. 


Unfortunately, following the decline of the Roman Empire, these early Venetian Plaster techniques were largely forgotten, and were not rediscovered for many years.




Mid 15th Century: The Italian Renaissance - A Revival of Venetian Plastering Techniques



In a recent webinar hosted by Impera Italia, the team explain that whilst Venetian Plastering does have some origins as far back as 7000BC in Ancient Mesopotamia, the composition and techniques associated with the Venetian Plaster we use today were discovered in Venice, around 400 years ago. 


The art of Venetian Plastering was revived again during the Italian Renaissance period, and was used most notably in the city of Venice. Venice was built on water to avoid invasions, and many homes and buildings were therefore constructed on stilts. Unfortunately, this meant that marble, a popular material at the time for construction and decoration, was not practical for use in this particular region, as it was very difficult to transport large heavy marble slabs throughout the canal system, and hugely impractical to install them within properties constructed on stilts over the water. Venetians therefore required a more lightweight and practical material for construction, whilst maintaining the aesthetic appeal of traditional marble. 


An early form of Marmorino, a plaster finish which emulates natural marble and stone, was created by combining lime plaster with marble dust, and this plaster could be applied directly onto the masonry of buildings and structures in the Venice marshes. Use of this plaster was widespread, and became an integral feature of artistic culture during the Renaissance period. 



Pioneering Architects: The Rise of Venetian Plaster



Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the author of the famous "De Architectura", was a Roman architect, engineer and writer during the 1st century BC. In De Architectura, he documented the 7-step application process of Venetian Plaster and explored other traditional decorative practices such as fresco painting, whereby a mural is painted directly onto freshly laid wet lime plaster. Perhaps the most notable examples of frescoes, outside those created by ancient civilisations, are those which were painted on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, and which still remain today.



Carlo Scarpa was another prominent Venetian architect. Scarpa rediscovered the art of Venetian Plaster, learned how to apply it, and also made improvements, experimenting with adding resins and other materials to lime plaster in order to enhance its durability and flexibility. Scarpa was commissioned by Adriano Olivetti in the 1950s to design the Olivetti Showroom. The Olivetti Company was a leading electronics manufacturer, specialising in typewriters, computers and calculators, and at the time, the company was well known for its attention to detail, design and architecture. The Olivetti Showroom is located in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and can still be explored today. 



Contemporary Use of Venetian Plaster



Today, Venetian Plaster is used in a wide range of architectural and design projects. It can be found in luxury homes, upscale hotels, restaurants and even contemporary art installations. Its ability to create unique and luxurious interior spaces makes it a popular choice among designer and homeowners alike. 


Head to our portfolio where you can browse some of our own recent Venetian plastering projects.






Indeed, Venetian Plaster has a long and storied history which spans various centuries and civilisations. Its enduring appeal lies in its timeless beauty, versatility and the sense of craftsmanship it brings to interior spaces. As new materials and techniques continue to emerge, Venetian Plaster remains a dynamic and evolving art from within the realm of architecture, design, art and culture, and continues to be appreciated for its unique qualities. 



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