Le Arti Perdute

Italy's World of Plaster on Film
Kelsey Thrush
June 2, 2023
7 min read

The only constant is change, and subsequently, it’s only natural that new traditions are forged and lost arts are formed. Our New Age Artisans team has developed quite the penchant for the inherent qualities of craft and forgotten mediums; and we’ve constantly strived to document the journey throughout our trade tenure.

Over a decade ago, digital cameras and imagery began to dominate the architecture market- promising convenience and ease of use. But what was lost with these new technologies? Warmth, inherent grain, and ultimately authenticity.  It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I too have changed-noting my iconic love of “film,” pushing aside innate quality for streamlined technology, shifting the paradigm of my photos.  

A seaside village

A recent spring trip through Italy, the birthplace of several plaster mediums, I took a step back and relished 'l'arte perduta' of plaster. Captured on film, this photo diary is an ode to all artisans who have come before us, and is a testament that instant-gratification can't replace everything.

Below the historic hotel is captured side by side - one in digital and one in film format. Can you spot the differences?

Notice how differently the sky is captured on the two separate mediums. The digital photo loses detail in the sky, even with less sun and more clouds; whereas the film photo can preserve both the details in the sunny sky and the subject.  The film version also carries a slight grain - an almost imperceptible softness to the image.  Through external software a photographer can manipulate the digital image to mimic film color and grain, but the intrinsic qualities of film cannot be recreated with a simple copy and paste.  

Every plaster artisan has their own style and preference, as does each photographer.   On this voyage, my trowel was a 35mm camera and my preferred plaster was Portra 160 - a film stock applauded for its dynamic range and “true-to-life” colors.  With tools in hand and inspiration around every corner, I eagerly toured Scopello, a quaint town on the western side of Sicily.  Surrounded by turquoise waters and jagged cliffs, the area exploded with life on film.  Even on the brightest of days, Portra 160 effortlessly captured the serene blues and white plaster walls of the historic Tonnara di Scopello.

A seaside village

Traveling north of Sicily to Rome, I discovered that behind the bustling traffic of Italy’s capital lies streets of vine covered plaster and iconic moldings-where the beauty of time honored patina was on full display.

Just as different aggregates can create unique plaster finishes, contrasting film stocks can evoke distinct moods in photographs.  Portra 160 gives the viewer an “in the moment feel,” but the black and white tones of the timeless Ilford film evoke an unmatched and nostalgic tone. As I scroll through my images and begin to curate, I’m confident that the glimmer of canals and Italian Gothic architecture are best viewed through Ilford’s black and white lens.

A month has passed since I returned from Italy.  I’m not sure if it was the evocative streets of Venice or a longing to disappear into my surroundings and rewind time, but my voyage to capture true plaster on film felt like an homage to the artisans behind the adored finishes in Italy-proving that a snappy video and strong wireless signal are simply not enough to create time honored art.