Plasterwork is not a new phenomenon it is actually an ancient means of decorating rooms. History shows that as civilisations developed so too did the use of plastered walls. In some of the oldest civilisations decorated plasterwork was a prominent addition to high status buildings and tombs.
Perhaps the most famous example being the pyramids of Egypt, which contain plasterwork that is at least 4,000 years old and is actually preserved in perfect condition. In some instances it has proved stronger than the stone of the pyramids for where the plaster has been chipped off in antiquity, the stone long ago began to crumble. If the ancient plaster had not been so strong the wall paintings from which we know so much about the ancient Egyptians would have been lost to us.
So important were these ancient Egyptian plasterers that their tools were buried in the tomb with their Pharaoh and there are in the collection of the University College London examples of hand floats which in design and purpose are exactly the same as those in use today. The Egyptians used a plaster made from burnt gypsum for their finest work over a lime base coat, this three coat plasterwork is also exactly the same as is in use today.
The ancient Greeks plastered their temples both internally and externally where they were not covered in marble and in some cases even where they were. The temple of Apollo at Bassae still has the remains of a fine white stucco plaster on its sandstone columns, plaster that is now over 2000 years old.
Pliny writing about the temple at Elis built around 450 B.C. records a fine white plaster that had been mixed with milk and saffron and then polished by hand, he describes how the walls and the temple still retained the odour of saffron.
The famous Greek realist sculptor Lysippus was the first to be recorded as making plaster casts of the faces of his sitters around 300 B.C., this suggests the art of plaster casting had been practiced and perfected by the Greeks for many years before.
Rome learns from the Greeks
When Greece became a Roman province in 145 B.C. along with the thousands of looted statues, plastering came to Rome. Its popularity took off as fashionable Romans plastered their villas then decorated the plasterwork with vivid designs against which they displayed their collections of statues. Much fine Roman plasterwork was preserved in the ceilings of their vaults, where it was rediscovered when digging a new channel for the Tiber. Many fine examples can be seen in the Victoria and Albert museum in London along finely modelled stucco plaster work from the great baths of Pompeii, demonstrating just how skilled the Roman craftsmen were.