The beautiful ochre and stone houses that dot the Italian countryside sit by themselves on acres of green fertile fields and cypress trees. The same building techniques are used for houses in the towns and villages. Thick stone walls hold up wood beamed roofs and ceilings. Stucco is the favorite material for the exterior finish. And ceramic tile graces the roofs.
First question: Do you know why the roofs are multicolored and rarely even hued unless brand new? Why are the tiles curved so deeply? How were they made?
Second question: How is it that the stucco seems to last forever and retains the color so well? Are there any other salient attributes of the stucco mix?
Ceramic roofs originally were gathered from clay deposits at the closest river. Before machines the roofer (typically the homeowner) would scoop out the clay and pat it on his/her thigh with about an inch of thickness. They would collect a batch and then bake them in ovens. When dry they would mortar them together in a cap and pan fashion. The bottom row would lay curves up and the next row curves down over the intersection. A very neat system that often needed no mortar at all. The tile gets its shape by being narrower at one end due to the fact it was formed closer to the knee!
When the next time for roof repair came up they would go through this process again but the clay in the river would have seasonal changed ore deposits from up-river and the color would be slightly different!
Now machines make these clay tiles in the same shape and out of concrete in a slightly different cross-section for modern house construction. And you can get mixes in different colors on the first roof.
Stucco, as we apply it today, is not the same mix as that developed from ancient Italy. The stucco of old, and much to current time there, has a secret ingredient - lime. Our modern exterior stucco does not have lime. The benefits of lime stucco: less brittle and not prone to cracking, it is vapor permeable -- allowing excess humidity to travel through walls, it leaves no carbon footprint, it contains no Volatile Organic Compounds, the finish is brighter due to the crystal compounds, the lime repels insects, there is almost zero mold, and integral color lasts longer! Amazing, huh? Unfortunately, lime plaster takes longer to put up, cure, and time to mix and apply the integral coloration.
Stucco in Provence and Tuscany was not automatically added over the stone exteriors in every case because it was an extra expense. Some came to realize it inhibited the cold from penetrating through cracks in the stone construction and you will see more often stucco in the northern parts of Italy rather than the south.
The great house built by Palladio in Vicenza, Villa Rotonda (above), was built of brick and faced with stucco. It has stood for a few hundred years intact and did undergo a renovation with a new coat of stucco. When in Italy looking at other of Palladio's designs in the Veneto I noticed that in one or two cases the immense columns on the porches were losing some of the exterior plaster and brick was peeking through. Owners of these houses could have asked for all stone columns but the cost was obviously prohibitive. They built everything with brick using the concrete method described below. ALSO: If you visit a Baroque or quite decorative Church in any part of Europe and do not see separations of drum to drum in the shaft (indicating a pieced together stone column) and that the columns look like they are nonetheless made of marble, they are NOT and are merely plaster on brick with a 'photo-realistic' painting technique called 'scagliola' which mimicked the veining in plaster! (see right photo)
Local Observation: (see below) this house was built about 4 years ago in a nearby subdivision. The first floor is concrete block, the second is wood frame. Both have the exact same modern stucco mix. Notice how on the north side the concrete block wall on the first floor is free of mold while the wood framed walls above have a terrible case of it. Why? I really don't know! But exterior stucco adheres best to another porous masonry material like brick, stone or block as the molecular connection is best.
Did you know where concrete was 'invented'? Why, in Italy of course. The volcanic residue: ashes and excretions were observed to harden when water was added and it was a simple step to use it to connect ceramic brick upon brick to build walls. If you go to Rome and see the thick walls built in the days of Empire you might notice that bricks were on the inside and outside while some kind of infill was used. This fill is comprised of stones, pottery shards, sand, and concrete. The method was to run the exterior and interior walls several feet at a time and then pour the infill concrete mix while everything was still 'wet' in order to get the strongest wall construction.
(Aside of the day: A book was written a few years back claiming that the Egyptian priests had invented concrete when the stone blocks being floated downriver on reed boats seemed unwieldy and also due to the immense manpower needed to move them in position. The author thinks the priests came up with a system to 'form and pour' thus reducing the huge labor and time required to erect the pyramids. They simply had wood forms that they moved around row after row and poured concrete until they reached the top. It is said that you cannot put in a straight razor in the cracks between the 'stones'. hmmm)
And finally, below, not an Egyptian pyramid, but a period style Italian baroque stucco house designed by John Henry Architect for the Payne Stewart family. The stonework is hand carved from volcanic stone in Mexico; the ceramic tile roof was imported from Argentina: