Customs: sgraffito

A tradition for all eternity

A tradition for all eternity - Customs: sgraffito

They are an attraction in themselves: in comparison to the frescos on the traditional Engadin houses, even the fascinating landscape of the valley sometimes has to take a back seat. This form of painting, if that is the right term, came from Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and is called 'sgraffito'.

The sun is shining. And is playing with the sgraffiti on the house walls in the small town of Susch in Lower Engadin. The shadows highlight different facets of the sgraffiti depending on the position of the sun which means that looking at the frescos is never boring. Rosettes, a life-size chamois, abstract graphics – many of the sgraffiti in Susch were created by Josin Neuhäusler’s father; the son often lent a helping hand and learned a lot in the process. The painter is keen to point out that there are much better sgraffito artists than him in Engadin. But he is the one who regularly shows guests and locals, just what this traditional Engadin art form is all about.

You just go round the house, down a little hill and you are standing in the workshop in which Neuhäusler gives around 800 guests a year sgraffito courses. Outside, the autumn sun is warm, but down here it is cool. And it has to be because otherwise the sand/lime mix in which the drawings are scratched would dry too fast. Josin Neuhäusler has prepared boards measuring around 30 by 30 centimetres on which his guests can immortalise themselves. The painter hands around a folder with a few examples of traditional motifs with the relevant explanations. How about creating a dragon, for example, that protects sources and lakes?

«Half of our work is determined by the sun.»
Josin Neuhäusler

As soft as custard
Naturally the real sgraffiti are not completed here in Neuhäusler’s atelier. But outside, on a real building. The most important ingredient? Lime. Limekilns used to be used to fire lime from raw materials found in old rubblework walls. If you put the fire out with water, you ended up with a substance "as soft as custard" says the painter and plasterer. This creamy mixture was stored in barrels – the longer the better. When required, the barrel that had been standing longest was opened and the cream was once again mixed with sand and lime before being plastered on house walls. "Five to seven layers of this mixture are put on the stones," explains Neuhäusler. It is important to keep wetting the base with water so that the outermost layer has a chance of forming a bond with the stone walls of the house. The right amount of sand is also crucial: "The bottom layer has to be grey so that you can see the effects of the sgraffiti really well."

And then you have to play a waiting game. The entire façade has to dry for at least six weeks before the sgraffito artists come. They talk about what motifs the residents would like months beforehand and draw their designs on paper. And the work starts between May and August – otherwise it is too cold to stand working on scaffolding. "Ideally, you want a damp rainy day," says Josin Neuhäusler, "so you have a good seven hours to work on one side of a building – after all, it has to have a continuous structure." A fine net spread over the scaffolding helps: "It makes sure we have shade and protects us from the wind. And at the same time, the dampness comes through the net."

«Sgraffiti also look good on modern façades.»
Josin Neuhäusler

As soon as the painters have spread a white layer of lime over the priming coat, it is time for the sgraffito artists to take over. Each one of them is responsible for a particular working step – after all, each one of them has their own particular style. The first step is to scratch out the motifs, the second step is to remove the layer of lime, each step being carried out by an individual artist. The third step involves scratching out the finer details. Usually it is only the experts that take on this particular task: "That is the most difficult thing about our profession. You are on scaffolding and have to assess from close up what effect the motif will have from a distance of 15 metres – and know exactly what scratching you did one floor up." The final spurt should not be underestimated: once the plaster is hard, no more scratching can take place because the plaster could crack due to the vibrations. And nature also has a say in the final outcome: "We are responsible for around half the result; the other half of our work is determined by the sun," says Josin Neuhäusler. This is why the artists have to pay particular attention to the position of the sun – different effects occur depending on the angle at which the sun shines on the sgraffito.

A unique piece lasting 300 years
But Neuhäusler really appreciates this difficult aspect of his work: "After three months, you can come back to a house and look at the beautiful effects all day long." He is also fully aware of the fact that he always leaves behind a unique piece that will last anywhere from 200 to 300 years.
You can see a lot of sgraffiti in Engadin today because they last so long. The tradition lives on, even if it is not to be seen on every new building now. "Thirty years ago, you simply had to have a sgraffito on every house, but that is no longer the case," says Josin Neuhäusler. "People are building different kinds of houses now – prefabricated houses, for example, made of wood. Although sgraffiti also look good on modern façades." Josin Neuhäusler puts the screws and pair of compasses that he used to demonstrate the principles of sgraffito drawing on a small board to one side. From his atelier, it is only a stone’s throw to the centre of the village. He proudly poses in front of the chamois he and his father conjured up on the side of a house. The sun is shining and casts a shadow on the works of art in the village. And Josin Neuhäusler is right. The sun moves and the effects of the sgraffiti change. You really could just stand there all day and watch.

Active relaxation in Lower Engadin
This is the motto of Zernez, Scuol and Co. Whether you go hiking in the National Park, bathing in the thermal baths or trace the steps of Schellen-Ursli – Lower Engadin is well worth a visit.