Al fresco


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Al fresco'?

From the Italian, literally translated as ‘in the fresh’. In English, used to mean either ‘in the open air’ or, where specifically related to mural painting, ‘on fresh plaster’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Al fresco'?

The term is sometimes hyphenated; sometimes written as ‘alfresco’.

I occasionally get irate correspondence along the lines of “You ignorant ***, it means ‘in jail’. Can’t you speak Italian?”. Well, no, I can’t speak Italian – but I can speak English. Whatever the phrase means in Italian it has been adopted into English with the above meanings. Almost always, it is used in relation to dining alfresco, that is, eating outdoors.

Both meanings have been in use in English since at least the late 18th century; for example, in Mrs. Eliza Haywood’s History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy, 1753:

“It was good for her ladyship’s health to be thus alfresco.”

The earliest use of alfresco to describe a type of painting is in Geoffrey Smith’s translation of The laboratory; or, School of arts, 1717::

“Christopher Swartz, died 1594. He got himself re-
nowned by painting al Fresco.”

Frescos are those paintings that are painted on walls and ceilings, in plaster that is not quite dry, so that the paint is absorbed into the surface layer. Probably the most celebrated example is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Trend of al fresco in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.