For hundreds of years, mining alabaster has been commonplace in Tuscany. The ancient Etruscans used this durable material for their sculptures, showcasing its colours, natural veining and reflecting effect. We know it was used to make vases, urns and other ornamental objects, as well as larger more imposing masterpieces. |
Just before the eighteenth century, the artists in Volterra, an ancient Etruscan city and a wonderful place to visit on a day trip from Florence, began to work alabaster again and the craft underwent a renaissance into the early 1900s. During the Industrial Revolution some of this art was commercialised, but in true Tuscan style, many artisans remained true to their craft and are proud to preserve the ancient handmade techniques of their local tradition.
Working with Alabaster
This rock-like mineral is extremely hard and has tiny perforations in its surface. Sculpting the material is very labour intensive and it can take weeks to produce even a small bust. Most of today’s artisans have another job alongside their craft, mainly because it takes so long to make anything that they wouldn’t be able to make a living.
In Volterra there are several small artisan producers known as ‘alabastraio’ and many have labelled themselves as ‘ornatisti’ (purely making ornamental objects, such as paperweights and dishes). Others craft elegant animals and birds and are known as ‘animalisti’, while the ‘scultori’ focus mainly on human subjects.
When setting to work the craftsman starts with one chunk of material. This may have been roughly cut to the necessary size using a saw or mallet beforehand. In times gone by there was a person known as a ‘squadratore’, who was dedicated to cutting the alabaster as close to size as possible so as not to waste any of the precious material.
To make vases a lathe is used and, as the machine turns, the object is chiselled and shaped using different tools. Once the basic shape has been achieved, the object is further chiselled with hooks made of iron or steel. Other tools such as rasps and mallets may be called upon, and the ‘scuffina’, a tool developed for smoothing the finished object, is almost always required. The final part of alabaster production is the polishing, which is vital if the classic luminescence that the material is known for is to be achieved. In centuries gone by, women called ‘lucidatrici’ were employed to do this job but they have now been replaced by machines.
Where to See and Buy Alabaster
The quaint and characteristic city of Volterra is lined with gorgeous illuminated alabaster workshops and if you visit on a day trip from Florence you’re bound to be tempted to purchase a piece or two. Light is used to display the art and accentuate the luminous polished finish along with the veining detail that provides the final aesthetic. Prices are never extortionate, which is a welcome relief for visitors and quite a surprise when you consider the time and effort involved.
Hopefully this has given you an idea of a somewhat alternative day trip from Florence. Book with a local tour operator and your visit to Volterra will be made even more memorable. Expert guides will be able to tell you more about the production of this ancient craft and give you the lowdown on the best producers to buy from; don’t forget the bubble wrap for the journey home though!
Mauro Bramante is the Director of WalkAbout Florence, an independent business offering unforgettable tours and excursions around Italy including great itineraries for a day trip from Florence. Whether you want to ride a Vintage Vespa, try the famous Chianti wine or get cooking with fresh local ingredients, Mauro's company promises excitement, adventure and above all, fun. If you're keen to experience the magic of Italy with the help of some passionate and knowledgeable tour guides, look no further than WalkAbout Florence for your next getaway.
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