All about the art of alabaster working in Volterra
In the province of Pisa and not far from Siena and Florence, we find Volterra, a jewel that owes its architectural splendor to its Etruscan origins (“Velathri” was in fact called) and to archaeological finds. A very popular destination in the Tuscany region, it is confirmed as a favorite destination especially for walks within its walls, where it is possible to admire the ancient artisan shops where alabaster objects are still worked, a material that makes Volterra famous internationally.
Alabaster: its magical connotation
What most characteristic of alabaster objects is their unreproducibility: born from the fusion of forms of art and crafts, in fact, they carry with them the soul of the hand that left their work there as a memory and as an expression of the culture of Volterra. Its mutability, continuous and underlying the various points of view, is the true magical component of this material, which challenges itself with its own reflection, crossed by the light but which at the same time embraces it.
Alabaster is found in nature in blocks called “arnioni”, included in layers of gypsum at a depth of around a few hundred meters. The material is always different for the distribution and tonality of the veins, but also for the transparency, which can be higher or lower. In general, it has a hardness of 2.5 according to the Mohs scale and for this it is necessary to be careful during extraction, which must always be manual and circumscribe the block.
Alabaster is found in two types, which correspond to two mineralogical classes: chalky Alabaster (or from Volterra), and calcareous (or Eastern) Alabaster.
The processing: a long work of improvement
Precious material already for its geological components, it is even more so thanks to the intervention of craftsmanship, typically and traditionally from Volterra, which manages to enhance its exceptional qualities of compactness, transparency, grain and velvety. To do this, the process is divided into five phases: squaring, turning, embellishing, sculpting and finishing. Each of them varies according to the final object that is requested by the artisan shop.
With this technique we mean the “squaring”, ie reducing the material to parallelepiped pieces or generally orthogonal shapes. For this purpose, saws are used that operate horizontally and the slabs are therefore cut with the desired dimensions, hypothetically already of the dimensions of the objects to be created. The checks to obtain perfect squaring down to the millimeter and the trimmings themselves are then made with abrasive disc saws. The minor branch of alabaster also appears directly within the squaring phase, that is, the one that concerns the mosaic, with different types of natural-colored alabaster.
As the name itself implies, this phase involves the use of the lathe, and therefore the preparation of the blocks, first squared into parallelepiped shapes, in cylinders to be worked: these will be attached with a mastic, used only for the halberd and created in the workshop. itself, to the axis of the lathe. The processing begins when the material is excavated with special “grapples” in order to obtain a first draft of the desired shape. The sandpaper smooths the final product, which is removed from the lathe very gently, as thin or fragile parts could break during the maneuver.
When it comes to “ornate”, it refers to the bas-relief or high-relief engraving of the halberd. First you decide on the design you want to make, then you transport it to the stone, selecting the salient points of reference. “Scuffine” and “Ferri”, together with dozens of other special tools, will be able to make grooves and engravings that are completely characteristic in the shape obtained from the first turning.
Sculptors are those who are most inspired by the human and animal world and their reproduction: faces, rampant horses, commissioned busts and more. They have to be very careful to carefully reproduce the minute details in question, making a deal with the characteristics of the alabaster block. Three-dimensional models in plaster or stone, as for the sculptors of any other material, are essential here.
This step is essential because it brings out the transparencies and veins of the alabaster, also making it velvety to the touch. The finish, originally done with dried shark skin, was abrasive to the point of removing the last few imperfections. Finally, after washing the piece, it was polished and smeared with some greasy substance and white wax. Finally, wrapped in cotton cloths, the alabaster was finished when passed under a very delicate rotating brush.
This last step simply involves exploiting the porosity of alabaster using pigments for the most varied color ranges.
Alabaster: a rich and multifaceted history
Used by the Etruscans to produce urns, alabaster saw its production as early as the eighth century. Using a technique perfected over time, the Etruscans were able to create figures full of movement, as well as to industrialize the entire production and provide light mineral colors. The ancient Etruscan excavations remain significantly in the quarries of Ulignano and Gesseri.
The production of alabaster does not disappear, of course, with the Etruscan and Etruscan-Roman decadence, but it flourishes again during the Middle Ages and, above all, in the mid-16th century, where important religious works shine under the patronage of the Church and bring back the its full artistic feature. This transformed into a form of easy-to-execute commercial exploitation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Instead, in the nineteenth century, the first workshops qualified as real factories, with masters of ornamentation and decoration called to work in Volterra and coming from all over Italy.
The reproduction of Greek and Etruscan vases, the silhouettes of bronzes, friezes and candlesticks acquires a new rhythm, enriching itself with semi-precious stones and also embracing mosaics, knick-knacks and high-relief decorations. From this moment on, in the twentieth century, alabaster is configured as a material of excellence for mannered and rhetorical expressionism, with busts, female faces and shepherdesses. Finally, Umberto Borgna is noteworthy for being the first true designer of alabaster, moving towards a slavish study of its veins, shades and combinations, opening his arms to the modern taste of vases, clocks and lamps.