The alabaster of Volterra

The alabaster of Volterra

The term alabaster dates back to the Egyptians and in particular to the city of Alabastron, once famous for the manufacture of amphorae and jars used for the preservation of perfumes. Alabaster is an elegant and fascinating material, obtained from two types of sedimentary rock: one called alabastrite or oriental alabaster and the other chalky alabaster, softer and in most cases white in color, very similar in appearance to marble. What is processed in Volterra and its surroundings is precisely the chalky alabaster, formed in the Miocene following a process of concentration and sedimentation of the calcium sulphate contained in sea water. As mentioned, this type of alabaster stands out for its softness and its whiteness. The first of the two characteristics in particular, is useful to reproduce some ornamental motifs full of details, including human faces, exactly as it happened in the past. Almost as if it were a divine stone, the Etruscans used it to make sarcophagi, cinerary urns and other decorations related to the world of the afterlife, many of which depict the face of the deceased, rather than scenes of everyday life or episodes borrowed from mythology. Greek. In nature there are various types of alabaster, including the transparent one, the bardiglio (white with dark gray veins), the cinerino (dark gray and also rich in streaks), the agate (of various shades, including honey colors, beige and dark brown).

The alabaster of Volterra and the “Balze”

When the waters of the sea retreated, millions of years ago, they left behind them a very precious asset: salt, which became one of the riches of Volterra. The other gift of the sea to this magnificent land was alabaster, already used by the Etruscans, who made Volterra an artisan center of enormous importance. The land on which Volterra stands is a land rich in contrasts, so clayey and friable as to give rise to evident and deep wounds: these are the so-called Balze, which offer an impressive and wild sight at the same time. The Balze were formed by the erosion caused by the washout of rainwater, which over the centuries has originated landslides and cracks, capable of marking forever the rolling hills of this portion of Tuscany. The view of these landscapes is amazing and moving, so much so as to conquer anyone who visits Volterra for the first time.

The history of Volterra alabaster, famous all over the world

The alabaster of Volterra is rightly considered the most valuable in Europe. Its formation dates back to over six million years ago and can be found throughout the Volterra area in tunnels and open-air quarries. This mineral is easy to find and comes in the form of compact blocks, often ovoid in shape. Each quarry offers a different type of alabaster, originating from the different chemical composition of the soil. To discover these quarries, often brought to light by the erosive phenomenon described above, were the Etruscans, the first to discover the working of alabaster and to forge wonderful works of art.

The oldest finds date back to the eighth century BC. (a famous example is the grave goods of the Tomb of Badia), although only from the third century BC. (probably thanks to the contribution of artisans from Greece) alabaster was exploited for the construction of large funerary monuments, such as boxes and urn lids. For the Etruscans this material was the stone of the dead: as many as 600 urns made in this way are kept at the Guarnacci Museum. At the time, if terracotta was the material intended for the more modest social classes, alabaster was the one requested by the rich, who appreciated its nuances, brightness and richness of details. The decline of alabaster coincided with the arrival of the Middle Ages. The only known artifacts made in alabaster are two 12th-century capitals, coming from the church of San Giusto or from the adjacent monastery. The rediscovery of alabaster as a precious material takes place during the second half of the sixteenth century, when some artists began to use it for the creation of sacred art artefacts: ciboriums, tabernacles, candelabra, holy water fonts and columns, commissioned by the many churches of the territory.

The first modern sculptor who decided to work alabaster was Bartolomeo Rossetti, who in 1549 created a splendid pair of candelabra, which were then donated to a Florentine parish. Starting from the sixteenth century, the creations of the artists from Volterra were appreciated throughout the region and also abroad, stimulating a large-scale trade. The request became urgent and caused the artists to also begin to create lamps, vases and other objects, whose fascinating shades conquered an enormous amount of people. The proliferation of companies and shops gave more and more impetus to the trade of these works of art, which soon became the protagonists of the first international exhibitions. The work of the Volterra artisans achieved great notoriety, so much so that the Tangassi company managed to snatch an important order from the Mexican emperor Maximilian of Habsburg, who decided to furnish his new imperial residence with works and objects of alabaster.