The magical local stone, a part of our history
Today as yesterday the process of working alabaster has not changed. The blocks squared with the use of a saw, refined with tools similar to those still used in a modern workshop.
Thus a tradition initiated two thousand years ago continues.
The Etruscan Period
The discovery of alabaster, (in which the environs of Volterra were rich) was made by the Etruscans who settled here. Already at the end of the 8th century BC – as the Tomb of Badia made up of sheets of chalky marl from the alabaster quarries bears witness – the Etruscans knew about this stone, but it was only in the 3rd century BC and perhaps thanks to Greek craftsmen that this stone was used to create funerary monuments. In actual fact, for three centuries (from the 3rd to the 1st century BC) alabaster was used for sculpting caskets and covers of urns containing the ashes of the dead, but was not used for other items or as a building material. Exceptions are a bowl and a little statue of a woman and child, however linked to the funerary world.
Thus alabaster was, for the Etruscans, the stone of the dead. This is confirmed by the numerous urns (600 of which are kept in the Guarnacci Museum) coming from Volterra and its territory.
Except for a small production in terracotta (very few) the production of urns in Volterra is almost exclusively made from limestone and alabaster. This latter – more precious – material was used starting from the end of the 3rd century BC and was destined to the production of urns of higher quality and dimension (60/100 cm long) carefully sculpted, painted and sometimes gold-plated. It is obvious that these were destined to wealthy clients.
Where alabaster came from
The raw material used came almost exclusively from the local area, although the mines of Castellina Marittima have traces of ancient quarrying that local tradition dates to the Etruscan period. Taking into account the distance and the difficulty of transportation it is unlikely that in the past there was trade between Volterra and Castellina Marittima.
The alabaster urns
The urns were produced in workshops similar to the contemporary ones in Volterra where a master with his apprentices used to work. In the period of maximum production of urns (2nd century BC) there were not more than three workshops that produced yearly five or six urns each. The existence of apprenticeships – the master’s children would work with him – explains the persistence of technologies, iconography, models, designs that created the tradition of the workshop itself. Although evidence is not clear, it was likely that in Volterra craftsmen of Greek origin worked, which might explain the high quality of the urn production. The lack of the artist’s signature does not permit us to give them a role in the social organization. It is likely that in a society such as the one in Volterra strictly linked to the aristocracy, sculptors were not highly considered although not on the same level as the slaves. The production stopped after a period of slow decline in the Roman period, during which the marble from the Apuanian mountains was preferred.
From the Middle Ages to the 1500s
The alabaster decline
In the Middle Ages the use of alabaster almost ceased completely. The only alabaster objects known today are two capitals (12th century) coming from the church of San Giusto or from the nearby monastery.
The rebirth of alabaster
The true alabaster renaissance came about in the middle of the 1500s when several artists from Volterra used it to create sacred artworks: tabernacles, ciboria, stoups, candleholders and columns that were created for various churches in the town.
The first sculptor to work with alabaster was Bartolomeo Rossetti, who in 1549 created a couple of alabaster candleholders that were donated by an inhabitant of Volterra to a church in Florence.
Leonardo Franceschini in 1567 sculpted an alabaster tabernacle for the church of San Pietro. In 1575 two big alabaster candleholders by Camillo Spenditori were placed next to the tabernacle. In 1574 the most famous monument was created: the ciborium of the church of San Andrea, today in the Sacred Art Museum in Volterra.
The evolution of alabaster art
Soon the works from artists of Volterra were appreciated beyond the town itself and commissions arrived from all over Tuscany and abroad, creating a trade in works of art whose entity we are still unable to gauge. Continuing into the 1600s the production is characterized by the creation of artworks for religious purposes, in keeping with the previous century. Only from the middle of the century, did the production of alabaster works of art begin to be a commercial activity. Production was both of high-quality objects as well as lower quality ones, the later destined to private customers who requested other items such as classical art copies, busts or vases. In this century the first use of alabaster to make lamps is recorded. At that time small alabaster vases were bought and placed in the bedroom with a candle inside. The transparency of the alabaster gave a soft night light.
In the second half of the 1700s, tobacco cases in alabaster were particularly appreciated. Yet the most income came from the production of the so called anime (souls). These were alabaster beads, that were sent to companies in Rome specialized in recycling them so as to look like pearls, on which they were used to create rosary beads or beads for dresses and decorations.
The number of workshops multiplies
With the closure of the important Inghirami factory, many workers, thanks to the artistic experience gained in the internal school, opened their own workshops, bringing with them their professional experience, both artistic and commercial. The 1800s saw an increase in number of the workshops in Volterra. At the end of the Napoleonic Empire, in 1815 the recommencing of trade gave new support to alabaster art and crafts, that slowly developed up until the middle of the century and literally took off between 1850 and 1870, the best years of the century as regards the alabaster trade in Volterra. Thanks also to promotion abroad by the merchants from Volterra, the so called ‘travelling salesmen’, the commissions increased year after year and, consequently, the number of workshops grew and to a certain point they tended to specialize in particular products to meet customer’s demand.
The workshops in Volterra focused on the right typologies of alabaster to be used in the production of the various objects. The artistic trends of the time were carefully observed, particularly Neoclassical elements and decoration. Copies of ancient works of art were an important part of production, in keeping with the production line of the Inghirami factory.
An important influence came from the introduction of oriental decorative elements inspired by what the travelling salesmen saw on their journeys to the Far East. The result of the neoclassical and oriental inspirations was a new eclectic style that was typical of many works of art and crafts in Volterra in the 1800s.
The first international exhibitions
An important support for the production also derived from the fact that craftsmen from Volterra took part in the national and international exhibitions, where their works were very well received both from the commercial point of view and for the promotion of this type of art and crafts.
The most important order received by the alabaster craftsmen was the commission to the Tangassi company from the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian of Hapsburg. The new imperial residence was to be re-furnished with alabaster furnishings.
Being unable to produce this much the Tangassi company asked for help from all the other companies in Volterra. The deposition of the emperor prevented the shipping of two big candleholders that today are displayed in Palazzo Viti. These two items are an example of the technical and stylistic skills reached by the alabaster sector in Volterra. Exceptional are the dimensions, four metres high and with a diameter of 1.5 metres, the different kinds of alabaster used cover almost the entire range of stone used at the time, the rich and delicate decoration.
Companies and Trade
The Inghirami Factory
The foundation of the Inghirami Factory in 1791 is a turning point in the evolution of the alabaster art and crafts. Marcello Inghirami Fei was convinced that to manufacture from the stone of Volterra it was necessary to have a large-scale enterprise, with an international character, based on a detailed study of the models, and supported by a solid commercial organization.
The factory was created in the rooms of the former monastery of San Dalmazio and employed about one hundred workers. Inghirami wanted to improve the production and give it an artistic verve, for this reason he established a school of design and sculpture for his workers. He summoned skilled teachers of design and sculpture, both Italian and foreign: the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, the Flemish Nazzard, the Roman Cari, Castellari from Turin and above all Bartolomeo Corneille, who participated in the vicissitudes of the factory until the time of its closure. A trademark recreating and interlacing the initials of Fabbrica Marcello Inghirami Fei Volterra had to mark each product. An original advertising poster in French offers a precious testimony to how the sale of goods was organized and the commercial policy of the factory.
This advertising poster tells us that the production was destined to connoisseurs of art, especially those who were keen on ancient art. The product list was essentially made up of copies of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Amongst the models were famous statutes such as Ercole Farnese, Apollo Belvedere, Leda with the Swan, and etc…
Besides these sculptures, the factory produced classical-style compositions, used as watch cases, vases of various kinds and of different sizes, destined to the decoration of halls and rooms furnished in the neo-classical style, copies of monuments such as triumphal arches or obelisks. The production of good-quality items, but cheap to copy, thanks to the ductility of alabaster, allowed Inghirami to be successful on international markets, thanks also to the reputation that Volterra had as an Etruscan town subsequent to the archeological excavations that were carried out in that period.
With the French occupation of Tuscany in 1796, the traffic from the port of Leghorn decreased this was the main starting point for the exportation of the alabaster products. The market crisis was detrimental to the factory that closed a few years afterwards in 1799.
The Viti Factory
Amongst the most important factories in the Volterra area, it played an important role at the time of Amerigo Viti, brother of the well-known traveller, Giuseppe Viti.
One of the main merits of this young entrepreneur from Volterra was to have searched for new methods for processing alabaster and the use of this stone in Volterra; in particular this research led to the creation of the commesso volterrano. With a process partly unknown to us, Amerigo Viti made alabaster stronger and coloured it, making it similar to other precious stones. In this way he created tables and other objects similar to the Florentine mosaics. This way of processing turned the alabaster from a ductile stone into a strong stone, by cooking the raw material and following on by immersion in water. Only afterwards was it coloured, before the block was cut into very thin sheets. In this way, tables are created representing flowers and birds, richly accompanied by geometrical and arabesque motifs, with a simpler decorative typology than the stone tables of Florence. On this same subject matter, beginning in 1852, there are records on the collaboration with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, bearing witness to the notoriety achieved by the technique outside the Volterra area. The decoration for first class industrial merit by Grand Duke Leopold II came in 1858. The commesso volterrano process made the Viti family well-known in most of Europe. Appreciated even by Napoleon III, they received a gold medal for their mosaics, given to them by the Society for Industrial Sciences, Arts and Humanities in Paris. Starting from the middle of the 1860s, the Viti factory tried to use other materials to create furnishing for the house and garden. In particular, they carried out some tests on sandstone, known as zambra stone, from where it was quarried. The use of sandstone, at first considered very resistant and cheaper than terracotta, created such an interest that the Real Academia d’Arti and Manifatture of Florence summoned some scientists, under the management of Count Demetrio Finocchietti, to prepare a detailed report on this stone. Despite the promising potential, the results were negative; the committee discovered that sandstone was perishable when in contact with the external elements.
Today one can still, visiting the rooms of Palazzo Viti, admire some examples of these extraordinary works of art in alabaster. Inside the museum frames, candleholders and console tables of a Renaissance and Mannerist style are on show together with splendid vases characterized by a Classical-style decoration.
Property of the Viti family is a sketch-book (280x360mm.) that collects 50 drawings made by an unknown painter with pen and watercolours. In this sketch-book are vases, bowls, and amphorae that are a sample of the artistic taste of the middle of the 1800s.
We can also admire the skirting designs, acanthus and laurel leaves, stylized grape and vine leaves match with rich decorations in oriental style, such as stylized dragons and lotus flowers. These are the decorations of the edge and the body of these classical-style works, sometimes bizarre and unlikely to be considered.
With the establishment by Cav. Marcello Inghirami Fei, from 1791, of a drawing and sculpting school in the former San Dalmazio monastery, the alabaster manufacture of Volterra underwent an important metamorphosis both artistically and organizationally. The arrival in town of important international masters, gave the students a unique opportunity to further their cultural and artistic knowledge. Factories specializing in export were established to ship Volterra’s stone beyond the Italian borders. Together with this important production, there are other parallel commercial activities, such as the so called travelling salesmen, who were traders who promoted the most important factories in Volterra abroad. Their duty was to control and sell the products once they reached their destination. Especially after the Restoration in 1815, with the return of the Lorraine dynasty, several independent factories were founded which were instrumental in an important increase in production and trade even outside Europe. From every corner of the world commissions for alabaster and marble furniture pieces arrived. The shipping usually went via Livorno, to go to London and then towards the richest and most important cities of the New World. The extensive network of trade stretched out to not only North America (New York, Boston and Washington) but also to South America (Ecuador, Perù, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro). Two were the routes to reach the Far East: the first by railway went to Alessandria-Suez where the goods were loaded on a cargo to go to India; the second went via London where the goods were loaded on sailing ships which passed by the Cape of Good Hope to reach their destination. The route via Egypt was the better known and more usual. Often the goods took months even to reach the nearest cities in Europe. This was not so much a problem of transport, even though often having to accept what was available, as of luck, and there must have also been communication difficulties between those who shipped the goods and those who delivered them. Once at destination, a deposit was rented and used as a main storage. From there the products was sent to the nearby towns and cities to be sold. Especially in India, selling was done on feast days, or ceremonies related to some important figure like Rajahs or ministers. The travelling salesman was always looking for some event, where he could display alabaster products. As regards the production of alabaster works, the manufacture in Volterra focused on the artistic trends that were in fashion in the Europe of the 19th century. In particular, the artists were influenced by the Neoclassical style for the creation of decorations; a collection that was already used by the Ingirami Factory, where there were lots of Etruscan-style vases decorated with festoons and friezes together with statues, jugs and Ariadne’s Cups. Swans, lion paws, winged dragons, garlands, decorated vases and amphorae with a long and thin neck and characterized by winding and elaborated handles, like stylized plant motifs. Even a remarkable number of copies of ancient statues or copies of famous artists’ works, like Antonio Canova were created and exported. The Three Graces, the Apollo Belvedere, Venus and the figure of the Knife Sharpener were particularly requested. The loss of most of the records from the most important alabaster families in Volterra makes it almost impossible to know the real organizational structure of the factories, both from the production and sales point of view or the actual trading routes of the travelling salesmen from Volterra.
Between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the following centuries, the alabaster sector had a series of difficult moments, good and bad times caused by international events, such as the world economic crisis of 1929 that provoked a downturn in exportation.
Protagonist of the beginning of the 1900s was Giuseppe Bessi, called Maestro by his contemporaries. He worked alabaster in a very refined manner creating high-quality busts and sculptures, still today appreciated for their elegant style and the great sensitivity with which he produced portraits of children, young women and women decorated with flowers and laces.
In those years the production was divided between high-quality works, such as the sculptures of Bessi, the decorations of Fabio Topi and the works of well-known craftsmen, and low-quality objects such as the copies of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Dome of Santa Maria Novella designed to become inkpots and knick-knacks.
The alabaster craftsmen were aware of the low quality of these products that they defined as “commercial goods”, compared to the high-quality works and they tried to improve the quality of the production. 1905 is a turning point due to the foundation of the Artieri Alabastro Cooperative, that aimed at uniting all the craftsmen and creating a productive and trade network to sell high-quality works.
The Collections and the Birth of Design
Funaioli Collection at the Istituto Statale d’Arte
The Istituto Statale d’Arte (high school) houses a very interesting collection of works of art by Luigi Albino Funaioli (Volterra 1830- Firenze 1906) made up of 70 pencil drawings and 51 bas-reliefs in white alabaster from Castellina and chalk, of which the most important are displayed.
Atypical and strongly innovative sculptor of alabaster, Funaioli created what have been defined as ‘micro-sculptures’, small or minute bas-reliefs such as the famous Donna Velata (Veiled Woman) of about 2 cm, mostly portraits in which the author expresses the best in his technical ability.
Funaioli’s oval bas-reliefs bring back the lively image of an aristocratic world that is admired and represented in all its splendour. Stylistically, these works were influenced by Ingres (who worked in Florence – where also Funaioli worked later on – between 1820 and 1824) with his reference to the formal purity of the Renaissance. The subjects are almost exclusively Florentine noblemen and women or from the Victorian beau-monde (Funaioli also lived and worked in London between 1857 and 1860) that are alternated with famous figures from literature and history of the second half of the 1800s (well-known is the portrait of Garibaldi). On a formal level, they represent the living and penetrating testimony of all the possibilities existing in working a stone like alabaster.
Albino Funaioli was, essentially, a great and very original master of that ancient art defined as glittica (or the art of carving) and several works might be defined cameos. Sculpting alabaster to make cameos or bas-reliefs with a smooth and designed surface is a technique of high quality and it needs particular tools that had surely been specially made for that purpose.
The process includes a rough hewing, or a draft of the layout, followed by finishing and polishing. Probably the artist used the lathe operator. The beautiful existing draft designs confirm that he used to sketch his ideas before sculpting.
The works of this artist from Volterra who mainly worked in Florence and in London, although he remained linked to his birth place, were made for educated and aristocratic clients. He depicted the ruling classes for whom he worked in a celebrative way, and his works are clear expressions of a prestigious craftsmanship that was appreciated and praised.
The vicissitudes of alabaster in Volterra, that characterize the beginning of the 1900s saw the creation of projects aiming at improving the quality of the products. At the beginning of the past century, the craftsmen again took part in the main International Expositions being awarded for the quality and the artistic features of the items shown.
In 1906, in Volterra the first Industrial Fair of Alabaster took place, where the factories presented their best products. The strategy of the professionals did not tend towards an industrialization, furthermore the first attempts to create commercial product lines and carefully designed models was viewed with perplexity. Luigi Mengoli, director of the Scuola d’Arte Applicata between 1910 and 1924 was the first to test new models to be offered on the market and to teach his students marketing.
Only in 1933, with the election of Umberto Borgna as technical and artistic director of the Artieri Alabaster Cooperative did the production start to change. Borgna, who can be defined the first alabaster designer, was a prolific designer, and innovator of alabaster language, organizer of exhibitions and advertiser.
Up until 1940 a new style developed, that was based on models created by studying new artistic currents and contemporary taste. Thousands of drawings circulated throughout the local workshops and the factories, these were vases, ash-trays, frames, lamps, and boxes of different kinds were created and destined to furnish the homes of the Italian and European middle-class, that in those years had enough wealth to invest in fashionable furniture.
In the post-war period the expected growth delayed, and rather than on new models, they preferred to invest in a better trade network with new shops scattered over the territory, and in the combination of alabaster with other raw materials like wood and metal.
For decades the alabaster production had an extraordinary development linked to the production of serial items, with a preference for industrial production as against traditional craftsmanship. The quality production still manufactured the traditional styles such as the classical ones inspired by the 1800s’ works and those linked to Borgna’s designs.
The necessity for a new design that could update production came to the surface at the beginning of the 1970s, at the time of a new economic crisis and the new artistic influences, such as those of Mino Trafeli, who worked alabaster.
In 1974 the Consortium of Alabaster Producers was founded and aimed at promoting the study and the research of new models, artistically valid, on which to base the production of members. A priority was the creation of a guarantee trademark that would be used staring from the 1980s, contemporary to the establishment of the “Alabaster Project”.
The Consortium involved in its initiatives designers such as Angelo Mangiartti, who studied a selection of alabaster items made in collaboration with local craftsmen. The two collections, Axia and Velathri, were an attempt at developing new models, created with a careful analysis of the raw material and a long process of professional preparation.
Over the years despite the productive crisis, famous designers like Ugo La Pietra, Carla Venosta, Elio di Franco, Prospero Rasulo studied new collections, being inspired by the special characteristics of the stone form Volterra.