Rare workshops but high quality
Even today you can still find some characteristics of the old workshops: normally only a single room, where a craftsman and an apprentice would work, and when they found themselves in difficulty three or four craftsmen shared the same workshop in order to save money.
The work bench was by the window so as to have as much light as possible, the rest of the room was filled with various items and tools.
It was in these workshops that the most characteristic social group of Volterra was born, the alabastrai (alabaster workers) with a particular lifestyle and slang.
The alabaster art and craft is still today a relevant cultural and economic reality in Volterra, notwithstanding today’s difficult times.
From the beginning of the 1980s, the alabaster professionals clearly realized that the alabaster of Volterra and its products were unique the world over and that they had to be protected and promoted and this same idea created the Ecomuseo dell’Alabastro (Museum of Alabaster) that gathers and displays the history, culture and folklore of this traditional art and craft over time.
The alabaster craftsman
Way of living and slang of an alabastraio
Anarchic and anti-fascist, free thinker and comedian, intolerant to social constraints and institutions and often too lazy to provide enough for their families. This is the portrait of the alabastraio of the beginning of the last century, when being a craftsman meant being included in a particular world with its own lifestyle and slang.
In the microcosm of a workshop, the apprentice learnt not only the job but also to refuse any imposition, to love opera and politics, and to get drunk at the weekend, forgetting wives and families at home.
Lathe operator and shaping
When the alabaster workshop needs a lathe, the lathe operator arrives. The work begins by sawing the block; then after having drawn the layout of the object to be created, it is the moment to rough-hew the alabaster block with chisel and mallet. Then, the rough object is fixed to the lathe, and while turning, is emptied and shaped with the use of chiselling hooks (leaf-like, straight and bean-like). The objects that are created using a lathe, like vases, amphorae and cups, are usually designed in collaboration with the craftsman who will draw and create the decorations.
subbia: steel chisel with a sharp tip.
rampini: iron chiselling hooks becoming thinner toward the tips; different sizes depending on the depth to be reached. Depending on the type of object it can be cut on the left or on the right. The hook with a leaf shape can cut on either sides.
tornio a pertica: the modern electrical lathe has substituted one of the most characteristics tools of the alabaster lathe operator, the pedal operated lathe, made of wood. The rod was attached on the wall over the head of the operator and linked to a pedal and to the wood turner by a rope that rolled around it. Pressing the pedal the wood turner started to work and the craftsman worked the alabaster standing up and using different kinds of chiselling hooks with the handle on his shoulder.
The squadratore was a person who valued alabaster and made a sparing cut in order not to waste precious material when creating an alabaster work of art. The task of the squadratore was to give an initial shape to the raw material, using different cutting tools: a hand saw, a circular saw and a band saw. The size of the item to be created is transposed onto the block by means of a seste.
trincione: hand-saw. It is usually used by two craftsmen at opposite ends.
seste: wooden or steel compasses used to measure shape and thickness. There are compasses of different shapes and sizes.
tenta: steel tool that measures the depth of the objects. It has two arms joined together by a central joint. The arms can be both straight or semicircular.
Sculpture and animal replicas
Manual expertise is particularly evident in the work of the sculptor and for the animal replicas, especially the alabaster artisans. When the item to be created has to reproduce an existing object, such as in the copy of classic works of art, the measurements for the alabaster copy are transposed using a pantograph. Then the rough-hewing process takes place and, on removal of the largest pieces of stone, the work is afterwards refined using tools that allow the artist to create the details.
If the artwork is not a copy, the process is the same as above, except for the use of the pantograph, and, after measurements are made it is attached to a trestle. Since the 1960s, the craftsmen have used a special tool made up of a flexible arm on top of which is a mechanical milling machine. The cutters have different sizes and permit the creation a refined product with less difficulty.
pantografo: pantograph, the craftsman uses this tool to reproduce on the stone the most important measurements of the clay or wax model. The industrial pantograph has four electrical cutters and rough-hews the block according to the shape that must be reproduced.
mazzuolo: mallet of about 1 kilo. There also exists a steel mallet without handle but with an elongated shape. Both are used to strike the chisel.
ferri a forza e a mano: 15-cm-long tools used to finish the sculpture. They have a wooden handle and they are not mechanized. Each of them has a different name according to their shape.
The decorator works on a semi-finished object, coming from the lathe operator. Their task is to do the fretwork, engravings and decoration included in the design. In the first phase the decorator draws the decoration on the alabaster. To do this, the decorator uses different tools. For the engravings the decorator uses a drill and a rasp, then the scuffina that is one of the most typical tools of the alabaster worker. To finish he uses small rasps and iron tools.
raspa: the rasp is a typical tool for shaping wood with a wooden handle and a rather big blade. It is used to shape the object and make it smooth.
scuffina: traditional tool to work alabaster. It is used to shape the product and to make it smooth. There are different kinds of scuffine with odd names like rats’ tail or kneeling scuffina.
The final process is the polishing, that is fundamental to give the object the transparency and the particular characteristics of alabaster. Today the polishing is done by machine, but in the past it was a long and delicate phase that was usually carried out by women, who were called lucidatrici (polishers).
The first phase was called dispesciatura: the object was brushed with dried shark skins in order to eradicate the most evident imperfections. Then there was the sprellatura: the object was cleaned with a grass from a marsh picked in the neighbourhood of Volterra, tied in nosegays, immersed in water and rubbed on the surface.
After which, the true polishing was carried out with a special mixture made up of an ox’s spongy bones cooked and crushed mixed with scales of castile soap. Adding water, a subtle cream formed with which the object was polished up until it was smooth and bright. The last touch was the spalmacetatura: the object was covered with a mixture of whale blubber, wax, petroleum jelly and pitch then it was placed in a sort of cupboard underneath which there were embers. While warming up, the object absorbed this mixture and the excess was then taken off with a linen towel, leaving the object perfectly bright and smooth.
The ancient workshops
From the Etruscan Era
According to the archaeologists, the workshop of the alabaster workers of the Etruscan period were similar to the one described above. This confirms that the art of alabaster working has been handed down over the centuries with only very limited changes.
For instance consider the tools, the contemporary alabaster workers had no difficulty in decoding the traces left by the artists of the 3rd century BC on cinerary urns because their tools were the same as those you can find on a contemporary workbench.
A careful reconstruction of an Etruscan workshop is displayed in room 24 of the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Volterra.
Hand crafted ceramics and alabaster, etruscan jewelry
|Alabastri Rossi Camillo|
Traditional Alabaster craftshop in the center of Volterra.
|Alabastri Ducceschi |
Alabaster in Volterra since 1965
New and peculiar forms of objects which differ in material and style: modern, classical, or belonging to a remote past.
|Cooperativa Artieri Alabastro|
Revaluation of the artistic side of the manufacture of alabaster and safeguarding the economical and social interests of their craftsmen.
|Scali Salvatore srl|
One of the most important manufacturers of articles in alabaster in Volterra.
Only workshop in Volterra that specializes in sculpture work.
|ALI Alabastri Lavorati Italiani|
Family run company that has been working in the alabaster sector for generations.