Alabaster Carving—The Ancient Craft of Volterra
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ITALY
Imagine a naturally occurring material that can readily be fashioned into flowing, delicate forms—a variegated medium whose beauty, translucence, and veining make it suited to the carving of highly ornamental details and fantastic figures. Do you know what it is?
WE ARE describing alabaster. We knew little about this stone before we visited the traditional center for its production in Italy—the Tuscan city of Volterra.
Alabaster carving has a long history in Volterra, going all the way back to the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the region. Among the many artifacts we admired in the local Etruscan museum were hundreds of alabaster cinerary urns—rectangular stone boxes in which the ashes of the deceased were buried after cremation—dating from the fourth to the first century B.C.E. These stone boxes are richly adorned with carvings in relief, often including scenes of the deceased person’s supposed journey to the afterworld.
Of course, the Etruscans were not the only ones to use alabaster in ancient times. The Egyptians used a great deal of it. There is a difference in chemical composition, however, between such oriental alabaster—also referred to in the Bible—and the much softer Volterran chalky alabaster.
Marble too was used extensively in ancient Greek and Roman art, but compared with such “noble” materials, chalky alabaster was considered something of a poor relative. It is a softer, more fragile rock, easily scratched, and its role in architecture and art has thus always been subordinate to that of marble. Alabaster sculptures cannot endure exposure to the elements. In architecture alabaster is used primarily in interiors. The ductility of alabaster, on the other hand, makes it particularly suited to the sculpturing of minute details.
Development of an Industry
There is no evidence of alabaster production in Volterra for centuries after Etruscan and Roman times. However, historical records preserve references to the craft in the mid-16th century. At that time Francesco de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, acquired a rare and beautiful lathe-turned vase from a Volterran craftsman and presented it to the Duke of Bavaria. In the 17th century, local craftsmen were busy producing artistic objects and minor decorative pieces. The craft enjoyed notable expansion during the 18th century, with quality reproduction of classical sculptures. By this time, the fame of Volterran alabaster had spread throughout Europe and beyond.
During this period Marcello Inghirami Fei, a local nobleman with a reputation for artistic talent and business acumen, gave impetus to the alabaster trade. He began to exploit newly discovered underground deposits of the mineral, and in 1791 he established a school where more than 100 apprentices could learn the art under the direction of master craftsmen called in from different regions of Italy and abroad. The industry flourished.
The eight or nine alabaster workshops that existed in 1786 multiplied to 60 by 1830. In those years some 50 adventurous Volterran merchants toured the world’s markets from Europe to the Americas, India, and the Far East to sell high-quality alabasters. Some amassed great fortunes. The boom lasted until 1870, but since then, there have been alternating periods of prosperity and slump. Even so, alabaster production remains one of the pillars of the local economy.
An Afternoon Stroll in Volterra
With its quiet, narrow, stone-paved streets, stone buildings, picturesque corners, and sunny piazzas, all surrounded by charming Tuscan countryside, Volterra has an atmosphere of its own. It seems as though we have stepped back into the Middle Ages. On our summer afternoon stroll with friends, we make a point of visiting the Porta all’Arco, an imposing Etruscan arched gateway dating to the fourth century B.C.E., which is part of the medieval city walls.
We linger before shop windows to gaze in astonishment at groups of birds in flight, cavorting horses full of vitality, and graceful human figures—all in alabaster but glowing with the translucence of ground glass. Vaulted showrooms display ornate urns decorated with grape-bearing vines and reproductions of classical sculptures as well as intricately perforated and engraved vases, candlesticks, chess sets, jewelry cases, and a host of other ornaments.
Noting our interest, our friends are happy to take us into dusty workshops so that we can see for ourselves how artisans transform their raw materials into these delightful products. We learn that egg-shaped boulders, weighing from 4 to 2,000 pounds [2-1,000 kg], occur irregularly throughout the chalky strata that underlie the Volterra region. The stones are extracted from open-air quarries or from tunnels up to 900 feet [280 m] deep. The alabaster ranges in color from a translucent white to ivory and yellow, from a reddish color to dark brown, and from gray-green to black, many with different veinings and degrees of opacity.
In the various workshops we visit, we observe different production techniques. We meet Gloria, engaged in etching delicate decorations onto a plate, and Franco, who is busy turning ornaments on a lathe. Many rounded objects are produced this way, from plates and bowls to light fittings and lamps—for which translucent alabaster is particularly suited. The tools and products of the trade lie in apparent disorder—rasps and files, mallets and chisels, compressed-air mills, sandpaper, and half-finished busts. The human and animal figures that clutter the shelves are used, we are told, as models for the reproduction of similar pieces.
White alabaster powder lies thick on every surface. Even this dust has its uses. Statuettes are mass-produced by pouring a mixture of alabaster powder and polyester resin into molds—but the results are not to be confused with the authentic handmade article, as many artisans are quick to point out.
A Passionate Debate
It is said that the Volterrans have alabaster dust in their blood, and it is soon apparent as we talk with friendly artisans that there is a passionate debate among them concerning their historic craft. Some maintain that low-priced objects with little or no artistic value are ruining the good name of a product that was traditionally of high quality. Others argue that there is room on the market for a range of products, from unique works of art to mass-produced ornaments. The debate is not new, and it is far from over. After all, ruthless competition and commercial concerns overshadow so many human endeavors, and these will likely continue to exert their influence.
One thing is sure, though. The artistic abilities with which our Creator endowed mankind will endure forever. What we saw on our visit to Volterra is just one example of the enchanting skills that all those alive will be capable of developing to perfection when they witness the fulfillment of Jehovah God’s prophetic words: “The work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full.”—Isaiah 65:22.
[Pictures on page 26]
1. Alabaster stones are extracted from tunnels that are up to 900 feet deep. 2. An artisan turns a vase on a lathe. 3. An ornate alabaster urn. 4. A modern alabaster sculpture