The Etruscan period
The Etruscans used alabaster on a large scale since the eighth and
seventh century BC to produce beautifully carved and
detailed cinerary urns. For this reason, Volterra becomes
the production centre of this material. The stones from
Volterra were more suitable than tuff or terracotta
for a working rich in details and movements; therefore
it consented a greater richness in cinerary urns decorations.
The sculpture relieves descriptively portray evocative
and expressive scenes, both imaginary and real, while
the lid usually portrays the recumbent deceased attending
the banquet feast. Many of the funeral monuments from
Volterra are also housed in the Vatican Museum, the
Louvre and the British Museum.
One must notice that alabaster was used in works calling
for a perfect technique and rich in movement figures.
Created in the workshops as a “standardized” production,
very few urns were actually commissioned, but selected
by the families of the deceased. At the last minute
a few personalised details were added to the recumbent
The very alabaster urn decorating started with Greek
artists, while formerly it was restricted to floral
and simple subjects. Afterward, when the Etruscans achieved
a high artistry and could free themselves from Greek
influence, they interpreted the mystery of death in
their opinions and facts, the bas-relief portrayed adhered
to the Etruscan tradition.
In the quarries and mines near to Volterra traces of
Etruscan mining still remain, particularly at Ulignano
|The Etruscan period
Married Couple Urn
The Etruscan selected warm tones of white,
similar to ivory than the veined alabaster and thus
excavated shallow mines, only a few metres from the
opening. In order to give prominence to their works
they sometime used light decorations and a mineral colour
superficial painting while gold leaves were stuck on
THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
Many centuries after the Etruscan and
Etruscan-Roman periods, alabaster was presumably not
carved or sculptured and if it was, no traces remain.
A few experts believe that the alabaster craft was not
interrupted during the medieval period and that due
to the fragile quality of alabaster no examples have
been discovered. A tormented period of barbaric invasions
and feudal strife certainly did not propitiate local
artistic concerns. The mystic conception of medieval
art disdained the fragility of alabaster and it is highly
unlikely that any sculptor of the era actually produced
a work of art in alabaster.
THE 16TH CENTURY
It was in the middle of the 16th century,
during the renaissance of Italian art, that the alabaster
craft began to reappear. Very important works, especially
those for religious uses, date from the 16th century:
tabernacles, ciboriums, reliquaries, ecclesiastical
furnishings, altar organs (famous that one donated to
the Marquis of Mantova), vases and candle holders were
the principal works of art produced during this era
in which the use of the lathe in the alabaster production
dates back to. The utilisation of alabaster from the
renaissance to the beginnings of the 17th century is
not considered as a form of intensive exploitation,
but purely artistic.
THE 17TH AND THE 18TH CENTURIES
At the end of the 16th century the
alabaster craft followed the new trend of the Italian
art and ceased the production of individual Renaissance
style artefacts. Quality was forsaken for a simple,
easier, less elaborated production of saleable items.
The alabaster industry began to prosper. Skilled craftsmen
were no longer required to produce a collection of simple
objects that could easily reproduced. Only a few talented
and skilled sculptor survived.
THE 19TH CENTURIES
Tazza Gozzoli (detail)
At the beginning of the19th century the first alabaster
factory was founded by Inghirami employing 120 workers.
The enterprise was certainly an ambitious one, for the
factory not only wished to develop technologically but
also wished to maintain a high quality craftsmanship.
Thus great masters from all over Italy in decorative
and sculpture work were invited to Volterra to impart
The factory then began to reproduce classical Greek,
Roman and Etruscan vases, bronze moulds, sculptures
in Greek and Egyptian style, decorations and friezes
on phials, vases, cups, lamps, candelabras and many
other objects. There was also a great demand for decorated
capitals, columns, obelisks, pyramids and urns all in
Neo-classical and imperial style
In the middle of the 19th century 14 important factories
and a numerous number of workshops were officially counted.
This renewal of the alabaster trade was mostly due to
the “travelling artisans” who not only went – in a quite
experimental way – to the courts and palaces in Europe,
but also travelled to America and East to sell their
wares. This newly found prosperity coincided with the
need for innovation.
In the second half of the 19th century the Viti laboratory
in Volterra began to collaborate with the Hard Stone
factory in Florence. Together, they developed new working
methods combining alabaster with other materials. Mosaics,
bronze and brass frames with inlaid alabaster edges
and the first “unique” artefacts were created and can
still be admired among the private collections here
in Volterra. At the same time a regional trend spread
and Volterra, by means of alabaster, became its greatest
exponent. It was a question of a mannerist version of
Neo-Renaissance interesting the woodworking and, by
analogy, the alabaster one: inlaid furniture, artefacts,
ornamental decorations and “animals” such as dolphins,
swans, lion paws were carried out.
It was this type of production that brought economic
and artistic prosperity to Volterra. It was also during
this period that more “intellectual” works were produced
such as the finely sculptured cameos in alabaster executed
by the Volterran sculptor, Funaioli that did not influence
the commercial marketing of alabaster.
Scaglione flower arrangement
THE 20TH CENTURY
In the last decade of the 19th century the “travelling
artisans” interrupt their distance voyaging and the
alabaster market finds itself in difficulties for various
reasons. The Unity of Italy brought an inherent slump
to the struggling nation, Europe was undergoing a political
and commercial upheaval, and the new art promoters wanted
more “social” commodities and the artistic world depreciate
alabaster as a substitute for other valuable stones.
At the beginning of the 20th century the alabaster craft
began to make a slow recovery. The best alabaster firm
attended the great exhibition in Paris in 1900, in St.
Louis in 1904 and Turin in 1908 and 1911. The Art School
was reorganised and prepared to become a real school.
It was during this period that sculpture works inspired
by rhetoric, mannerist expressionism such as: busts
of mother and child, statuettes of children, young shepherdesses
and female portraits were created. The sculptures although
technically perfect were duplicated on mass and were
sold like hot cakes. This new production was however
accepted by markets. In the twenties there was a consistent
production of ceiling and wall lights and alabaster
becomes highly appreciated for this apt usage. During
the Exhibition of Decorative and Modern Art that took
place in Paris in 1925, a publication was issued commending
alabaster as an ideal solution to lighting and in vogue
with the style of 1925.
In the following twenty yeas the figure of Umberto
Borgna comes out. He is the very alabaster designer
Borgna worked on the distinct qualities and features
of this variable stone, the infinite variety of veins
and subtle coloured tones and the harmonious effect
of integrating other materials. He experiments with
new colours and dyes, redeems the traditional polishing
methods and launches new marketable designs of a variety
of vases, cups, boxes, lamps, clocks and bookends.
Actually numerous designers have made themselves
Borgna's successors and interprets of his production
philosophy which aims at reconnecting this decorative
art with the spiritual and material reality of contemporary.
The most important are the following: Ugo La Pietra,
Denis Santa Chiara, Carla Venosta, Angelo Cortesi,
Gianni Veneziano, Angelo Mangiarotti, Luca Scacchetti,
Cristiano Toraldo di Francia.