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Alabastro di Volterra
The art of carving alabaster began during the Etruscan Era. The extraordinary skill and creativity of this mysterious civilisation has been handed down through the centuries...
The use and care of Alabaster
We realize complete maintenance and restoration of antique alabaster objects. Alabaster artefacts require a little attention and care in their placement and cleaning...
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Alabaster in History

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 figure.
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 and Gesseri.
The Etruscan period
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Married Couple Urn
Cinerary 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 for goldings.



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.


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.


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.


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Chiselled Vase
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 their expertise.
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.

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Funaioli's Cameos
Scaglione flower arrangement

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.


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Angels (detail)
Woman Bust

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 in Volterra.

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.

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Design Borgna
Design Borgna

Piazza Martiri della Liberta 5/9 56048 Volterra (Pi) - Italy
Tel. +39 0588 86078 - Fax +39 0588 86521 - e-mail: info@alialabastro.it