If you have been to Volterra before, you surely know alabaster: a particular kind of stone, lightly colored and translucent, used to sculpture small and not-too-small artifacts.
The streets and narrow alleys around Volterra are full of shops and workshops in which tourists can admire and buy almost every kind of alabaster-thing: from little ornamental eggs to giant statues.
In this post we wanted to collect for you some facts and curiosities about Volterra and its alabaster, one of the finest craftsmanship in Tuscany.
Did you know that the alabaster of Volterra and the Oriental alabaster are not the same thing?
Yes, because “alabaster” is a word used in a generic way by the archeologists, while with this same word geologists indicate two different kinds of minerals: a type of calcite and a type of gypsum. The first one is typical of ancient Oriental and Middle-East cultures and nowadays is the mineral most used to make any kind of artifacts. Whereas gypsum, a mineral quite commonly used in Medieval Europe, today is extracted and used in Spain (Aragon), in Wales and in Italy (Volterra).
The gypsum alabaster is a soft, lightly colored translucent stone. In Volterra, you can find several varieties in different colors and patterns.
Did you know Volterra alabaster is used since Etruscan times?
In Volterra, the alabaster has been known and prized since Etruscan times, in the 3rd century BC, when it was used primarily to carve funeral urns.
Since we have no trace of alabaster craftsmanship from Medieval Times, historians believe that after a period of abandonment of this craftmanship it was reintroduced in the 16th century. Anyhow, the true Golden Age of alabaster in Volterra was in the late ‘800 when a new processing technology was introduced leading to the mass-production of Expressionism and Art Deco style.
Today, the techniques used by the artisans of Volterra to shape this beautiful stone have remained practically unchanged from the ones used by their ancestors.
Do you know who are the alabastrai?
Alabastrai are the alabaster artisans. In Italy, the artisan work is a serious thing: you learn how to craft in a workshop where a senior craftsman teaches you the art. This method of apprenticeship in Italian is called andare a bottega which translates to “to go to the workshop” in a wide sense. You go to the workshop for several years and you learn different techniques for a particular craft (painting, sculpturing, weaving…). During these years, you learn also a way of life and create a sort of bond with other artisans like you.
So, in Volterra, to be an alabastraio is a serious thing: the artisans have a code of practice and organize themselves in order to work, to produce and to sell better.
This code gives the tourist a sort of quality mark: in Volterra you’ll find only fine alabaster craftsmanship in almost every shop you’ll go. And now you can find an Alabaster Museum too.
Do you know any of the alabaster working techniques?
To make the product the artisan has in mind, he or she must start from a block of alabaster, which is skillfully shaped using different techniques depending on the final product. Once the right size of the block has been chosen, the alabaster is then carved for sculptures, chiseled for decoration or for bas-relief. A lathe can also be is used for round cylindrical shapes. The final touch is an elaborate finish to reveal colors, textures and the typical alabaster transparency.
Each artisan generally has a specialization:
- The ornatisti are specialized in objects such as vases, ornamental eggs, dishes and so on.
- The animalisti craft animals of any kind, but they generally prefer horses.
- The sculturi shape human subjects in any possible size.
Do you want to know more about Volterra alabaster?
Easy: come to Volterra and take a look. Here you will find any kind of alabaster artifacts and objects you can think. Then, if you still want to know more of this ancient craft you can visit the Alabaster Eco-museum where you will discover the history of alabaster in Volterra and a lot of artifacts from different periods. A tour to an old workshop is also included in the visit.