Though it is not a well-known craft, the art of working with scagliola
has taken on a new lease of life in the last fifty years, thanks mainly
to a small number of artisan workshops which have stubbornly and passionately
continued to have faith in this craft process,rescuing it from the
oblivion it had fallen into in the middle of the 1800s.
The term 'scagliola' refers to two things, firstly to a particular
process of coloured inlaying which uses"poor" materialssuch
as chalk, pigments, and natural glues which are mixed together(mescolare
in Italian, hence the word meschia), and secondly to a variety of
gypsum called selenite, which is found in a natural state in the form
of flakes or thin shavings.
Certain physical properties of this stone -its shininess, transparency,
and pearly whiteness- have given rise over the passage of time to
a number of curious definitions such as 'chalk crystal', 'donkey's mirror',
'mirror stone', 'oil glass', 'moon stone'.
The use of this material dates back to ancient times(the Romans
used slabs of mirror stone for the walls of the Circo Massimo in Rome
in order to obtain a pleasing whiteness) and has been used as a construction
material, for decoration, and in agriculture.It became an authentic
medium of artistic expression in the 17th centurywhen it began to
be used highly effectively to imitate marble veining and marquetry. With
the discovery of the ductility of the meschia it became a decorative means
in its own right, combining various artistic techniques including painting
(pictures and panels with views and landscapes), inlay work (with scagliola
in sanguine bi-colours) and modelled forms (plastic scagliola for fireplaces
and relief frontals).
historical terms, it is generally agreed that coloured mixes of scagliola
were being used around about the end of the 1500s and the beginning of
the 1600s in both Germany and Italy. It can be claimed without doubt that
in the 17th centuryCarpiin Emiliawas the major centre where
this technique was practised, first of all in black and white, and then
in polychromy, mainly for ecclesiastical clients.
Picture from the Bianco Bianchi archive
In the 18th century, Firenze
and Tuscany definitively recognised the merits of scagliola, mainly thanks
to the work of Enrico Hugford(1695-1771),a Vallombrosian brother:
"where others did not know how to use it (scagliola) to imitate the
colour of marble or some fanciful image, he perfected it in the cleaning,
reduced it further in terms of the design so that it represented everything
that perspective and the brush was capable of creating in terms of vagueness"
(Novelle Letterarie, 1771).
Works made of scagliola can be foundin Firenze
in the church of San Miniato al Monte, in the Oratorio di San Tommaso
d'Aquino, and in surrounding areas such as Settignano, Chianti, Valdarno,
and the Valdisieve, without forgetting the Abbazia di Vallombrosa,
which still preserves many of Hugford's works.
The last significant examples of this working technique were produced
in the 1800s by the Della Valle brothers, and it was taught in the Accademia
and at Livorno.
Excerpt from the document "The art of scagliola" of Alessandro
Translated by Jeremy Carden