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Artistic craftsmanship and design

the Art of Scagliola

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).

In 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.
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 Firenze in the 1800s by the Della Valle brothers, and it was taught in the Accademia and at Livorno.

Picture from the Bianco Bianchi archive
Excerpt from the document "The art of scagliola" of Alessandro Bianchi
Translated by Jeremy Carden
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