The passion of artisans, the ambition of innovators
The few craftsmen that still work with alabaster in the centre of Volterra are testimonies of a thousand-year-old tradition they know how to innovate and develop for the future
The “alabastrai”’s way of working alabaster was passed on untouched from the Etruscans, and the fact that their workshops are very similar to the ancient ones is a proof of that.
The workbench is placed under the window so that the artist can use the daylight, and the rest of the room is filled with finished artworks and the tools for each artisan specialty.
The “alabastrai” in Volterra find it easy to decipher the traces left by the 3rd century b.C.-artists, because the tools are the same you could find on those ancient tables!
A thousands-year-old know-how lives on today, but just in Volterra.
Room 29 of the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum depicts an exact recreation of the Etruscan workshop.
The character of the “alabastraio”
A free-thinker and a jokester
Although there aren’t many traditional artisan workshops left in Volterra, there’s that same magical aura in the air when standing by the creation of an alabaster artwork. The number of workshops might be low, but the quality is still high.
The traditional workshops feature some characteristics of the original Etruscan ones: it usually was just one room for the artisan and their apprentice to work in, or three or four artisans would work in the same room during hard times as to reduce the expenses.
The workbench is placed under the window in order to be able to use the daylight at best and the room was filled with finished artworks and tools for the different artisan specialties. For instance, the lathe operator needed a bigger room in order to fit the traditional lathe, whereas a sculptor only needed a few shelves for their chalk models.
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It was in these workshops that the most characteristic social group of Volterra was born, the alabastrai (alabaster workers) with a particular lifestyle and slang. The alabaster art and craft is still today a relevant cultural and economic reality in Volterra, notwithstanding today’s difficult times. From the beginning of the 1980s, the alabaster professionals clearly realized that the alabaster of Volterra and its products were unique the world over and that they had to be protected and promoted and this same idea created the Ecomuseo dell’Alabastro (Museum of Alabaster) that gathers and displays the history, culture and folklore of this traditional art and craft over time.
According to the archaeologists, the workshop of the alabaster workers of the Etruscan period were similar to the one described above. This confirms that the art of alabaster working has been handed down over the centuries with only very limited changes. For instance consider the tools, the contemporary alabaster workers had no difficulty in decoding the traces left by the artists of the 3rd century BC on cinerary urns because their tools were the same as those you can find on a contemporary workbench.
LIFESTYLE AND LANGUAGE OF AN 'ALABASTRAIO'
Anarchic and anti-fascist, free thinker and comedian, intolerant to social constraints and institutions and often too lazy to provide enough for their families. This is the portrait of the alabastraio of the beginning of the last century, when being a craftsman meant being included in a particular world with its own lifestyle and slang.
In the microcosm of a workshop, the apprentice learnt not only the job but also to refuse any imposition, to love opera and politics, and to get drunk at the weekend, forgetting wives and families at home.