Craftsmen by passion, innovators by ambition
A few masters still work with alabaster in the centre of Volterra: authoritative witnesses of a thousand-year old tradition they can renew it to project it into the future.
The workshop of Etruscan alabaster craftsmen was very similar to that of today, confirming that this art was handed down untouched: the workbench has always been under the window, in order to make the most of the daylight and the rest of the room is full of finished items and typical tools for each type of craft. And it has been so for centuries.
For the Volterra alabaster craftsmen it is not difficult to decipher the traces left by the artists of the 3rd century B.C., because their tools are the same as those you can find today on their workbench! A thousand year old knowledge still lives today, but only in Volterra.
A careful reconstruction of an Etruscan workshop is displayed in room 24 of the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum in Volterra.
The character of the alabaster craftsman
Free thinker and prankster
There still remain a few examples of the traditional alabaster workshop in Volterra where it is still possible to experience that magic atmosphere, while you watch the craftsman creating an artistic object or sculpture. A few workshops but of high quality. Even today you can still find some characteristics of the old workshops: normally only a single room, where a craftsman and an apprentice would work, and when they found themselves in difficulty three or four craftsmen shared the same workshop in order to save money. The work bench was by the window so as to have as much light as possible, the rest of the room was filled with various items and tools.
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.
WAY OF LIVING AND SLANG 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.