From a rock through patience to art
Hands, tools, time, dust, imagination and passion
“Alabastrai” have different specialties, and each artisan is able to get the best out of the mineral.
We have the “squarers”, who cut the mineral to the needed size, the “lathers”, who give it a round shape, the “carvers”, who decorate it, and the sculptors, who make proper sculptures out of blocks of mineral. All these techniques have been passed on from generation to generation and from master to apprentice for thousands of years.
Lathe operator and shaping
When the alabaster workshop needs a lathe, the lathe operator arrives. The work begins by sawing the block; then after having drawn the layout of the object to be created, it is the moment to rough-hew the alabaster block with chisel and mallet. Then, the rough object is fixed to the lathe, and while turning, is emptied and shaped with the use of chiselling hooks (leaf-like, straight and bean-like). The objects that are created using a lathe, like vases, amphorae and cups, are usually designed in collaboration with the craftsman who will draw and create the decorations.
subbia: steel chisel with a sharp tip
rampini:iron chiselling hooks becoming thinner toward the tips; different sizes depending on the depth to be reached. Depending on the type of object it can be cut on the left or on the right. The hook with a leaf shape can cut on either sides
tornio a pertica: the modern electrical lathe has substituted one of the most characteristics tools of the alabaster lathe operator, the pedal operated lathe, made of wood. The rod was attached on the wall over the head of the operator and linked to a pedal and to the wood turner by a rope that rolled around it. Pressing the pedal the wood turner started to work and the craftsman worked the alabaster standing up and using different kinds of chiselling hooks with the handle on his shoulder
The squadratore was a person who valued alabaster and made a sparing cut in order not to waste precious material when creating an alabaster work of art. The task of the squadratore was to give an initial shape to the raw material, using different cutting tools: a hand saw, a circular saw and a band saw. The size of the item to be created is transposed onto the block by means of a seste.
trincione: hand-saw. It is usually used by two craftsmen at opposite ends
seste: wooden or steel compasses used to measure shape and thickness. There are compasses of different shapes and sizes
tenta: steel tool that measures the depth of the objects. It has two arms joined together by a central joint. The arms can be both straight or semicircular.
Sculpture and animal replicas
Manual expertise is particularly evident in the work of the sculptor and for the animal replicas, especially the alabaster artisans. When the item to be created has to reproduce an existing object, such as in the copy of classic works of art, the measurements for the alabaster copy are transposed using a pantograph. Then the rough-hewing process takes place and, on removal of the largest pieces of stone, the work is afterwards refined using tools that allow the artist to create the details.
If the artwork is not a copy, the process is the same as above, except for the use of the pantograph, and, after measurements are made it is attached to a trestle. Since the 1960s, the craftsmen have used a special tool made up of a flexible arm on top of which is a mechanical milling machine. The cutters have different sizes and permit the creation a refined product with less difficulty.
pantografo: pantograph, the craftsman uses this tool to reproduce on the stone the most important measurements of the clay or wax model. The industrial pantograph has four electrical cutters and rough-hews the block according to the shape that must be reproduced.
mazzuolo: mallet of about 1 kilo. There also exists a steel mallet without handle but with an elongated shape. Both are used to strike the chisel.
ferri a forza e a mano: 15-cm-long tools used to finish the sculpture. They have a wooden handle and they are not mechanized. Each of them has a different name according to their shape
The decorator works on a semi-finished object, coming from the lathe operator. Their task is to do the fretwork, engravings and decoration included in the design. In the first phase the decorator draws the decoration on the alabaster. To do this, the decorator uses different tools. For the engravings the decorator uses a drill and a rasp, then the scuffina that is one of the most typical tools of the alabaster worker. To finish he uses small rasps and iron tools.
raspa: the rasp is a typical tool for shaping wood with a wooden handle and a rather big blade. It is used to shape the object and make it smooth
scuffina: traditional tool to work alabaster. It is used to shape the product and to make it smooth. There are different kinds of scuffine with odd names like rats’ tail or kneeling scuffina
L’ultima fase nel lavoro dell’artigiano è la lucidatura, fondamentale per dare all’oggetto finito la trasparenza e la bellezza tipiche dell’alabastro. Oggi è frutto del lavoro di apposite macchine, tele abrasive e composti sintetici, ma in passato si trattava di un’operazione lunga e delicata, eseguita quasi sempre dalle donne, dette appunto lucidatrici.
The final process is the polishing, that is fundamental to give the object the transparency and the particular characteristics of alabaster. Today the polishing is done by machine, but in the past it was a long and delicate phase that was usually carried out by women, who were called lucidatrici (polishers).
The first phase was called dispesciatura: the object was brushed with dried shark skins in order to eradicate the most evident imperfections. Then there was the sprellatura: the object was cleaned with a grass from a marsh picked in the neighbourhood of Volterra, tied in nosegays, immersed in water and rubbed on the surface.
After which, the true polishing was carried out with a special mixture made up of an ox’s spongy bones cooked and crushed mixed with scales of castile soap. Adding water, a subtle cream formed with which the object was polished up until it was smooth and bright. The last touch was the spalmacetatura: the object was covered with a mixture of whale blubber, wax, petroleum jelly and pitch then it was placed in a sort of cupboard underneath which there were embers. While warming up, the object absorbed this mixture and the excess was then taken off with a linen towel, leaving the object perfectly bright and smooth.
In the silence underground, footsteps are softened by dust. From time to time, there are strokes of a pickaxe on the walls, but when the resonance changes that is the right spot. As it has always been, the miner finds the point in the rock where the block of alabaster is hidden and he starts to dig it out. The miner moves the lamp closer to the oval-shaped block to control its transparency and then he starts to extract it from the clay shell in which it is enclosed.
Open air or underground quarries
In the underground quarries in Castellina the layers where the oval-shaped blocks of alabaster are found are so solid that there rarely is the need to use scaffolding to keep the galleries safe. Once the alabaster is located, drills and pneumatic chisels are used to take it from its niche; sometimes in the last phases of the operation pickaxes are used. If the block is too big it might necessitate the use of explosives, though on the other hand – as the miners say – this can well ruin the block cracking it from the inside. In the neighbourhood of Volterra, instead, the blocks are at ground level and are extracted by excavators.