Alabaster is a name applied to varieties of two distinct minerals, when used as a material: gypsum (a hydrous sulfate of calcium) and calcite, a carbonate of calcium, also known as onyx-marble, Egyptian alabaster or Oriental alabaster, in geological terms is “a stalagmitic limestone marked with patterns of swirling bands of cream and brown”.In general, but not always, ancient “alabaster” in Egypt and the Near & Middle East is calcite, and “alabaster” in medieval Europe is gypsum, and modern “alabaster” is probably calcite, but may be either. Both are easy to work, with an attractive appearance, and have been used for making a variety of artworks and objects, especially carvings for indoor use, as both are slightly water soluble, and will not survive long outdoors…….
Ok, this is the dictionary description, what’s below is what we saw in Volterra, so many shops and workshops around the city……
The most amazing things made of alabaster seen there? These ones….and trust me, you had to actually touch them to see they were not real!
It was just by chance, walking through the eastern part of the city, along the ancient walls, that we had the opportunity to discover this workshop…
The artisan himself was working and not being anyone else around at that time, he graciously gave us a demonstration of what it means to make a work of art out of a piece of raw alabaster…starting with moulds (he has dozens on various shelves) he copies them with the help of some tools and all his experience and skills…..
He explained to us that there are other places in the world where the alabaster can be found (Autralia, California and Spain) but each place gives that alabaster its own specific features, so an expert can tell you where that piece come from. We learnt that alabaster can be divided into four main categories, scaglione a translucent alabaster – pietra a marmo a white, opaque alabaster that looks a bit like white marble (and this the type you can find in the 4 still operating caves in Volterra) – bardiglio an alabaster characterized by the presence of dark veins, whose color varies based on the type of impurities present in the stone, – Agata an alabaster whose color ranges between red and brown due to the presence of iron and magnesium oxides. Alabaster is found in ovaloid blocks called arnioni (or “kidneys“) that are encased in a matrix of clay and chalk. The arnione is extracted by freeing it from the rock “shell” that surrounds it, and, once completely cleaned, it is ready to be worked. Being a delicate and relatively soft and porous stone, it should not be kept in direct contact with atmospheric conditions, nor too close to sources of heat (with regards to lamps, it is advisable use “cold” light bulbs).
It was really an experience talking with that man and his assistant, so competent and passionate about their work, and being there in his “bottega” where everything was covered by a white powder mantle, brought us back in the old times when workshops like this were everywhere
Some pieces, the big and most complicated ones, can be very expensive but we managed to come home with some souvenirs….little boxes of alabaster and bronze (heritage of the etruscan era) for my mom and my mother-in-law
a hourglass that my husband really liked for us
an owl for my daughter, and another little box and a necklace for me…