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" materials such 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
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 century when 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 century
Carpi in Emilia was 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, Florence 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).
Scagliola works can be admired in Florence
in the church San Miniato al Monte, in Oratorio di San Tommaso
d'Aquino, in Uffizi Museum, in Palazzo Pitti, in Opificio delle
Pietre Dure. On the outskirts of Florence: in Settignano, in Chianti,
in Valdarno, in Valdisieve and in Abbazia di Vallombrosa that
keeps many Hugford's works.
Then scagliola works can be admired in the most important museums
as Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Louvre in Paris and in
many private collections in USA.
In the nineteenth-century in Florence, with the institution of
the chair in Accademia and then in Leghorn with Della Valle brothers,
there were the last important examples of this art. Then Bianco
Bianchi discovered it again during about 1950.