Alabaster is a chalky rock originated from the sedimentation of large amounts of calcium sulphate in seawater. These deposits accumulated 60 million years ago in areas disrupted by volcanic  phenomena. In the bowels around Volterra, the calcium sulphate crystallised without being affected by the infiltration of water that causes the streaks and shading visible in other types of alabaster.

As early as the 8th century B.C., the Etruscans were able to take advantage of the beauty of this clear stone, embellished by the action of nature alone. Together with the Egyptians, they first realised that by working alabaster they could create refined decorations to adorn funerary monuments. As many as 600 alabaster urns are preserved in the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci in Volterra.

For many centuries workmanship was interrupted. It resumed in the second half of the 16th century, when artists from Volterra sculpted candelabra, holy water stoups and columns for the city’s churches. The “quarrymenof Castellina supplied them with the much sought-after raw material, white alabaster and opaline scaglione, drawing on deep deposits with both hands. At the end of the 18th century, the working of alabaster received a decisive boost: the number of workshops multiplied and merchants such as Viti or Tangassi, after long journeys abroad, obtained important commissions.

The most important active quarries until the 1980s were in Venelle near Castellina Marittima. They had tunnels and galleries extending over more than 40 km, accurately described in a map kept today in Florence. The tunnels were about two metres high and just as wide. Some reached a depth of up to one hundred metres. They were lit with acetylene gas obtained from carbide, whereas in the past traditional oil lamps were used.

These were placed on or supported by small branches of various trees embedded in the ground or walls and called ‘candlesticks’. Only the pickaxe was used for extraction, with which the block was contoured and cleared of accessory materials. From the early 1960s onwards, the pneumatic hammer and chisel were used, although later the pickaxe was continued for special finishing and carving.

The memory of the ancient tradition of alabaster is preserved in the Alabaster Ecomuseum, an exhibition located between Volterra, Castellina Marittima and Santa Luce. While in Castellina Marittima it is possible to visit the places where alabaster was quarried, Volterra offers an itinerary linked to its processing and marketing, taking visitors from Etruscan cineraries to 19th-century artefacts. In Santa Luce, on the other hand, you can visit the Archivio d’Area, which conserves documents relating to the quarrying activity and offers an educational workshop to learn about alabaster.

More than two thousand years have passed since the Etruscans began working with alabaster, but despite a thousand crises and difficulties, it is still worked in Volterra and, although it is no longer the leading sector, it is still the defining element of its culture and history. The craftsmen’s workshops in the historic centre and their passionate artisans are entrusted with preserving the tradition.



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