More than 2,000 years have passed since the Etruscans first began carving alabaster, but it is still crafted today in Volterra.
The kind of alabaster carved and sculpted came from the quarries of Castellina Marittima, formed thousands of years ago thanks to a process of sedimentation of calcium sulphate concentrates found in sea water.
Alabaster is much easier to work than marble, which is far harder. This malleability makes it perfect for carving small sculptures. The work is slow; it can take a month to craft a bust. Some artisans do it part-time, relying on a second job. Alabaster artisans are specialized: some are ornatisti, in decorative objects (paperweights, dishes, small objects), others are animalisti, (crafting elegant horses, birds, animals), others scultori focusing on human subjects.
Many of the works are displayed on glass shelves lit from beneath or behind to capture the natural coloration of the stone. Prices for well-made alabaster objects are surprisingly affordable, considering the scarcity of the material and the time spent for its working.
At the end of the 18th century, after a long period of deep crisis, Volterra saw a new Renaissance. Workshops produced many high quality works that reached every part of the world, thanks to the activity of the so-called “alabaster travellers”. Although it no longer represents a significant part of the local economy, it is fundamental for the history and identity of the town. Only a few authentic workshops are left in the old town, but these artisans carry on this old craft and make it popular again.