The art of "Scagliola" inlay

The art of "Scagliola" had its beginnings in the late Mannerism of the 1500’s and its apex in the high Baroque. Amid the architectonic emotions and mystical theatricality permeating the entire sixteenth century, the technique of Scagliola found fertile ground in various applications, thanks to its particular ability to mimic stone and marble, an ability perfectly suited to the premises of reality and fiction that dwelt together in Baroque illusion. Initially, “Scagliola” was used as the surrogate of more precious minerals, but gained its own renown thanks to the skilful creativity of ingenious artists who managed to fuse styles as diverse as mosaic work, copper plate engraving, wood engraving painting and architecture.

Art historians have not yet clarified how the technique was born, nor its early stages. We can be fairly sure there was no single “invention” but rather an on-going experimentation arising out of an effort to perfect commonplace plaster decoration. The first schools of "Scagliola" inlay appeared in Austria and Germany and especially in Italy, at Carpi. From the end of 1500s and all through the 1600s and 1700s, Scagliolist from Bavaria and Carpi became so skilful as to produce works that are still among the highest testimonials to the art. “Scagliola” is obtained from Selenite (anhydrite), a mineral which in nature has a characteristic scaly form, hence the word “Scagliola” from scaglia, or scale. Selenite is quarried in pieces and placed in an oven where at a temperature of 128° the mineral dehydrates and begins to turn to powder. The powder is removed from the oven, ground in a mortar to completely pulverize it, then carefully sifted to remove all impurities. The resulting white powder is called "Scagliola".

Scagliola art made in Italy

When mixed with water, "Scagliola" tends to return to is original structure. But the gesso thus obtained is fragile and delicate. However, when mixed with glues and then dried and treated with oils and waxes, it reaches a state of concrete hardness with good properties of resistance and impermeability. The greatest schools of "Scagliola" artisanship were concentrated in the Emilian Apennines, especially around Carpi near Modena.

A portrait in the civic museum of Carpi shows a certain Guido Fassi at age thirty-two. The inscription reads, “Guido Fassi inventor of works in colored “Scagliola” and engineer, 1616”. Although this is the first documentary evidence specifying the invention of the technique, we still can’t attribute “Scagliola”’s paternity to Fassi with certainty. Artistic “Scagliola” was probably developed outside Italy’s borders, in Germany, a supposition that gains credence from the name of an ingredient of the “Scagliola” mixture, the so called “German glue”. In addition, numerous object predating the Fassi portrait are still on display in the palace of dukes and princes of Munich. Monumental door surrounds, window frames, sumptuous fireplaces are decorated in “Scagliola” according to the canons of the most mature Italian Style. Among these works, the most remarkable is the Reiche Kapelle, decorated by Blasius Pfeiffer who began working in 1587 and was the founder of a fortunate family of plasters and Scagliolists.

Scagliola inlay made in Italy

In Italy the Scagliola phenomenon grew so vast that in the 1600’s authorities imposed an annual tax on the "masters of mixture". The technical expertise of artist-artisans in applying “Scagliola” permitted an almost perfect imitation of marble in architectural décor.

Altars were produced, and columns, capitals, festoons, corbels, allegorical figures, kettledrums, urns, cornices, balconies, all in faux Carrara marble, faux Breccia, faux neri di paragone, faux granite and faux stone. But above all, the skill of the Scagliolists is evident in the surfaces of tables and altars frontals. It is clear from looking at these creations how far these artists came from their initial imitation of pietre dure mosaics to the birth of a new personal style.

"Scagliola" flowers in vases; chalices; Crucifixes and scenes of the lives of the saints based on prints and paintings graced altar frontals, along with floral and vegetable decorations and thick folds of “Scagliola” lace, fusing into one single work elements from such different arts as engraving, mosaic and weaving, all disposed with geometric harmony.

The creations of Griffoni, Hugford, and Belloni are found in various parts of Europe. From 1700 on it was quite the thing for English lords making the “grand tour” to acquire “Scagliola” tables in Italy (a splendid example is a table top commissioned by Earl of Lichfield and conserved in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum).

Table tops can be made completely in “Scagliola” (biscotto) or in marble with "Scagliola" inlay.

The design is first drawn on the surface, then, following the sketch, the artist cuts out a space a few millimetres deep into which the “Scagliola” mixture is dripped or spread. The mixture is composed of gesso, water, glues and colour in pigment or natural clays. The experience allows the Scagliolists to measure or direct the chromatic effects and the type of veining. When the “Scagliola” paste is dry, excess material is polished away, leaving the surface smooth. Then, according to the type of work, embellishments are dry etched into the surface. Finally the surface is polished and protected with oils and waxes.

The Cupioli brothers, through their company Pluriform, have a forty years active experience in this difficult and painstaking blend of art and artisanship. Today, Pluriform represents a concrete reality in the art of “Scagliola” inlay throughout all Italy. Keeping pace with the evolution of decor, the company produces a remarkable range of inlays for tables, coffee tables, wall panels and consoles, carrying out the requirements of interiors Designers as to placement and chromatic intent.

Scagliola techniques