Ever since ancient times, plaster and stucco have been used for decorative purposes and applied in the wall decorations of palatial residences.
Starting in the 16th century, when the evolution in coloured stucco-work was at its height, this art became the object of enormous interest.
The inventiveness, skills and strategies involved were quite astonishing, and the working of the plasters, as in the case of artificial marbles, enabled incredible results to be obtained, with veining that was almost identical to the natural veining of marble and stone.
"Scagliola" achieved its greatest success in Italy, Austria and Bavaria and it was also popular in Russia, as can be seen in the Hermitage. The peak of its production occurred in the 17th century and lasted for the whole of the 18th, when this cheap alternative to the highly-prized materials used in "mosaics in pietre dure" mimicked the surprise effect that was "characteristic of the Baroque era" with its preference for complex decorative and scenic compositions.
In Italy, the art of "scagliola" was first practised in the town of Carpi in Modena province, where signed works from the whole period of major production are still to be found; these are works by Guido Fassi, Giovanni Gavignani (1632-1680), Annibale Griffoni (1619-1679), his son Gaspare Griffoni (1640-1698), Giovani Leoni (1639-1710), Giovanni Pozzuoli (1646-1734), Giovanni Massa (1659-1741) and Marco Mazzelli – all well-established Carpi "Scagliolists".
Others, including Pietro Solari and Carlo Belloni, worked at Intelvi in Lombardy.
In Tuscany in the 18th century, Enrico Hugford (1695-1771) was one of the first to popularize "scagliola". At a certain point he abandoned the imitation of marble tarsia and experimented with this technique, giving rise to a new personal stylistic method for creating works with features that belonged to painting. Thus painting in "scagliola", with its wonderful pastel colour shades, became highly successful in the late 18th century.
From 1700 onwards it was the custom among English aristocrats to take the "grand tour" to purchase "scagliola" tables in Italy (one fine example is the table top commissioned by the Earl of Lichfield, now kept in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum).
After a fairly long period in the doldrums, due to the stylistic evolution of the past two centuries, "scagliola" has been revitalized and has come into its own again, to be granted the dignity of a real artistic expression.