Majestic Marble

The stone of Art par excellence: from the ancient past to contemporary productions, its value remains undiminished

Text by Aurelia Bianchi

Rich in texture and appearance, marble has a storied and compelling history. The word marble (marmo in Italian) derives from the ancient Greek word marmaron, which means “shining stone.” Marble is an ancient material that exists in many different variations and can be worked in a range of techniques.

A phase in the making of a hard stone mosaic

Michelangelo Buonarroti, master of the Italian Renaissance and creator of renowned works of Western art, is recognized for his penchant for particularly bright white marble. The artist used to select his own individual blocks of stone from the mines in Carrara--a city in Tuscany known for its quarries--claiming that in each piece he was already able to envision the statue that was trapped inside.

Details from Scarpelli's mosaics
A rural landscape in a Scarpelli mosaic

The state of the art today, however, is revealed in the studios of Italian artisans who continue to use traditional techniques. A quintessential example is that of the Scarpelli family, who in the heart of Florence still cultivate the heritage of turning stones into mosaics. Renzo Scarpelli, born in 1947, began his career as an apprentice at the early age of thirteen. The legacy continued when his son Leonardo, who received his MA from one of the most prestigious art schools in Florence, joined his father’s trade. Today, Leonardo is one of very few young and emerging mosaic artists. As in the times of Michelangelo, he personally selects the stones before cutting them into millimeter-thin sheets. His signature talent is to create mosaics based on rough sketches of landscapes and city views of Florence. He adheres to tradition and glues tiny pieces of tile into marble slabs, using the unlimited chromatic variations that the stones afford. The result is brilliantly expressive work that is undeniably appealing to the eye.

A Scarpelli hard stone mosaic

When it comes to marble, the art of Scagliola is an unusual and thoroughly fascinating technique. At Bianco Bianchi’s studio in Pontassieve, a town near Florence, inlays are created with a special mix of colored pigments and powdered marble bound with natural glues, vegetable extracts and selenite (scagliola is the Italian word for selenite).

The Scagliola liquid mix
A detail of the finished product

This liquid mix of scagliola is poured into engraved channels, and then carved with chisel and hammer on a marble or stone slab. Subsequently delicate details are engraved on the polished surface. Bianco Bianchi and his two sisters, are the second generation to carry on this refined and complex tradition, creating impeccably unique pieces, the most renowned of which are the tables portraying the head of the Medusa, conceived for the villas of Gianni Versace in Lake Como and Miami.

A Bianco Bianchi finished work
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