April 2017 - Napoletanina.


In the words of that weed Molesworth: “Masters are sloppy and like gurls.” In my case I protest the former while admitting, conditionally, to the latter. Well, two girls!

One I am very happily married to, and the other has been left on the shelf.

The explanation to this rather bald statement, will be brief, and I hope ‘educational’ in the wider sense of the word. I will not be discussing my wife, though the lady is certainly worth more than a few chapters, and perhaps a whole book, but I insist on being discreet.

So then, the girl on the shelf.

Volterra is the Alabaster citadel. It has been, I’m told, for nearly three thousand years. From which you’ll form the idea that it’s an ancient place. Seeing would be believing! Stonehenge had been up for a while, of course, but it didn’t have a city to go with it. Well, not with a seven kilometre wall round it. Nevertheless; the Etruscan founders would have looked in envy at its fifty ton trilithons. Perhaps they did, and got the idea that big was beautiful. Volterra was very proud of this edifice, until Lorenzo the Magnificent decided it was too big for its boots, and took it down to size. But the footings remain. Tourists were glad. You can get seriously lost in a city with a seven kilometre wall round it. Brave souls still circumvent it, but not so many. Most tour the transmuted medieval ‘new model’ town with a gelato for comfort, and perhaps buy an alabaster egg. Others, with culture in mind, and recognise a chef-d’œuvre when they see one, hit the narrow lanes to find some dusty botega hiding a holiday scoop.

Some of alabaster’s first use was for sarcophagi, stone coffins about the size of a suitcase, which was handy for the owner with a one way ticket over the river Styx. The high obsolescent scrapping economy was the new way to go, and a timber box was cheaper than a sculptured stone. These were already in short supply thanks to the Middle Age building trade who considered the cheaper panchina sarcophagi ideal for supplementing bricks in a medieval pre-recycling bout. Buildings afterwards were never so solid, but bricks were easier to handle than relics from the necropolis.

This apparent hiatus in the alabaster business lasted for centuries, if not millennia, until a notable foresaw an opportunity amid the rising middle classes who had not a candelabrum, or a bust, between them. Thus are industries born. If Edward Gibbon could write on the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, then there’s surely an opening for a smaller tome on Volterra. Somewhere along the way they’d lost it – industry as art that is - and the maxim of ‘adapt or fail’ was never so appropriate, or so impossible, when applied to alabaster. One of its big drawbacks was porosity. Beakers and cups would look just dandy if they could hold liquid. But no one wanted a leaky jug.

Once, this little set-back seemed no big deal. After all, they’d read their ‘Wealth of Nations’, and understood what Adam Smith meant by the ‘division of labour’ long before Henry Ford produced his Model T. Alabaster workshops employed sbozzatori to prepare the blocks of alabaster, tornitore to create the architectural columns and turn a nice bowl, scultori to do the big bits and ornatisti to do the small fiddly bits, to say nothing of the lustratice, the females who polished everything with the locally named  spella, a weed from the river, until it glistened like glass. The hey-day for the alabaster production line made its dèbut along with the Pre Raphaelites, and finale with the demise of Art Deco. A brief enough period. Just long enough to grandstand the goods. Even so, only the candelabra, the lamps and the shades, could be called anything more than objet d’art. Everything else was seriously beautiful, and seriously useless. ‘Ornamental’ springs to mind. This was a grave flaw in the scheme of things. Fashions come, and fashions go. Like an unwanted mistress. Economics destroyed what the critics didn’t. Employing a serious artist to work for three months, carving a work of art, costs a lot of money. So when the world had stopped throwing bombs at each other there wasn’t exactly a lot of ready cash to go round, and Volterra in common with the rest of Europe, was all about affording a loaf of bread, not a new vase for the mantelpiece.

Why the subject of this story never found a man with deep enough pockets to woo her is an enigma, created as she was by the most famous of the city’s sculptors, Prof. Giuseppe Bessi. Perhaps the family grew too fond of her, too possesive, and suddenly her moment was over, leaving her without a suiter. Despite this disappointment she was never destined to become a lonely spinster.


Bessi might just be everyone’s idea of an eccentric professor. In those days paragons always managed to look the part. When he was born there was little distinction between a trade and a profession, though barbers had long thrown away their combs, and called themselves doctors. Lawyers could still be articled, and civil servants were what they remain; clerks. Michelangelo learnt to be a genius the hard way, and there’s something to be said for real geniuses never being recognised in their own time. Michelangelo being the exception to the rule. Bessi was an exception too. An exceptional man among exceptional men. He was the doyen of the alabaster world, if not also the beginning of its end. He lived through the great days of the industry, from 1857, to 1922, less than two decades before the world tore itself apart once again and brought the shutters down. In Volterra, somewhat more or less permanently. Unlike Rolex, who could dig up stakes in England after the First Great War, and start ticking again in Switzerland, alabaster had absolutely nowhere to go after the Second. It was tied irrevocably to Volterra at a time of sink or swim, and at nearly 2000 feet up in the air there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for a paddle, let alone a swim. Building sandcastles seemed to be all that was left.

Bessi’s life is full of closed rooms, like so much of the age before historians got typewriters, and fiddled the empty spaces. Little is known for certain, but he went to the Volterra School of Art, founded fifty years before in 1820. He must have shown exceptional promise, for subsequently, he went to the ‘Accademia Belle Arti’ in Florence. Afterwards, he may have been a journeyman, perfecting his craft, and was known to have taught at the Academy. In 1889 he was back in Volterra founding his own company, ‘Studio Artistico di Scultura’. It was just inside the city, alongside the Porta San Francesco, and that is where Napoletanina was born.


Original Signature of Prof. G. Bessi

Like all true ladies her age remains a little ambiguous and mysterious. The demure style suggests around the turn of the century, before women got brazen, and exerted their rights; deciding some things weren’t just a male prerogative. But it didn’t matter, allure has the same effect in any age.

Napoletanina would have started out as a maquette, modelled in gesso, a white plaster that can be pushed into shape while still moist, and carved easily when hard. You don’t need a model to create a model, but Bessi, when he had the need, was exceptionally lucky in having one to hand. He’d chosen a much younger bride, as many men did in those days when their own youth was dedicated to creating a place in the world. Rosina Pasqualetti had the sort of beauty that would still turn men’s heads, and as the century rounded a corner Bessi undoubtably turned to her as the model for Napoletanina.

Rosina Pasqualetti
Having fashioned his lady, Bessi set about setting her on a pedestal. In the purest alabaster. So he crafted the face and neck in the finest Scaglione, the dress and her bust in a variety called Bardiglio, and the base in yet another, Bianco Fornie. The precious Scaglione was treated, in this case, by placing it on a wooden base in a metal container before being filled with water, brought to heat, then allowed to boil for twenty minutes over a wood based fire, before cooling naturally. The result is a wax like delicate luminosity. Never was a technique so subtle and so effective. The virtuous innocence of this finished work takes the breath away. The important ‘in between’, the Bardiglio of the dress, is lightly enhanced with a procedure using coloured pigments with perhaps, in this case, a little violet. The result of this measure enriched the highlights, and darkened the veins in the alabaster. A delicate contrast.

So, there she is. A hundred year old glimpse of paradise. A timeless beauty that, if God permits, will last for a thousand more.

But I fancy, not on the shelf.

 (The subject of this article is in the ‘Galleria Leonardo’, Volterra, where she forms part of the Bessi-Giglioli private collection.)