Tuesday 21 May 2024


The beautiful walled city of Volterra, an ancient Etruscan town some 45 miles southwest of Florence, is famous for its well-preserved medieval ramparts, museums and archeological sites and atmospheric cobblestone streets.

Since ancient times, Volterra, a key trading center and one of the most important Etruscan towns has been known as the city of alabaster.

The Etruscans mined alabaster in the nearby hills and considered it the stone of the dead. The mineral was used for elaborate funerary urns and caskets that housed the ashes of the departed, prized for its durability, beautiful coloration, natural veining and translucence. When the Romans ascended, alabaster fell out of favour and marble became the preferred sculpting material.

To work alabaster requires an assortment of hand tools, an artistic eye, and a tolerance for vast clouds of dust. An alabastraio begins with a block or chunk of alabaster. If the final product is to be a vase or bowl, the stone is turned on a lathe similar to what is used to make pottery and then shaped with chiselling tools.

Although alabaster and marble may seem similar in appearance when polished, they are very different materials, particularly when it comes to their hardness and mineral content. Alabaster is a fine-grained form of gypsum, a sedimentary rock made from tiny crystals visible only under magnification. The ancient Egyptians preferred alabaster for making their sphinxes or creating burial objects such as cosmetic jars. The purest alabaster is white and a bit translucent; impurities such as iron oxide cause the spidery veins. I like a mix of both, preferably backlit to show the blending of colour.

Alabaster is more graceful in appearance than marble. Marble consists mostly of calcite, formed when limestone underground is changed through extreme pressure or heat. It’s not quite as delicate as alabaster and became the preferred material for master sculptors such as Michelangelo who relied on marble from Carrara for his most famous works.

I had the very great pleasure of travelling to Carrara with Guylaine Rondeau many years ago, making her stop at every single roadcut along the way.

Alabaster is the common name applied to a few types of rocks. Translucent and beautiful, alabaster generally includes some calcium in gypsum. Gypsum is a composite of calcium sulphate, a type of sedimentary rock formed millions of years ago in the depths of a shallow sea. Left by time and tide, it evaporated into the creamy (full of lovely chemical impurities) or fully transparent (pure gypsum) stone we see today.

This glorious stone is simply beautiful. In the right hands, it can be sculpted to evoke the most wondrous reflections of light and emotion. And it stands the test of time, becoming more beautiful with each passing year... rather like my friend Guylaine. I'm thinking of you as I write this my beautiful one. More adventures await us in this amazing world.