Scagliola has been a mystery outside the decorative arts realm. There are only few people who are familiar with the art of Scagliola, a fascinating and special technique, that uses natural components, managing to render perfectly valuable materials, such as marble, and other natural and semi-precious stones. Today scagliola is becoming a high-end favorite being used for vases, staircases, columns, countertops and table tops. Beautiful blends of pigment and plaster are assuming forms and functions unavailable even to their stone-age ancestors.
Scagliola Columns in the Willard Hotel, Washington, DC
History of Scagliola
The first examples of scagliola were created in Roman times from selenite, which derives from a gypsum stone found in Italy’s Appennine Mountains. Italian monks honed the technique in the 17th century.
16th Century Scagliola Tabletop.
In the United States, scagliola was widely used from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, in elaborate churches, capitol buildings and theaters for large columns, wall cladding, pilasters and door surrounds.
Black scagliola door portals
The appeal then as now was the amount of marble demanded for such massive works would have been prohibitively expensive, if available at all. Scagliola looks like natural marble and is just as durable, but it is less expensive and can be formulated in a limitless range of colors and textures. William Millar wrote more than a century ago in Plastering, Plain and Decorative; “Experience has proved that it will last as long as the house it adorns, and with an occasional cleaning, it will always retain its polish and beauty.” It is these qualities that have refocused interest in scagliola. Although less expensive than marble, scagliola projects are labor intensive and highly specialized. The finest results demand historical knowledge, technical excellence in fabricating the material, and the trained eye and hand of the decorative artist.
However, all art historians mention that the art of Scagliola was never only used as an economical alternative, in order to replace valuable materials. On the contrary, it has emerged as an extremely valuable art through the centuries, with masterpieces highly appreciated by kings and rulers of that time. Respectively, nowadays the works of Scagliola are highly appreciated as works of great artistic value, as can be seen in galleries, auctions and in the world artistic market in general.
This fireplace is so incredible.
Pietro Antonio Paolini table top 1735
The traditional European technique uses lumps of a doughy mixture with mineral pigment for veinng. More common is the marezzo technique, which employs an almost-liquid mixture and raw silk fiber for veining. Marezzo is sometimes known as American Marezzo because of its popularity in the United States. While the mixture varies for each installation, the process is similar.
Traditional European Technique
First, precise molds of the object are created. Then a basic scagliola recipe is produced. This usually includes some combination of gypsum plaster, hydrostone, Keens cement, and mineral pigments to achieve the desired tint. Artisans then work in the raw silk fiber to create veining and cast the dougly mixture into molds. Once the scagliola has hardened, grinding and polishing begin. Hand polishing takes over several weeks, using water and a fine grade of sandpaper. The surface is buffed with aluminum oxide and coated with a surface-enhancing sealant called carnauba wax for protection.
Scagliola Fireplace by Wells Vissar for Tavern on the Green, New York
Stone Age Designs
Scagliola Tables by Galleria Romanelli