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ALCHEMY OF COLOURS. Scagliola art works from the Bianco Bianchi collection in Florence

17 November 2015–28 February 2016

Gallery

The international exhibition “Alchemy of Colours. Scagliola art works from the Bianco Bianchi collection in Florence” is a joint Project by the owners of the private Bianco Bianchi collection Alessandro Bianchi and Elisabetta Bianchi, and the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the Vilnius Academy of Art. This exhibition will present to Lithuania’s cultural society, art researchers and restorers the subtle and refined art of scagliola. It was founded in the late 16th century as a craft, later being elevated to a high art by its clever and creative masters before falling into oblivion in the late 19th century, and being rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century to the amazement of both artists and art-lovers. This means that the exhibition arrived from Florence presents to guests in Vilnius a relatively unknown technique, offering the opportunity to become acquainted with this unique Bianco Bianchi collection. This is also one of the many projects co-organized by the Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes and its partners from Italy, rekindling the historic cultural and artistic ties between Italy and Lithuania, in this case, the Italian origin art of scagliola intaglios, bringing impressive examples and pieces produced using identical or similar techniques to Lithuania.

Scagliola is the name of an art whereby a mixture of selenite, pigment of various colours and a fish-based glue is used to create various intaglios or, as if on a prepared canvas, a painting is created. The scagliola technique demands a special kind of gypsum – selenite – which is found in great volumes in the form of plates or scales (It. scaglia – scale, also the origins of the word for this art form) in the Apennines region in Italy. This mineral is characterized by great transparency, clarity and a pearl-coloured whiteness, which is why it is sometimes eloquently called moonstone, while the name of selenite itself comes from the name of the Ancient Greek goddess of the moon, Selena. Heated at a high temperature, selenite transforms into a kind of plaster fit for use, whereby it is finely ground down to a powder and sieved. In order to make this material malleable, it is combined with organic glues dispersed in water, resulting in an elastic mass that is enhanced with pigments producing a spectrum of colours. The desired image is applied to a marble slab, stone surface or another material, whose contours are deeply gouged out. The carved spaces are filled with the prepared scagliola mixture. Shades or finer details of the illustration or ornament are achieved by again carving the smoothed surface already with intaglios, and smaller grooves are repeatedly filled with the variously coloured mixture. A new groove must be carved (or gouged) out before every new colour is introduced. The work reaches completion by polishing its surface with special polishing stones, creating the effect of shimmering gemstones. The stages in creating the scagliola effect are long, complicated and demand particular technical ability, experience, and a careful hand. When this technique was perfected in the 18th century, final decorative strokes were applied using a brush. This was also done in the 19th century using a scagliola mixture diluted in water in the required shade.

Scagliola, combined with pigments, allows achieving an excellent imitation of marble or other gemstones from which the impressive pietre dure mosaic is usually created. The scagliola technique, usually imitating marble, can be used to cover walls, columns, pilasters and floors. This form of decoration can be used to add ornamentation to painting and mirror frames, table-tops, liturgical and secular items, or for the creation of real paintings. As an art phenomenon, this technique was formed in the late 16th century in Florence, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ruled by the Medici dynasty which was known for its refined tastes and patronage of artists. It accompanied the revival of gemstone intaglios and the Florentine pietre dure trend. Scagliola was indeed very suitable to imitate expensive marble of all varieties and could be applied by artists from various regions. The high artistic level of scagliola works raised amazement and captivation, reaching popularity in the courts of Italian and other European rulers and magnates, and was widely used for the decoration of Baroque style churches as well, because it was very suited to convey the emotionally charged illusionary art effects so typical of that time.

The historical 17th–19th-century examples of scagliola and modern pieces from the Bianco Bianchi collection presented at the Vilnius exhibition reveal and demonstrate the reasons for the emergence of this craft and art form, its origins, flourishing, variety, decline and revival in 20th and 21st-centuries. The exhibition presents paintings, table-tops and furniture decorated using this technique. Of the 21 exhibits presented, nine were created in the 17th century, eight represent the 18th century, two reflect 19th-century fashions, plus another two are contemporary works. Due to its typological variety and geographical origins, the Florentine Bianco Bianchi collection is one of the richest and most varied scagliola collections in the world. It currently consists of 130 works or fragments thereof, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and represents the main manufactories of Italy and other European countries. From the second half of the 19th century the scagliola technique was forgotten, and if Bianco Bianchi (Florence, 1920–2006) had not been so determined to revive the “meschina art” (such was the initial name given to scagliola), today we would have only antique pieces of a dead technique.

Bianchi discovered scagliola quite by accident in the early 1950s whilst appreciating the works of Enrico Hughford and his students in Florence’s museums. Later curiosity and admiration determined his first attempts at precisely repeating the traditional technique in new works. The success that followed the first works that were presented in America led to his ultimate decision: in the early 1960s Bianchi left his office personnel position at the Italian Ministry of Defence and devoted himself entirely to the art of scagliola, both producing new pieces as well as collecting and restoring old ones. At the time his manufactory on Via di Rusciano was the only scagliola laboratory in Florence and the only one in Europe that specialized in the restoration of marble stucco (stucco marmorizzato). Over time, Bianchi’s activities and production became a synonym for the Florentine scagliola technique in the world. This man can be greatly credited with the fact that Florence is still home to very high level, albeit only a few, laboratories which uphold the tradition of this craftsmanship. Today Bianchi’s son Alessando and daughter Elisabetta, aided by professional colleagues, further the tradition of scagliola works and their restoration. Commissions come in from all over the world to decorate homes and palaces with traditional and modern scagliola works using the ancient craft’s techniques. The execution, experience, creativity, and skill in making the most complex of subject matter a reality, the wide assortment of works that suit both antique and modern style interiors, its refined elegance and harmony, the subtle combinations of colours, as well as the pedantic skilfulness make the Bianchi works unique examples of the highest level of art spanning from the time of Florence’s flourishing in the Renaissance, and continuing to today. Antique scagliola works are restored in the Bianchi laboratory also as before, collaborating with Italian cultural heritage institutions, museums, collectors and antique traders.

The reviver of scagliola art, Bianco Bianchi was also a gifted collector. Back when scagliola works were still not suitably appreciated, he amassed a unique collection of immense value, whose most treasured part is on display in Vilnius. The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania exhibition presents two of the most famous masterpieces by Don Enrico Hughford (Florence, 1695–1771), considered Tuscany’s scagliola master and credited with transforming it from a “simple” craft into a real art, who at the time particularly astonished the Tuscan grand duke and other European rulers, depicting the Sant’ Angelo Castle and the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome. Hughford’s innovative techniques broadened the potential for expression using scagliola – it no longer sought to imitate precious stone intaglios but was transformed into an independent form of art. The meticulously executed pastel coloured compositions by Hughford shone with such brilliance that the surface appeared transparent and bright, as if it were under a pane of glass. It suited the artistic tastes of the late 18th century and determined the special popularity of scagliola paintings. In this way a gradual shift from intaglios to producing a painterly scagliola effect occurred.

The most famous and creative scagliola manufactory in all of Italy from the 1830s belonged to the Fratelli Della Valle in Livorno. Combining the traditional intaglio technique with scagliola painting, many compositions were created at this workshop depicting landscapes, vedutos over the most famous Italian cities and historical scenes. These works reflected the Romantic spirit, thus they grew very popular in the international markets. Samples were chosen for the first world expo in London in 1851, seeking to present the value of Italian craftsmanship in the context of world art. At the Vilnius exhibition two special works produced by the Della Valle brothers’ manufactory that belong to the Bianco Bianchi collection will be presented. They are table-tops depicting the Piazza Signoria in Florence and the Piazza dei Miracoli a Pisa (Miracle Square in Pisa).

The scagliola technique was known beyond the borders of Florence and Italy. Our first information of marble stucco (stucco marmorizzato) works in the Germanic lands comes to us from the late 16th century. Unlike Italy, in Germany the production of this ornamentation was associated with the ruler’s court and was under the competency of state manufactories. The technique was also known of in Bohemia, England and other European countries. In the 17th–18th centuries an increasingly larger number of citizens from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth not only travelled to Italy but also spent time studying there. Although the echoes of scagliola art in Lithuania have not been studied here until now, and more telling data has not yet been found in historical sources, the fact that scagliola was very close to the imitation marble decorative technique which was widely used in the decoration of Lithuanian churches, altars, etc., does suggest that this technique could have also been known, similarly being used in the residences of the Lithuanian aristocracy and Church hierarchy, themselves closely related to the Italian fashions of the day. The political, cultural and artistic ties between Lithuania and Tuscany were quite intensive in the Renaissance and Baroque epochs, meaning Italian art traditions found their required milieu for spreading in Lithuania.

The high assessment of scagliola techniques used for art works was and continues to be determined by the illusionary, imitated charm that various materials raise in the viewer, evoking true aesthetic pleasure. That is why the organizers behind the exhibition in the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania trust that these impressive antique and newer scagliola works will be of particular interest to guests, giving exhibition visitors the unique opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the forgotten early craft and art techniques, to admire the subtle paintings, ornaments and recognizable views of Italy, enchanting us with the colours of Florence.

Exhibition patrons
Vilnius City Municipality and Major Remigijus Šimašius
Florence City Municipality and Major Dario Nardella

Exhibition organizer
National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

Exhibition partner
Vilnius Academy of Arts

On loan from
Bianco Bianchi Manufactory (Florence, Italy)

Exhibition curator
Daiva Mitrulevičiūtė

Exhibition consultant
Dr Dalia Klajumienė

Exhibition coordinator
Eduardas Kauklys

Exhibition concept and exhibition plan authors
Dalius Avižinis
Dr Vydas Dolinskas
Daiva Mitrulevičiūtė

Exhibition educational programme coordinators
Vida Kaunienė
Rūta Kaupaitė
Doc Alvydas Mandeika

Exhibition publishing coordinator
Gintarė Skujutė

Exhibition technical installation coordinators
Kęstutis Karla
Eduardas Kauklys

Last update
2015-11-16
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