Bagni di Lucca has a long history of making figurines from Plaster of Paris, or gesso, as it is called here. The tradition began in the 13th century when people from Bagni di Lucca started going to France to sell their silk and they became intrigued by the use of Plaster of Paris to make mortuary masks.
They experimented with it, as the soft alabaster, one of the main ingredients to make that type of plaster, was abundant in the area. They realised it would be possible to make inexpensive religious statues by making moulds and filling them with plaster…much cheaper than the usual carved marble or stone.
The figurines became very popular, as not everybody could afford a Della Robbia, or other original for their home or church. Presepi, or nativity scenes were big sellers and salesmen from the area would travel far and wide selling their wares.
I was very lucky to be able to see one of the last producers of figurines in Bagni di Lucca, and the only one who still makes his statues by hand. Meet Simone from Arte Barsanti.
The business was started by Simone’s great-grandfather in 1900. At its peak there were 60 people employed. Now it is just Simone with some helpful advice from his uncle Carmelo.
The little factory is a treasure trove of figurines, moulds and paraphernalia from years of work.
Simone took us through the process of making a figurine. First the mould is prepared.
The plaster powder is mixed with water until it is the consistency of yoghurt.
Then is poured into the prepared mould and shaken to get out as many air bubbles as possible.
The statue is then left to cure for about 20 minutes. If the figurines are under 30cm high they are solid plaster. If they are bigger than that they are hollow to save on plaster and to make them less heavy.
Once out of the mould, the figurines are finished by hand to remove any rough patches and fill any small imperfections.
They are then fired in the wood fired oven room.
The next step is to hand paint each figurine. The flesh coloured parts are spray painted first.
The rest is painted with brushes of varying sizes.
We were taken to the top floor where there is a little museum with some of the history of the business.
There is a photo of a recent Pope receiving a Barsanti figurine.
…and some old presepi, including one in a pumpkin.
…some old accounting equipment.
Best of all was an old suitcase which the travelling salesmen would take around the country to display their wares.
There is a delightful story that when Christopher Columbus arrived in America the first person he saw was a fellow from Lucca with a suitcase full of presepi for him to choose from.
We were given a beautiful presepio to take with us…my first…thank you Simone and Carmelo for a wonderful visit.
I really hope this wonderful tradition can be kept alive in Bagni di Lucca.
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