Chapter 16.  The Origins of Italian Scagliola

According to Italian tradition, scagliola was invented in the town of Carpi in Emilia Romagna, a few miles north of Modena, by a local architect and engineer named Guido Fassi or Guido del Conte (1584-1649).  In the early years of the seventeenth century he discovered a method for imitating marble with plaster and pigments, which he used principally for making grand architectural altar surrounds and inlaid altar fronts.  Examples of his work can be seen in Carpi Cathedral and the nearby church of San Niccolò. 

Carpi’s reputation as the birthplace of scagliola was based on the accounts of various local historians, most notably Guglielmo Maggi (1662-1732), Lucca Tornini (1719-1790) and Eustachio Cabassi (1730-1796), all of whom wrote histories of the city designed to emphasise its achievements.  Their accounts were  incorporated into the work of the Jesuit trained Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731-1794), a renowned and much read cultural historian and man of letters, who spent the latter half of his working life in Modena.  As a result of all this interest, Carpi gained a pre-eminence in the field of scagliola which not only overlooked the achievements of other regions of Italy, but also failed to acknowledge the prior existence of the technique  in Southern Germany. This error, which persisted into the twentieth century, was fully exposed in Neumann’s article of 1959.  He showed that scagliola had appeared in Munich some thirty years before its arrival in Carpi, and had already reached a highly developed form which included intricate decorative inlaid work  (see Chapters 7 & 8).

There remains the issue of how the material reached Emilia Romagna in the second decade of the 1600s.  Was there direct influence from the Fistulator workshop in Munich – active since the second half of the 1580s – or was the Italian discovery made quite independently?

The efforts of the Hapsburgs and Gonzagas to obtain scagliola and scagliola specialists from the Wittelsbach court in the 1590s and early 1600s argue strongly for German influence; nevertheless, many scagliola commentators continue to assert that the ‘invention’ of scagliola on both sides of the Alps around 1600 is in fact a misnomer. Agreeing with Neumann’s final conclusions on the matter, they suggest that attempts to imitate marble with plaster and pigments had been going on in these areas for some considerable time – decades or even centuries.  The increasing appetite for coloured and inlaid marble in the second half of the sixteenth century, arising from the needs of both church and state, merely provided the economic stimulus for perfecting and exploiting a technique that was, so to speak, waiting in the wings.

The theory that scagliola came into being through some sort of evolutionary process has already been challenged in the case of Bavaria, where a more specific timetable of events can be established.  While working as a joiner and wood-carver at the Munich Residence in the 1580s (or perhaps a decade earlier at the Fuggerhaus in Augsburg), Blasius Fistulator came into contact with stuccadores arriving from Italy.  It was their knowledge of hardened and coloured plasters, hitherto unknown in Germany, that gave him the idea and the wherewithal to start imitating coloured marbles and Pietre Dure inlays (see Chapters 7 & 8).

When scagliola arrived in Italy the direction of travel was reversed.  Dr. Diemer’s research shows that the German experience of working with the material moved south to Mantua at the very end of the sixteenth century, again through the agency of Carlo di Cesare del Palagio, who brought with him ‘a German maestro of imitation marble’ – almost certainly Augustin Übelhör.  Pronner’s Malbuch (see Chapter 7, Postscript) states that Übelhör had worked alongside Blasius Fistulator in the 1580’s on Duke Wilhelm’s private chapel, the forerunner of his son Maximilian’s Reiche Kapelle.  In the late 1590s he (or someone else from the Munich Residence with his knowledge and experience) was employed by Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (r.1587-1612), at a time when the Bavarian court had been forced to dismiss all its artists due to bankruptcy (Chapter 8).

Mantua is only thirty miles north of Carpi and it seems likely that Guido Fassi got to hear of Übelhör’s work on the Gonzaga funeral monument and somehow learnt about the material directly from him, or through an intermediary who had worked alongside him.  (There are several examples of ‘industrial espionage’ in the history of scagliola, in particular the poaching of labour between competing firms).   In this reading of events Fassi did not invent scagliola, he learnt how to make it from people who already knew.  He then went on to exploit it in his home town, something which he was probably well-positioned to do.

The son of a bricklayer, Fassi had risen from humble origins to become an architect, engineer and entrepreneur.  He was associated with various building schemes, including the construction of a local church, the clock tower of Carpi’s castle, and a system intended to regulate the cleanliness of the water in the town’s canal (though there is doubt the system was ever used).  A more bizarre project was the plan to move the tower of the old collegiate church of Carpi, in its entirety, to the vicinity of the new cathedral.  This ambitious endeavour was thwarted through lack of finance, but also, according to Neumann, because the enormous Palazzo di Pio stood midway between the two churches and blocked the way.  To his credit (though Neumann is dismissive) Fassi did manage to bring off a more modest scheme that involved moving a brick-built dovecot on four columns.

A portrait of Guido Fassi hangs in Carpi’s municipal museum, but it is not altogether trustworthy; like his reputation, it is an idealised version, painted a hundred years after his death.  To his left stands a pair of scagliola columns, while a picture on the wall to his right shows a stone edifice perched on a cart which is being dragged along by a team of oxen. 

‘Guido Fassi of Carpi, Inventor of Works in Coloured Scagliola and Engineer’ 1616.’  (18th Century  Portrait, Carpi Museum.)

Postscript:  The scagliola produced by Übelhör for the Gonzaga court in Mantua was an isolated incident, much like the scagliola supplied to Dresden in the 1590s.   Neither city went on to become a centre of scagliola manufacture.  After the death of Vincenzo Gonzaga I in 1612 the Duchy of Mantua went into decline; it’s remarkable art collection was sold off (much of it going to King Charles I of England) and its status as one of the most cultured of the Italian courts was lost. 

References:
Erwin Neumann:  Materialen zur Geschichte der  Scagliola in ‚Jahrbuch der  Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, 55, 1959 pp. 75-152.
Dorothea Diemer, Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio Berlin 2004 Bd. 1.

Next/Chapter 17: The Achievements of the Emilian Scagliolists    

Chapter 16.  The Origins of Italian Scagliola

According to Italian tradition, scagliola was invented in the town of Carpi in Emilia Romagna, a few miles north of Modena, by a local architect and engineer named Guido Fassi or Guido del Conte (1584-1649).  In the early years of the seventeenth century he discovered a method for imitating marble with plaster and pigments, which he used principally for making grand architectural altar surrounds and inlaid altar fronts.  Examples of his work can be seen in Carpi Cathedral and the nearby church of San Niccolò. 

Carpi’s reputation as the birthplace of scagliola was based on the accounts of various local historians, most notably Guglielmo Maggi (1662-1732), Lucca Tornini (1719-1790) and Eustachio Cabassi (1730-1796), all of whom wrote histories of the city designed to emphasise its achievements.  Their accounts were  incorporated into the work of the Jesuit trained Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731-1794), a renowned and much read cultural historian and man of letters, who spent the latter half of his working life in Modena.  As a result of all this interest, Carpi gained a pre-eminence in the field of scagliola which not only overlooked the achievements of other regions of Italy, but also failed to acknowledge the prior existence of the technique  in Southern Germany. This error, which persisted into the twentieth century, was fully exposed in Neumann’s article of 1959.  He showed that scagliola had appeared in Munich some thirty years before its arrival in Carpi, and had already reached a highly developed form which included intricate decorative inlaid work (see Chapters 7 & 8).

There remains the issue of how the material reached Emilia Romagna in the second decade of the 1600s.  Was there direct influence from the Fistulator workshop in Munich – active since the second half of the 1580s – or was the Italian discovery made quite independently?

The efforts of the Hapsburgs and Gonzagas to obtain scagliola and scagliola specialists from the Wittelsbach court in the 1590s and early 1600s argue strongly for German influence; nevertheless, many scagliola commentators continue to assert that the ‘invention’ of scagliola on both sides of the Alps around 1600 is in fact a misnomer. Agreeing with Neumann’s final conclusions on the matter, they suggest that attempts to imitate marble with plaster and pigments had been going on in these areas for some considerable time – decades or even centuries.  The increasing appetite for coloured and inlaid marble in the second half of the sixteenth century, arising from the needs of both church and state, merely provided the economic stimulus for perfecting and exploiting a technique that was, so to speak, waiting in the wings.

The theory that scagliola came into being through some sort of evolutionary process has already been challenged in the case of Bavaria, where a more specific timetable of events can be established.  While working as a joiner and wood-carver at the Munich Residence in the 1580s (or perhaps a decade earlier at the Fuggerhaus in Augsburg), Blasius Fistulator came into contact with stuccadores arriving from Italy.  It was their knowledge of hardened and coloured plasters, hitherto unknown in Germany, that gave him the idea and the wherewithal to start imitating coloured marbles and Pietre Dure inlays (see Chapters 7 & 8).

When scagliola arrived in Italy the direction of travel was reversed.  Dr. Diemer’s research shows that the German experience of working with the material moved south to Mantua at the very end of the sixteenth century, again through the agency of Carlo di Cesare del Palagio, who brought with him ‘a German maestro of imitation marble’ – almost certainly Augustin Übelhör.  Pronner’s Malbuch (see Chapter 7, Postscript) states that Übelhör had worked alongside Blasius Fistulator in the 1580’s on Duke Wilhelm’s private chapel, the forerunner of his son Maximilian’s Reiche Kapelle.  In the late 1590s he (or someone else from the Munich Residence with his knowledge and experience) was employed by Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (r.1587-1612), at a time when the Bavarian court had been forced to dismiss all its artists due to bankruptcy (Chapter 8).

Mantua is only thirty miles north of Carpi and it seems likely that Guido Fassi got to hear of Übelhör’s work on the Gonzaga funeral monument and somehow learnt about the material directly from him, or through an intermediary who had worked alongside him.  (There are several examples of ‘industrial espionage’ in the history of scagliola, in particular the poaching of labour between competing firms).   In this reading of events Fassi did not invent scagliola, he learnt how to make it from people who already knew.  He then went on to exploit it in his home town, something which he was probably well-positioned to do .

The son of a bricklayer, Fassi had risen from humble origins to become an architect, engineer and entrepreneur.  He was associated with various building schemes, including the construction of a local church, the clock tower of Carpi’s castle, and a system intended to regulate the cleanliness of the water in the town’s canal (though there is doubt the system was ever used).  A more bizarre project was the plan to move the tower of the old collegiate church of Carpi, in its entirety, to the vicinity of the new cathedral.  This ambitious endeavour was thwarted through lack of finance, but also, according to Neumann, because the enormous Palazzo di Pio stood midway between the two churches and blocked the way.  To his credit (though Neumann is dismissive) Fassi did manage to bring off a more modest scheme that involved moving a brick-built dovecot on four columns.

A portrait of Guido Fassi hangs in Carpi’s municipal museum, but it is not altogether trustworthy; like his reputation, it is an idealised version, painted a hundred years after his death.  To his left stands a pair of scagliola columns, while a picture on the wall to his right shows a stone edifice perched on a cart which is being dragged along by a team of oxen. 

‘Guido Fassi of Carpi, Inventor of Works in Coloured Scagliola and Engineer’ 1616.’  (18th Century  Portrait, Carpi Museum.)

Postscript:  The scagliola produced by Übelhör for the Gonzaga court in Mantua was an isolated event, much like the scagliola supplied to Dresden in the 1590s.   Neither city went on to become a centre of scagliola manufacture.  After the death of Vincenzo Gonzaga I in 1612 the Duchy of Mantua went into decline; it’s remarkable art collection was sold off (much of it going to King Charles I of England) and its status as one of the most cultured of the Italian courts was lost. 

References:
Erwin Neumann:  Materialen zur Geschichte der  Scagliola in ‚Jahrbuch der  Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, 55, 1959 pp. 75-152.
Dorothea Diemer, Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio Berlin 2004 Bd. 1.

Next: Chapter 17: The Achievements of the Emilian Scagliolists