Alessandro Bianchi, master of the ancient Florentine technique of scagliola decoration, talked to us about his passion for his work.
How did your business start?
The Bianco Bianchi company was born in the Sixties, more or less. My father was an employee at the Ministry of the Defence. One day he was fascinated by tables with scagliola decoration that he had seen on exhibit at the museum of the factory of semi-precious stones, and so he set out on the rediscovery of this ancient Florentine art, starting with the kitchen table at home and trying to find old recipes for the mixtures.
At the end of the decade, upon his return from a tour in the United States, where he had managed to sell all of his pieces, he decided to leave his permanent position at the Ministry to open his scagliola workshop in the centre of Florence.
How many people work in the workshop now?
I take care of production, my sister Elisabetta takes care mainly of the commercial part, and we both have a few assistants.
The workshop has a really family-like atmosphere, and this is also because our production is not really large-scale: our tables are unique pieces created on the basis of what the person who commissions it requests. Normally we produce about 30 pieces a year.
Once we had to find out how to do a project on a ceiling, and it was very stimulating to be able to find a solution.
Have clients ever made requests that seemed impossible to carry out?
At times we have requests that are somewhat strange, but the technical limits are really a challenge for us, a spur to find new solutions: once we had to find out how to do a project on a ceiling, and it was very stimulating to be able to find a solution.
And then our work is done entirely by hand, even if at times we use computers and plotters to make enlargements; so it can happen that the final design is done freehand, especially if we have to meet the client halfway on his or her requests.
Are there schools that offer specialized training courses?
There has always been talk of establishing a school in the city of Florence ever since my father’s times, but nothing has ever come out of that. I often hold one-day or one-week courses: the students are almost always foreigners. Lately, we haven’t seen very many Italians, apart from a few students to whom we gave some materials for graduation works.
It is very difficult to be able to attract young people to this type of work, on the one hand for a series of very restrictive laws and just as restrictive bureaucratic routines that would encourage just about anyone, and this is also because of the economic investments necessary to meet legal obligations.
The transformation of the city hasn’t helped us much: once the workshop was in the centre, and painters came to talk to my dad and they also talked about themselves. Now the workshop has moved to Pontassieve, in the province of Florence.
Is your product appreciated outside Italy?
Until 2001 our buyers were almost all North Americans, then because of the crisis to a certain extent, we saw our orders from America decrease, and so we tried to expand into fresh, new markets like Russia and China. Almost 80% of our products are destined for the foreign market.
What role do institutions have vis-à-vis activities like yours?
Let’s say that they think highly of us when there’s some public personality visiting, but when we make requests, they’re almost never there.
Just think – my father, although he had no examples of scagliola at hand when he started out, accumulated a considerable personal collection, but he never managed to do an exhibit on the whole collection comme il faut. One of the greatest satisfactions has been the book “Scagliola: l’arte della pietra di Luna”, published by the Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato; it tells the story of my father and the scagliola technique.