We interview Alessandro Bianchi of Bianco Bianchi, a craft laboratory that carries on the ancient tradition of Scagliola in Pontassieve, Florence, Tuscany.
Scagliola is the ancient art of making inlays with colored pigments, natural glues, and selenite powder.
This art, which had been known since Roman times, had its moment of glory in Emilia and Tuscany between the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, it spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe.
The greatest masters of the art of Scagliola were the 18th century painters Enrico Hugford and Lamberto Cristiano Gori who managed to realize their works in many Italian and European courts such as the one of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
However, starting from the mid-19th century, interest in this art began to decline until it completely disappeared.
Luckily, Bianco Bianchi, a painting enthusiast who worked in the Ministry of Defense, began to get interested in the art of Scagliola after seeing some of Hugford’s works in a monastery.
At the end of the 1940s, he began to spend his free time improving his technique of Scagliola, until he was noticed and invited to an exhibition in the United States which made him popular.
Once back to Italy he decided to quit his job and open his workshop: Bianco Bianchi. Here he began to devote himself completely to scagliola, both producing new objects and restoring and collecting historical pieces.
Today his sons Alessandro and Elisabetta carry on the tradition of Scagliola. They, together with their collaborators, continue to make objects following the same ancient production process.
Questions for Alessandro Bianchi
- Could you tell us where your father’s passion for Scagliola comes from? Why did he decide to start this business? And what allowed him to become successful?
- How is your entity structured today? How do you and your sister try to transfer your business story to customers? What inspired you to continue your father’s tradition successfully?
- Could you briefly explain to us what Scagliola is? What are its historical origins and how has it survived until the present day?
- What products do you produce? What are the peculiarities and the distinctive features of your products? How does your production process take place?
- Do you think that technology is essential in the production process? Do you still use the same tools as your father or have you evolved over time? If so, in what way?
- Could you explain to us what type of customers you serve and through which channels are you looking for new customers? What kind of relationship do you have with them?
- What do Florence and Tuscany represent for you? What connection do you have with the territory and with all the other local shops?
- In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Made in Italy products abroad?
- How do you relate to young artisans and how do you try to contribute to their training?
- What do you expect from the future and what are your main projects?
#1. Could you tell us where your father’s passion for Scagliola comes from? Why did he decide to start this business? And what allowed him to become successful?
My father, Bianco Bianchi, after the war, used to paint for passion while working at the Ministry of Defense. He became curious when he saw, in the Vallombrosa Monastery, the works of Scagliola that Enrico Hugford made in the eighteenth century. He started researching this type of art and then did some testing.
The turning point came when he was invited to take part in an exhibition in The United States. When he came back to Italy, he decided to leave government employment and opened a small laboratory.
At the same time, he started looking in the antique markets for some small and big ancient pieces that could allow him to improve the technique. In recent times, his collection became the most important one ever existed.
#2. How is your entity structured today? How do you and your sister try to transfer your business story to customers? What inspired you to continue your father’s tradition successfully?
Today, we are still a small entity. We are focused on quality rather than numbers, and this allows us to provide customers a highly-specialized service. We started to work in the laboratory after the artistic maturity, but since we were children, the laboratory was a source of curiosity and fun to us.
Ending up working in it was inevitable… today my son Leonardo too is working with us.
#3. Could you briefly explain to us what Scagliola is? What are its historical origins and how has it survived until the present day?
Scagliola is an inlay technique made with natural materials such as plaster, pigments, and ancient glues. The evidence of the first manufacturer of Scagliola or Meschia (a term that indicates the gesture of mixing) dates back to the end of the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century, in Germany and Italy, especially in the Emilia Romagna area.
Then, in Tuscany, during the eighteenth century, the technique was improved and it started spreading all around Europe until the mid-nineteenth century when it disappeared. It was our father Bianco who took Scagliola back to the glories of the past.
#4. What products do you produce? What are the peculiarities and the distinctive features of your products? How does your production process take place?
We mainly produce dining tables and coffee tables but the technique can be applied to an infinite number of objects, such as other furniture or objects such as lamps, boxes, paintings, jewelry, etc.
As we said before, the main feature distinguishing us is the unique pieces designed and sculpted with the dimensions, colors, and shapes that the customer requires. We are also able to make a small series of products.
The different stages of production can be summarized in the drawing, the engraving in marble or scagliola, the preparation and casting of the colors, the sanding, grouting, subsequent finer incisions, and final polishing.
#5. Do you think that technology is essential in the production process? Do you still use the same tools as your father or have you evolved over time? If so, in what way?
If we have to produce a unique piece, we use the traditional production process and tools. When we have to make a large series of products we use technology, at least in the initial phase of engraving. All other production stages and the material we use are the traditional ones.
#6. Could you explain to us what type of customers you serve and through which channels are you looking for new customers? What kind of relationship do you have with them?
We mainly produce objects for private customers but also architects and designers collaborate with us to find an optimal solution for our customers. Today the direct channel and word of mouth are the best ways to create a work. We also use the Internet more for advertising and not a lot for selling because our products need to be seen with your own eyes!
#7. What do Florence and Tuscany represent for you? What connection do you have with the territory and with all the other local shops?
Florence is an added value: the Made in Florence more than the Made in Italy still evoke the Renaissance and the excellence artisan’s workshop. In the recent event of Renaissance and the Rinascita of Dolce & Gabbana, the group of artisans selected for different typologies of production was able to become a team and to show its ability in the best way… We were the only ones to represent Scagliola.
#8. In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Made in Italy products abroad?
As we said before, overseas the strong points of Italian handcraft are the uniqueness of our manufacturing and the ability to do research, even though with difficulties, to trace back to our origins of excellence without losing sight of contemporaneity.
The weak points are, perhaps, not to be able to offer to the market a product in-line at competitive market prices; as happens in other countries, where, by the way, production costs and regulatory constraints are very low. But if you want to buy a quality product you have to pay a lot, otherwise you could buy a reproduction – in most of the cases a poorly done one.
#9. How do you relate to young artisans and how do you try to contribute to their training?
Even though, in the past centuries, the master craftsman never revealed his secrets, except when he transmitted his art to his children. Personally, I’m always willing and open to help anyone who wants to approach our job.
Since I’ve been doing this beautiful job for 40 years, it is important that people behave with clarity and reliability. We organize workshops to explain our art to whoever is curious about it, and also organize intensive courses for people who want to learn our craft.
#10. What do you expect from the future and what are your main projects?
In this difficult moment the future is uncertain, and we should learn to live with it for a long time. It is important not to stop, and to keep being curious. In the future, collaborations between craftsmen and young designers will be really important for new projects and experimentations.
Our dream is to open a museum dedicated to Scagliola. We would like to exhibit the Bianco Bianchi collection in a prestigious location, a vivid museum with some workshops, and a selection of traveling crafts…anyone who is interested should contact us.
We thank Alessandro for this interview: his insights are very useful to understand what Scagliola is and how his family is carrying on this ancient craft.
Keep up to date with Bianco Bianchi’s activities on:
- Bianco Bianchi website
- Bianco Bianchi on Facebook
- Alessandro Bianchi on Instagram
- Alessandro Bianchi on LinkedIn
If you liked this interview you can also read our interview with Catia Scarpelli of Scarpelli Mosaici.