Paola A. Sensi-Isolani
L'emigrazione dei figurinai risulta particolarmente interessante perchè, per un periodo di più di trecento anni, essi riuscirono a portare la propria arte in quattro diversi continenti e, nello stesso tempo, a conservare le proprie communità native delle montagne della Lucchesia. La caratteristica itinerante del loro lavoro, insieme alla loro usanza di assumere ragazzi/minorenni, attirò l'attenzione pubblica dovunque andassero. Tale attenzione comportò una serie di cambiamenti legislativi riguardanti entrambi gli operai girovaghi e i minorenni. Questo saggio traccia l'evoluzione del mestiere del figurinaio e, al tempo stesso, esamina la sua capacità di adattamento dimostrando pure come i suoi diversi objects d'art ed i busti di eroi culturali riflettano i vari costumi e gusti artistico-culturali dei ceti sociali dellepoca.
city of Lucca and its surrounding countryside has a history of emigration
which dates back to the 13th century. For the first three centuries
this emigration was restricted to members of the city's merchant and
banking families. By the mid 1600's, however, unskilled laborers from
the countryside (in particular the mountain villages along the Serchio
and Lima rivers) began to emigrate in significant numbers in search
of work. While most of these men were agricultural workers whose destinations
were the vast drainage and agricultural projects of Corsica and the
Maremma, many were figurinai, or image
makers, producers and sellers of plaster of paris statuettes.
The figurinai's emigration is in many ways unique. In its three-hundred-year span it scattered the inhabitants of a few villages to four continents thus keeping alive entire mountain communities in the Lucchesia. The itinerant nature of the figurinai's work as well as the practice of hiring young children drew the attention of the public wherever they went. Thus changing attitudes toward them reflect the evolution of public opinion and legislation to both itinerants and child labor. Their adaptation of a craft that had existed for centuries demonstrates their ingenuity, while the objects d'art and busts of culture heroes they sold help us understand the relationship between the artistic tastes of middle, upper and working classes, and give us some indication of the historical figures they considered important.
|Origins and Early Development: (1650-1830)|
there is evidence that there were figurinai in the area of Barga and Coreglia
Antelminelli, in the province of Lucca, as early as 1660, it was not until the beginning
of the eighteenth century that their emigration had so expanded that town officials were
complaining about a lack of manpower.
By this time the craft had spread to other mountain villages and eventually to the valleys and hills close to Lucca. From passport requests made between 1805-1812 we can determine that during this period migration consisted exclusively of males whose ages ranged from ten to the late sixties. 2
Most groups of emigrants were related, and with few exceptions came from the same village or neighboring villages. Their destinations were major cities in Italy, in particular Venice, Bologna, Rome, Florence and Modena. More than half of those who left, however, traveled abroad. Most went to France whose physical and cultural proximity since Napoleon's sister ruled the principality of Lucca, probably accounted for its attraction. It is only after Napoleon's demise that we find more figurinai traveling in large numbers to other European destinations.3
Once they left their village the figurinai would travel toward their destination, stopping on the way to produce and sell their merchandise. Whatever its destination, the group or compagnia always followed the same practices. In Penny Magazine an English journalist describes one group of figurinai as they traveled toward England in 1833:
In the first half of the nineteenth century the figurinai's emigration was not permanent. A campagna or tour usually lasted from thirty to thirty six months. The favorite time for departure was at the end of the winter and during the Spring - February, March, April and May being the favored months. By this time the weather conditions had improved and the men were more easily able to walk to their destinations. Allowing time for travel, they would be able to manufacture and sell their merchandise on the streets of their destination during the summer and in the autumn when the weather was still mild.
By the early nineteenth century the compagnia
and its duties were well defined. The capo compagnia was usually the oldest and
most experienced man, who already had several campagne under his belt and enough
capital to accumulate the necessary molds, tools and equipment needed to ply the trade.
Under him were several men, or garzoni ,who were often his close relatives.
After several campagne, during which the garzone would accumulate both
experience and capital, he might ultimately form his own compagnia and break away
from the capo.
By the early nineteenth century
besides these famous gatti lucchesi the figurinai had a great variety of subjects
for their statuettes. The equipment bought in 1817 for 273 lire by Domenico
The classical subject matter and
learned character of most of the collection indicates that at this point in time some figurinai
were selling to the more affluent and educated rather than to the working class. The
size of some of the pieces as well as the extent of the collection is also a good
indication that by this date some figurinai could dispose of considerable capital
and probably sold their merchandise in shops.
In 1790 France began to enact a
series of laws which attempted to regulate beggars, itinerants, and the employment of
children. The thrust of these laws was to ensure that street entertainment was not simply
"un moyen de dissimuler la mendicitè" 11 (A way to disguise begging) The authorities, however,
applied them in a lax and random fashion, the main focus of their persecution being the
Italian street musicians and exhibitors of animals who used children to beg, rather than
the image makers.
What further aggravated their plight
was the police's strict enforcement of laws regulating peddlers and itinerants. In order
to avoid harassment many figurinai together with such Italian itinerants as
street musicians and animal exhibitors, went to England. By 1817 the figurinai were
such a significant presence there that John Thomas Smith under the caption "Very
fine, very cheap," depicts two of them in his Etchings of Remarkable Beggars
Itinerant Traders and Other Persons.13
It was from England that as early as 1840 many were to leave for the United States.
|The Height of Popularity: 1830-1900|
The years from 1830 to 1890 mark the period of highest popularity for the figurinai. The widening of markets for their craft and the increase in the number of figurinai who emigrated set the stage, however, for the rising unpopularity of the itinerant figurinaio and the craft's ultimate downfall.
By the 1840's figurinai could be found in most European
countries as well as North America where they had established flourishing colonies in New
York,14 Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia.15 In New York
most figurinai settled in Cherry Street. It was they who first introduced the
American sculptor Randolph Rogers to the art of modeling and casting in plaster. It was
reported that "Rogers had a fancy for carving, engraving, etc., and that he
frequently spent his evenings among the Italians in Cherry Street with the image makers.
He said he secured blocks of plaster from them and some of the tools that they used for
their work, brought them to the store, and that at leisure hours, evening or morning, he
spent his time in seeing what he could accomplish."16
While the sales technique of the figurinai may have inspired emulation, it was also the object of interest and humor. The satirical journalist Artemus Ward describes what was apparently a common sight in the streets of Cleveland and other major cities in the United States by 1860:
Although the image makers' selling methods were emulated, their
statuettes were not held in high esteem by American connoisseurs. The Italian
"busters" were accused of making the same bust over and over again, merely
changing the name to suit the occasion.
During this same period most figurinai who had settled in
England were working in London. Some of them such as Pier Angelo Sarti who became the most
important plaster caster of the British Museum, or Bernardo Gonnelli of Tereglio, who in
the early eighteen-hundreds had two shops of statues and molds in London, catered to a
cultured and affluent clientele. Most figurinai, however, could be divided into two
groups: those who manufactured plaster statuettes, and those sold them to the working
classes in the streets.22 The latter traveled from place to place, while those who
manufactured the statues had settled in one place often working out of their home.
In the past the figurinai had been identified as traders rather than as itinerants. By the late 1860's as their numbers had expanded to include contingents from the mountain villages of Modena and Pistoia as well as Lucca attitudes toward them changed. Their employment of children as well as the peddling of wares in the streets led to their identification with other poor Italian immigrants who lacked significant skills.26
This perception of the figurinai was to a large extent a reflection of the changes that their craft had undergone. While as early as the 1840's the capo compagnia recruited apprentices who were neither related to him nor from the same village, 27 by the 1870's it had become a business where speculators combed the countryside in search of poor families who for a given sum, would release their sons and sometimes daughters to them. These children, often ill clad and undernourished were then employed selling statuettes in city streets.28
Italy, which had become sensitive to the accusation that it was
discharging the dregs of its society on the rest of Europe,29 attempted to
pass a series of laws to regulate the emigration of children employed in itinerant
professions. Because these laws were not successful in stemming the exploitation of young
pressure mounted. Public opinion was mobilized by newspaper articles which daily reported
cases of children who were sold for a few lire to harsh masters. Popular novels for adults
and children were written documenting the desperate poverty and exploitation of young
figurinai and organ grinders.31
The result of this policy was that while Italian government authorities
interpreted the law as covering figurinai and all other wandering professions that
used children, the local authorities in Lucca continued to issue permits for passports to
minors who worked as figurinai. Adult figurinai knew that the success of
their trade depended on children selling the figurines. They quickly learned that they
could not operate as freely as they had in the past, thus in order to obtain passports for
the children who were to accompany them, many claimed them as their own: "Mentre
dichiarano di avere con loro dei figli invece sieno figli di altri, che seco conducono per
esercitare professioni girovaghe.''34
|Waning of the figurinaio 1880-1920|
This period is marked by the
continuing prosperity of villages with a high concentration of figurinai, many of
whom returned with their savings. It is also, however, marked by a complete change both in
the organization of their emigration and in the artistic and decorative tastes of the
Before the 1870's most figurinai emigrated to European countries, while only the more adventurous traveled to India, Australia, and the New World. Beginning in the 1870's, however, most figurinai from Coreglia and the surrounding area traveled to the New World, in particular to the United States and Brazil. By the 1890's they could be found in large numbers on every continent. But while during this period large numbers of Italians were beginning to settle abroad and call their families, the figurinai still followed their old migration pattern leaving in groups which included young boys and returning after a few years.The Craft of the figurinaio had changed considerably by the 1890's. It had by this time become a small industry, largely taken over by speculators. The Italian Ambassador to France, Paulucci di Calboli, writing about the figurinai of Paris in the 1890's concluded that
As a result of these practices, cities such as Paris were inundated with children selling figurines. Books, magazines and newspapers featured pathetic images of figurinai children victimized by their cruel masters,40
By this time the figurinai were not earning as much as they had in the past. Calboli's report states that their high earnings in France had been much exaggerated, and the mayor of Coreglia replying to an inquiry for statistical information, says that in 1897 their earnings were "mediocre''41 (meschini), In England, moreover, "they have little reward for their labors and are therefore obliged to work at other jobs in the winter." Their earnings on a good day amounted to five or six shillings, less than half what an Italian "penny-ice vendor''42 made. In the United States in 1897, an image maker wrote to Italy from Cincinnati complaining of low earnings and stating that "il mestiere delle figure non è come una volta." (the craft of the image maker is not like it used to be.)43
This decline in earnings could in part be ascribed to a change in popular taste. Until the 1880's in Europe and the United States, a piece of sculpture was considered a symbol of refinement and culture, and "no drawing room was complete without an "ideal figure" or bust to add tone to the embellishments of the room.''44 Because they sold reproductions of classical and contemporary sculptures as well as sentimental pieces to the working classes, the figurinai provided plaster copies for those who could not afford to decorate their parlors with original marble sculptures. By the turn of the century, however, popular taste had begun to move away from neo-classical marble sculptures such as Canova's, to the "increasingly naturalistic bronzes made by sculptors trained in the ateliers of Paris.''45 The figurinai copied these statues and gave them a bronze colored finish. But their appeal was very limited and could not, moreover, meet the competition of the less expensive daguerreotype which ousted the marble and bronze keepsake from its place of honor.46
Most importantly the figurinai's income decreased because they found themselves in a society that was becoming more urban and industrialized. Selling in the streets met with increasing hostility thus pushing the most enterprising to adapt and to try other work. This was particularly true in North America where there were few outdoor markets and fairs, and where as one 97 year old figurinaio reported "Americans were diffident about buying from street vendors.''47 Many who worked in Canada and the United States opened shops where they sold plaster, marble, terracotta and bronze statues. It was during this period that some opened businesses that produced the plaster of paris statues for immigrant churches. Those who continued to peddle restricted their work to saloons and ethnic enclaves within the larger cities, substituting the ungainly galera for a more manageable basket. Some saw that the art of the figurinaio had no future and having saved enough money opened different businesses such as saloons and vegetable or ice-cream stands. Others adapted themselves to the needs of the economy and its booming construction which needed stone-masons and plaster workers to decorate the completed buildings,48
Death of the Craft:
The figurinai from 1900 to the Present
|Figurinai continued to emigrate from the mountain
villages of the Lucchesia until the Second World War. However, as work opportunities
opened for them in industry and as increased urbanization placed obstacles in the way of
their itinerancy, their numbers decreased significantly.
Many who emigrated during this period left to join family members who had settled abroad. Those who were the poorest members of the community and who had few skills considered the craft of figurinaio, however unremunerative, to be their only economic outlet.
Because demand for statuettes had decreased and laws controlling child
labor were more strictly enforced, speculators curtailed their activities. By this time,
also, many families had settled abroad and had large well established businesses in
Europe, the Americas and Australia. In these they produced religious statuary and nativity
scenes for the Catholic churches the various immigrant groups were building,49
After the war, countries which were rapidly industrializing did not welcome immigrants they considered unskilled. While the craft of the figurinaio had been considered a skill in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was no longer recognized as such in the twentieth century. A circular issued by the Italian government in 1947 points out that while the government had no objection to the emigration of those figurinai who wanted to leave, it doubted that any foreign country would want them. Workers experienced in steel production or mining would be welcome abroad, the circular points out, while "the work of the figurinaio does not exist abroad and the specialty of working in plaster of paris is a craft, that everyone knows, is confined to the province of Lucca alone.''51 As a result the emigration of the figurinai, a tradition that had lasted more than three hundred years, stopped completely.
The post war period is marked by the development, in the towns of Coreglia Antelminelli and Bagni di Lucca, of a small cottage industry producing plaster of paris nativity scenes and saints. It is also marked by the gradual disappearance of the figurinai in the countries to which they emigrated and then settled. While the village industry is restricted to the production of plaster of paris religious statues, emigrants to other countries had moved to the production of garden decorations and high quality museum reproductions.
What is made at present by the heirs of the figurinai bears little relationship to what the figurinai produced at the beginning of their migration in the 17th century. The fine lines and simplicity of the "gatti lucchesi," the busts of famous men or the reproductions of masterpieces have, for the most part, given way to brightly colored statues of saints in their stereotypical poses and costumes, and to garden gnomes, deer, and fountains.52
Extracted from: Italian Americans celebrate life, the arts and popular culture. Selected Essays from the 22nd annual conference of the American Italian Historical Association. Editors: Paola A. Sensi-Isolani, Anthony Julian Tamburri, 1990.
Copyright © 1999 G.E.Fazzi. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
or redistributed without prior written permission from the author.
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