Italian Image Makers
France, England, and the United States

Paola A. Sensi-Isolani
Saint Mary's College of California

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 dell’epoca.

The 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)
While 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.
note.jpg (1473 bytes)1

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.  note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)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:

On arriving at Chambery, the artist, or the principal of this company, having received his moulds, would set to work, dispatching the boys who were with him through the city and the little towns and villages in the neighborhood, to sell the figures which he could rapidly make. When the distance permitted, these boys would return at night with the fruits of the day's sale to their master, who lodged and fed them; but it would often happen, when they took a wider range among the mountains and valleys of Savoy, that they would be absent for several days, under which circumstances they would themselves purchase their cheap food and shelter out of the money they might obtain for the goods they disposed of. When the market became languid in and about Chambery; the master would pack off his moulds and tools for Geneva, and follow them on foot with his little troop, each of whom would carry some few figures to sell at the towns and villages on the road to that city. At Geneva, he would do as he had done at Chambery; and when that neighborhood was supposed to be supplied, he would transfer himself and his assistants in the same way to some other place.
note.jpg (1473 bytes)4

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.
The molds for the figurines were usually carried from the village, but often a member of the compagnia was skilled enough to make them himself. This proved particularly useful when the figurinai found themselves in a country with statuettes whose subject had no appeal. The capo compagnia would then find the copy of a sculpture that he thought would sell, and the formatore would make the mold from which more marketable figurines would be produced.
In order to manufacture the figurines, the capo compagnia and the garzoni had to first acquire the plaster. They mixed it with water and poured it into the molds in a process known as gittatura. Once the plaster had hardened, the figurines were removed from the mold and allowed to dry. Some were then painted, while others were left white. The children of the compagnia, who accompanied their fathers, brothers or uncles, were employed selling figurines in the streets. The figurines were placed on pegs attached to a table, or galera as it was called. The young boy carried the galera on his head, and walked from place to place hawking his merchandise, and often arousing the pity and sympathy of his clients.
It is traditionally believed that the figurinai began by selling religious statues, particularly those necessary to make nativity scenes. From all indications, however, nativity scenes were not produced on a large scale until much later. The first and most popular statuette produced and marketed appears to have been that of a sitting cat whose simple lines allowed for easy reproduction. These cats were sometimes decorated or tinted with lamp smoke. They displayed a certain artistic sense and fineness of craftsmanship typical of the earlier statuettes and seldom found in the figurinai's later production, note.jpg (1473 bytes)5

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
Lino Tomei, a figurinaio from Tereglio included 300 molds of medals and medallions as well as 88 molds of statues and candelabra ranging from one to four feet in size. Among them were the Medici, Venus, an Egyptian woman, syrens, greyhounds, Flora and Lera, several miniaturized reproductions of the sculptors Canova and Michelangelo, several miniaturized reproductions of Greek and Roman sculptures such as Mercury, the dying gladiator, Apollo, Bacchus and Ariadne, Psyche; an Etruscan horse and two English horses; the busts of 14 ancient philosophers, of De la Fayette, of generals Wellington and Blucher, of the popes Leo and Alexander, and of Socrates as well as Socrates with Homer. note.jpg (1473 bytes)6

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.
At first these Italian wanderers seemed to have been well received: "Their dark expressive countenances, picturesque appearance, and quiet and inoffensive conduct" attracted the attention of the English. The author of an article in the Penny Magazine points out that "it is very rare to find in any one of the many countries to which these wanderers repair, a single proof of a crime or serious offence of any kind committed by them.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)7
He further says that "if they are to be held as vagrants, they must be considered as the most inoffensive and amusing of vagrants.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)8
They began to be distinguished from other itinerants not only because of their mild and sober manners but also because "by selling for a few pence the plaster busts of great men and casts from ancient works of art, they may pretend to the dignity of traders."note.jpg (1473 bytes)9
Furthermore ,it was argued by many that by selling cheap reproductions of great sculptures, they could be given the merit of improving and propagating a taste for the fine arts to the masses,
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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" note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.
The French Restoration (1815-1830) which followed Bonaparte's death and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, resulted in political turmoil in France. The changing political climate created problems for the figurinai who continued to sell statuettes and busts of Napoleon in the streets. While images of Napoleon were obviously popular with the masses, they were frowned upon by the authorities. This often led to the confiscation of the figurinai's merchandise as well as their arrest and repatriation.note.jpg (1473 bytes)12

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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)13 It was from England that as early as 1840 many were to leave for the United States.
Until the 1830's the craft of the figurinaio was essentially a family craft exercised by men and their sons. By 1830 a few figurinai had settled abroad and opened shops. However, most were itinerant subject to laws which began to control street peddlers.


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,note.jpg (1473 bytes)14 Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia.note.jpg (1473 bytes)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."note.jpg (1473 bytes)16
Speaking of his native Cleveland in the 1860's Artemus Ward describes "several gentlemen engaged in the bust business. They have their peculiarities and eccentricities. They are swarthy-faced, wear slouched caps and drab pea-jackets, and smoke bad cigars. (Toscani?) they make busts of Webster, Clay, Bonaparte, Douglas, and other great men, living and dead."note.jpg (1473 bytes)17
It is recognized that during this period it was in part the image makers who spread interest in sculpture throughout the United States:

Sculpture was distributed through the country by yet another means in the eighteen riffles and sixties. Enterprising Italian plaster workers in New York and Chicago caught on to the American hankering for sculpture and began to turn out thousands of little busts of figurines of Daniel Webster, Jenny Lind, Napoleon, and currently notorious murderers. These they peddled from door to door in large baskets or on trays balanced on the head. When John Rogers first started in the statuary business in New York, he too adopted this method of selling.note.jpg (1473 bytes)18

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:

The Italian buster comes upon you solemnly and cautiously. "Buy Napoleon?" he will say, and you may probably answer "not a buy." "How much givee?" he asks, and perhaps you will ask him how much he wants. "Nine dollar," he will answer always. We are sure of it. We have observed this peculiarity in the busters frequently. No matter how large or small the bust may be, the first price is invariable "nine dollar." If you decline paying this price, as you undoubtedly will if you are right in your head, he again asks, "how much givee?' By way of a joke you say "a dollar," when the buster retreats indignantly to the door, saying in a low, wild voice, "O dam!" With his hand upon the door-latch, he turns and once more asks, "how much givee?' You repeat the previous offer, when he mutters, "O ha!" then coming pleasantly towards you, he speaks thus: "Say! how much givee?' Again you say a dollar, and he cries, "take 'um---take 'um!"--thus falling eight dollars on his original price.note.jpg (1473 bytes)19

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.
Sometimes it was Webster, sometimes it was "Cole the Wife-Pizener," claimed Ward, but it was always the same bust.note.jpg (1473 bytes)20
Young children were also used to sell the image makers' figurines in the streets of the United States. There were so many of these "little Italian organ grinders and statuette-sellers who traverse our streets," that by 1856 the Children's Aid Society of New York had opened a night school for them in the city.note.jpg (1473 bytes)21

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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.
With the unification of Italy in 1861, travel from the peninsula, and especially from the kingdom of Naples where most street entertainers came from, had become easier.note.jpg (1473 bytes)23 As their numbers increased in the larger cities of Germany, England, France and the United States, attention was drawn to these "street Italians," to their strange dress and "swarthy complexion.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)24 Their practice of hiring children did not escape the public's attention, and soon opinion in these countries was aroused against them by newspapers and child protection societies which documented their exploitation of helpless children.note.jpg (1473 bytes)25

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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)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, note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)28

Italy, which had become sensitive to the accusation that it was discharging the dregs of its society on the rest of Europe,note.jpg (1473 bytes)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 children note.jpg (1473 bytes)30 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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)31
Italian diplomats abroad, especially those in France, England, and the United States, also put pressure on the Italian government. In 1868 a law forbidding the employment of children in the wandering professions was presented in parliament. Five years and many amendments later this law was passed.
In the province of Lucca where the art of the figurinaio was so widespread, and the practice of hiring children to sell the statuettes was such an accepted tradition, an attempt was made to disassociate the figurinai from the new law. When the Ministry of the Interior in Rome requested information on the number of children who had emigrated, the Police Prefect in Lucca, ignored the information furnished by several towns in his jurisdiction pointing out that children were emigrating as employees of figurinai at a very young age ("fanciulli di tenera eta") note.jpg (1473 bytes)32 and replied that no town in the district had children employed in the wandering professions. note.jpg (1473 bytes)33

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.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)34
During this period image makers, accompanied by young children continued to travel throughout Italy, in Northern Europe and the Americas selling their wares. For the most part their appearance was ragged, their manners were servile and abject, designed to elicit the pity of customers who would then buy their merchandise.note.jpg (1473 bytes)35 They sold religious statuettes, those of popular heroes or heroines (such as Joan of Arc, John Bull, Queen Victoria, Garibaldi, and Columbus among them,) small replicas of famous works of art, as well as decorative pieces of a sentimental nature. Their prices were cheap and the quality of their merchandise was generally considered shoddy. Instead of the friendly welcome they had received at the beginning of the 1800s, they had become the object of derision in the popular press. In England the satirical magazine Punch whose founder Mayhew had initially been sympathetic to them begins to mock their manners and the wares they sold.note.jpg (1473 bytes)36 In the United States their sales practices were associated with those of the organ grinder padroni against whom there was mounting opposition.


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 working classes.
As men continued to emigrate as figurinai in increasing numbers the mountain villages of the Lucchesia flourished economically, yet paid a high social price note.jpg (1473 bytes)37 Many figurinai had by this time returned to their villages and were living comfortably on their earnings. The American artist Joseph Pennel who traveled from Bagni di Lucca to Barga in 1883 describes his arrival in Barga, a town from which the figurinai had emigrated for more than one hundred years. As he arrives in town, he is approached by the mayor ("gorgeous in sash and top hat"),

"You 'Merican, you?" "Yes""Yes? --Me I sell him Cristofo
Colombo; me rich man me. Come dinner, you?" I came.
Under his own vine and fig tree, on that perfect day, by the
side of the church, we dined, looking down on his vineyard
bought with Cristofo Colombos..And Cristofo Colombo, the
hero and cause of it all, was not there. Everyone, save the
priests--and some of them, too---knew New York, Boston,
New Orleans and San Francisco better than I--had tramped
our land, each with his tray of plaster casts, and had sold
them; and each one, when he had saved enough, came back
and bought his little farm or vineyard and was going to live
happily ever afterward. For I then learned that all sellers of
plaster casts came from about Barga.-That was the first real
Italian dinner I had ever had--vermouth and pasticcio and
capretto arrosto con piselli and finocchio and dolci of zabaione
and sempre chianti.... The dinner lasted till Vespers and
then there was vino santo and cognac and strega and sigarre
Toscane[sic], and we sat on until dark....Then I had a little
supper at the quiet but rather tired out inn, and in the morning
went to work, or tried to, for it was not easy to escape from
the patrons of Cristofo Colombo; and to tell the truth, there
was rather a similarity in their stories, and they apparently had
no adventures, and they had all prospered, and here they all
were., and they had little Cristofos--and ecco! It was so
genuine and they were so delighted with their success over
there.note.jpg (1473 bytes)38


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

The businessman of today is nothing more than an ordinary
tout, like a glassblower, who takes his merchandise where he
can find it and abandons it without difficulty to any one of his
colleagues. Cases of abandonment of children are very
numerous and neither the children nor their relatives are
consulted. Abandonment happens every day, when the
bosses' business does not go well and when they find it much
cheaper to leave the price of repatriation of minor children to
the Italian authorities residing abroad. The ones who are
repatriated are happy, because the cruelty and torments which
the young image-makers have to suffer from the hands of their
executioners surpasses the imagination. We have seen a little
boy from the town of Pariana near Lucca, aged thirteen, with
sores on his head caused by the blows which his master had
inflicted on him with the statuettes which he broke on his head
when he returned home with too little money Another
young image-maker from Massa a Cozzile, Cesare Birindetti,
when he returned in the evening with little money, was beaten
on his naked body, by his master, who used the help of a
knotted rope. The young Birindetti fled, and after having
wondered for several days in Paris with the figurines and his
baskets, was repatriated by the Italian authorities note.jpg (1473 bytes) 39

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,note.jpg (1473 bytes)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''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.)note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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,note.jpg (1473 bytes)48


The Death of the Craft:
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,note.jpg (1473 bytes)49
By the late 1920's the figurinaio selling plaster of paris statuettes in the streets of Europe and North America was a rare sight note.jpg (1473 bytes)50 They continued, however, to be common in South America where urbanization and industrialization had not progressed as fast.

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.''note.jpg (1473 bytes)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.note.jpg (1473 bytes)52


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  • I Girovaghi Italiani in Inghilterra, Città di CasteIlo, 1893.
  • Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck. Yankee Stone Cutters: the First American School of Sculpture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.
  • Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor. 1861. Reprinted, New York Dover Press, 1968.
  • New York Historical Society. Dictionary of American Artists, Croce and Ward., eds. New York: Yale University Press, 1957.
  • Pennell, J. The Adventures of an Illustrator, New York: Little Brown and Co., 1883.
  • Punch, Illustrated Magazine. London, April 1819.
  • Rogers, John. Randolph Rogers. Ann Arbor.. Michigan University Press, 1978.
  • Penny Magazine, "Wondering Italians", February 16, 1883, vol. 1, no. 56.
  • Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. "London Italians", July 26, 1884, no. 1500, vol. 58, pp. 110-115.
  • Smith, John T. Etchings of Remarkable Beggars, Itinerant Traders and Other Persons.
    London: J. Smith, 1817.
  • Simonatti-Spinelli, Elvira. Il Piccolo Figurinaio Italiano. Palermo: Industrie Riunite Editoriali Siciliane, 1923.
  • Ward, Artemus. Complete Works. New York: Bart Franklin, 1898. 


  1. Archivio Storico del Comuni di Coreglia: Capitolo e Decreti della Comunità di Tereglio. 1578-1668.
  2. Ibid.
  3. In the seven years for which we have records, 1805-1812, six hundred and twenty six figurinai had left Coreglia for cities in French territory, one hundred and fifty seven more had gone to destinations in the French Empire. The rest went to various German states, Switzerland, Spain and Russia. These numbers do not, without a doubt, represent the total emigration to these counties since many left without requesting passports. Archivio di Stato di Lucca. Registro passaporti 1805-1812.
  4. The Penny Magazine, Feb. 16, 1833, vo.1 56: "Wandering Italians", p.43.
  5. The gatti lucchesi became a trademark of the image makers who were known as gipskatter in Sweden and Katzel Maker in the German speaking countries. A pair of seated chalkware cats, Pennsylvania, mid-19th century, possibly produced by the Compagnia of Triaca from Lucignana, Coreglia, who was in Philadelphia m 1850, sold for $80,300 at a Southeby auction, Feb. 1987.
  6. Archivio Srorico del Comune di Lucca, legato Giannini, 38.
  7. The Penny Magazine, op. cit., p. 42.
  8. 1bid.
  9. Ibid., p. 42
  10. Ibid.
  11. Maxim du Camp, "La Mendicite dans Paris", in Revue des Deux Mondes, May 1870, pp.  175-212.
  12. Between 1826 and 1827 10 figurinai from the province of Lucca were accused of sedition for displaying busts of Napoleon. Carbone, S. Fonti per la Storia del Risorgimento : ltaliani negli Archivi Nazionali di Parigi, Roma Istituto Storico del Risorgimento Italiano, 1962, pp. 87-88.
  13. Smith, John Thomas, Etchings of Remarkable Beggars, Itinerant Traders and other Persons, London: J. Smith, 1817.
  14. Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck, Yankee Stone Cutters: the First American School of Sculpture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1945, p. 12.
  15. New York Historical Society. Croce and Wallace, eds. Dictionary of American Artists. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.
  16. Rogers, J. Randolph Rogers. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1978, p. 12.
  17. Ward, Artemus. Complete Works. New York: Butt Franklin, 1898, pp. 115-125.
  18. Gardner, op. cit., p. 16.
  19. Ward, op. cit., p. 117
  20. Ibid.
  21. Children's Aid Society, Annual Report, New York: Wynkoop, 1856, p. 17.
  22. Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor, 1861. Reprinted New York: Dover Press, 1968, vol. 1, p. 301.
  23. Du Camp, op. cit., p. 199.
  24. The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. July 26, 1884, no. 1500, vol, 58, p. 113.
  25. Calboli, conte Paulucci di. I Girovaghi Italiani in Inghilterra. Città di CasteIlo, 1893: p. 144*.
  26. ibid.
  27. A contract drawn up in 1848 between the Triaca brothers of Lucignana, a hamlet of Coreglia, who were bound for England and the United States, and two young apprentices and their fathers, is a good indication that already in the mid-eighteen hundreds the craft was moving away from a family based venture. Sereni, B. Appunti di Storia sull'Emigrazione Barghigiana. Giornale Di Barba, #7 Nov. 1949, p. 15.
  28. In 1873 there were forty-eight children from the town of Barga, whose territory borders on Coreglia's working abroad as figurinai They ranged in age from 12 to 17 and could be found in France, Belgium, Great Britain, the United States, and Australia. Archivio Storico Barga, Lettera al Prefetto di Lucca. 7-3-1873.
  29. Calboli, op. cit., p. 144.
  30. Between 1867-1869, 2, 673 Italian children were expelled from France. See Calboli, op, cit., p. 117.
  31. In 1868, Guerzoni, a parliamentarian and child welfare advocate published a novel La Tratta di Fanciulli, which documented the desperate poverty and exploitation of a brother and sister from Southern Italy who were indentured to an organ grinder and taken to Paris. This novel was said to have influenced the cause of Italian children exploited in the wandering professions in the same way as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" moved American public opinion against slavery. Il piccolo figurinaio, a novel for children set in Paris in 1867, documents the exploitation of young image makers in France.
  32. Archivio Storico di Lucca, Archivio Prefetmra: Municipio di Lucca, 17 Oct. 1874.
  33. Archivio Prefettura: Lucca, 6 August 1874.
  34. Archivio Prefettura: Borgo a Mozzano, 1874, no. 294. Archivio di Stato di Lucca.
  35. Relazione Senato, 26:2 1870, Archivio del Senato, Firenze.
  36. Punch Cartoons, Punch, April 1819.
  37. In Coreglia, the need to open a post office in order to accept money orders from abroad, the increased construction of houses as well as skyrocketing land prices attest to the money that poured into the community. The high number of abandoned infants (between 1872-1890 equivalent to 15% of all births) as well as of illegitimate births, the low birth rate, and the number of women abandoned by their husbands attests to the social price villages had to pay for this emigration.
  38. Pennel, J. The Adventures of an Illustrator. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1883, p. 133.
  39. Calboli, Conte Paulucci di, Larmes et Sourires de l'Emigration ltalienne. Paris: Juven, 1909, p. 114.
  40. "A poor little seller of these plaster images, desolate at the idea of returning to his padrone empty handed and with his basket full of statuettes. "What? You are bringing back your merchandise, you imbecile who doesn't know how to sell! You will sleep without dinner tonight." (Di Calboli, Larmes et Sourires, p. 8). Di Calboli also quotes (,p. 52) a popular poem by Marlo Pezille entitled Le Marchand de Statuettes which described the suffering of a poor young figurinaio clutching a statuette and worrying that if he cannot sell enough his master will beat him.
  41. Archivio Comune di Coreglia, Risposta alla Circolare del Ministero dell'Agricoltura, Industria e Commercio, Set. 1897.
  42. Calboli, I girovaghi, p. 186.
  43. personal correspondence, Ugo Pisano, Cincinnati Ohio, June 7, 1987. In Museo del Gesso e dell'Emigrazione, Coreglia.
  44. Gardener, op. cit., p. 18.
  45. Ibid. p. 12.
  46. Ibid., p. 24.
  47. Conversation with figurinaio Rocco Angeli, age: 97. (Limano, Oct. 1986).
  48. It was in fact the figurinai from Barga and Coreglia who in 1893 completed most of the plaster and stucco decorations at the Columban Exposition in Chicago. As these men adapted their skills to more remunerative jobs they tended to settle at their destinations and their emigration thus became more permanent. 
  49. Da Prato Statuary in Chicago, United States; Gonnella, in Dundee, Scotland; Carli-Petrucci in Montreal, Canada; Molinari in Germany; Pellegrini in Australia, and Bernardini in Brazil.
  50. Bernardy, A. "Figure e Figurinai d'Italia Oltre l'Oceano," in La Nazione, 1 May 1929.
  51. Circolare del Ministero degli Affari Esteri, Telespresso 443717, February 1947.
  52. The author wishes to express her gratitude to Dr. Paolo Tagliasacchi, director of the Museo del Gesso e dell'Emigrazione, and Trento Gonnella, mayor of Coreglia, for facilitating her research in Coreglia Antelminelli.

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.

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