Figuristi di Gesso

Makers of Plaster Figurines

This page is intended for those who are interested in the emigration of plaster (of Paris) figurine makers from Italy.

Emigration of figuristi or figurinai di Gesso (plaster figurine makers), especially from the Tuscan province of Lucca was very common at the beginning of this century. Thousands of figuristi emigrated, first to the north of Europe and later to the Americas and Australia. Descendants of these figuristi are living all over the world but have their roots almost without exception in the Tuscan mountains of Italy, north of Lucca.

In these mountains, 30 km. north of the beautiful city of Lucca, you'll find a collection of small towns and villages close to a town called Bagni di Lucca. The making of plaster figurines started in Bagni di Lucca as early as theto Lucca14th century. As a matter of fact, a document from 1373 in the archives of Lucca mentions a figuris gesso, a figure of plaster. Nevertheless, emigration of the figuristi did not begin until the 18th century, when (according to Cherubini) a certain Salsini emigrated in 1712 with his son to Germany.
It took another century before the emigration from Lucca expanded

Some figures:
In the period 1866 - 1873
592 figuristi emigrated from Bagni di Lucca,
557 from Barga and
484 from Coreglia

These figuristi emigrated primarily to France and the Americas and to a lesser extent to England, Germany and Brazil. Some went to Austria, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Argentina and Switzerland. According to passport requests, entire families sometimes left their villages. The age of the figuristi generally ranged from 20 to 40 years.

In the beginning of this century (before the first world war), the number of emigrants from the valley of the Lima and Serchio, around Bagni di Lucca, was still increasing. In this period of time, 268 figuristi left their homes each year travelling to North and South America and later to Australia. Between 1850 and 1930, emigration caused a massive depopulation of the smaller villages, which then resulted in much fallow land.

What now was the cause of this mass migration from Lucca?

It certainly was not an easy step to emigrate in these times. The small villages were very isolated from the bigger cities, most of the time being only accessible by small paths through the mountains. As new inhabitants of a foreign country, these emigrants had to adapt to the yet unknown culture and language. Usually no help was expected. The area close to Bagni di Lucca was certainly not one of the poorest in Italy, and there was a relatively high degree of culture and education. Thus, poverty can not be considered the main reason for leaving. People had a great variety of incomes and were relatively wealthy.

The massive emigration probably arises from the tradition of seasonal migration. In winter, products were made to be sold elsewhere. As transportation improved, people moved farther in summer. At a certain point in time, a so-called chain migration took place. One individual (the chain pioneer) emigrated to another country and later returned to his family and friends as a wealthy man. Others dared to follow his example when they also came back wealthy, others, were stimulated to do the same. A chain migration was born. This chain might have been broken if the migration had not been successful. Obviously this was not the case since a mass migration took place. The first figuristi became almost mythical figures, and, alot of heroic stories are still being told about them. In fact, legend has that, in the discovery of America, Columbus arrives in the New World only to discover the figuristi already there and ready to welcome him with a plaster figurine.

In the initial years of the migration period, the figuristi left their homes for only short periods of time, one to three years, depending on the distance they had to travel. Usually figuristi left in a so-called compagnia, a group of not more than 8 people. These compagnia's had one to three capi, specialists who had experience in selling, casting and painting the plaster figurines. Sometimes, the capo knew how to make the mold (bona stampa) from original figurines. The pupils or garzoni were usually busy with selling the figurines along the streets of the big cities. When a compagnia came back to their native village, they remained there for about half a year before going abroad again. Although several garzoni undoubtably chose to stop their profession, others learned how to cast the plaster figurines and/or make the molds. They stayed with the compagnia as capo or started their own compagnia and went abroad again.

A critical article by Dr. Paola A. Sensi-Isolani named "Italian Image makers in France, England, and the United States" in which she reviews also the bad working conditions and childlabor of the figurinai di gesso

A story of one of the figuristi from Lucca is of my great grandfather Jacopo Giusto Fazzi who emigrated to The Netherlands in 1870.

Two examples of figurines made by my grandfather are shown here.

If you want to know more about the figuristi and their work,
visit the museum of the plaster figurine and the emigration in Coreglia Antelminelli (Lucca).

Area Map (Valley of the river Serchio and river Lima)
where most of the Figuristi came from.

Lots ofProvince of Lucca Lucca Links

Click here to go (back) to The Italian Genealogy Page.

A place to stay right in the area at Borgo a Mozzano.
Casa sul Monte:

Books on the subject:

De Italiaanse heiligenbeeldenmaker Giovanni Domenico Sargentini vestigde zich in de tweede helft van de negentiende eeuw in de Amsterdamse Jordaan. Zijn afstammelingen zijn rasechte Amsterdammers, die hun sporen hebben nagelaten in de Amsterdamse architectuur en beeldhouwkunst.

Figuristi Sargentini is het relaas van de speurtocht naar de afkomst van de Sargentini's.
De speurtocht voert Dick Schaap van de Jordaan, langs de Italiaanse ijsbereider Silvano Tofani van ijssalon Peppino, naar onder meer het beeldengietersmuseum in Coreglia Antelminelli en de Toscaanse badplaats Viareggio. Van daaruit leidt het spoor hem naar Bozzano, de geboorteplaats van Giovanni Domenico Sargentini.

Figuristi Sargentini is meer dan alleen een familiekroniek. Het is ook een kleine geschiedenis van de Amsterdamse Jordaan en het ambachtsleven in de 19de eeuw, en geeft bovendien inzicht in de omzwervingen van de Toscaanse gipsgieters

[Ook de familiegeschiedenis van de Fazzi's komt in meerdere hoofdstukken aan de orde. ed]

sargentini.jpg (28640 bytes)

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Copyright 1999 G.E.Fazzi. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from the author.