The Papier-Mâché Artists
Matera, city of the “Sassi” and rupestrian churches, has always been a cradle of traditional craft skills rooted in the distant past. The local inhabitants are accustomed to working in terracotta, tuff, wood and papier-mâché, initially as a pastime and then for trade, resulting in the production of excellent artefacts.
The art of papier-mâché, in particular, is of spiritual as well as artisanal importance for Matera: it is the technique used to build the triumphal float in honour of the Madonna of the Bruna, the city’s patron saint.
There are two legends about the origin of Matera’s triumphal float.
The first tells of a beautiful maiden who asked for a ride from a poor peasant on his way to Matera. The man kindly seated her on his cart and when they arrived in front of the cathedral, the young woman murmured that she would like to make the same triumphal entry into the town every year. As soon as she said these words, the girl turned into a statue.
The second legend tells of how the inhabitants of Matera built a sacred cart to carry the painting of the Virgin Mary to safety during a Saracen attack. Once the painting had been brought to a safe place, the townspeople themselves destroyed the cart to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Saracens.
According to some local historians, however, the destruction of the cart dates to 1500, when Count Giovan Carlo Tramontano promised to donate a new cart each year for the 2 July the celebrations in honour of the Santissima Madonna della Bruna. To make sure the Count to keep his promise, the locals destroyed the cart at the end of each year’s celebration.
The first reliable accounts of the existence of a triumphal float, however, date back to 1690, when a purely functional wooden framework was very simply and soberly decorated with hand-painted papier-mâché.
For more than five hundred years, Matera's papier-mâché artists have perfected their work, celebration by celebration, interrupted only in 1940 by the Second World War.
Nowadays, the construction of the float is far from simple. The decorations, often based on religious themes, are genuine works of art, highly coveted by the inhabitants of Matera and admired throughout Italy for the splendid work of the artisans, who have become masters in the production and decoration of papier-mâché.
Each year, the Archbishop of Matera chooses a theme taken from the Gospels, which is presented to all the local papier-mâché artists. Each of the artisans then produces their own designs and the best one is chosen for the construction of the float.
First of all a plaster mould is created, to which several layers of absorbent paper are applied, alternating with sheets of newsprint soaked a special paste made from flour and water.
The paste is left to dry and then the two halves of the statue are joined together. After this, the painting and finishing begins.
The float is the most significant work of art by Matera’s papier-mâché schools, which have now become essential focal points for safeguarding and continuing the papier-mâché tradition, passing on techniques for its preservation and promoting knowledge of the artefacts that can be made with this technique, including some of Italy’s finest nativity scenes.
Curator — Camera di Commercio di Matera