The art of papier-mâché in Lecce, a phenomenon unique to Apulia, dates back to a period between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the development of arts was linked to the increasing number of churches and monuments.
At this time, the craftsmen of Lecce discovered that the art of “plasticising” paper allowed them to create myriad sacred works to help summon the faithful back to worship when the Counter-Reformation Church was engaged in its crusade against the Lutheran heresy.
The craftsmen did not have access to precious materials, and as such they were forced to make use of other, poorer materials such as straw, rags, glue and plaster.
Though they only had a few modest tools, they possessed meticulous patience, a good temperament and inspiration.The need to invent new ways of bringing the believers closer to the Church resulted in a wide selection of decorative motifs borrowed from reality and adopted by the stonemasons, who created illusions out of stone, and the paper magicians who used papier-mâché.
These people were asked to personify devotion in the form of statues of Saints, Christ and the Madonna that would touch an intimate chord with the faithful. Papier-mâché was better for modelling the creator’s design than wood, and it imbued the works with the desired sentiments. The subsequent colouring made the statue seem alive and almost real, and the illusion was considered a success.
The barbers were the first to engage in this activity, merging art and craft. These artisans used the back of their shops as their salons and workshops, and in between haircuts they spent their free time modelling statues out of papier-mâché.
Indeed, the oldest papier-mâché workshop in the history of Lecce belonged to a barber, a certain Mesciu Pietru de li Cristi, so-called because of his extensive production of crucifixes. Mastr’Angelo Raffaele De Augustinis learned the art of papier-mâché from him, and in turn passed it on to Mesciu Luigi Guerra.
Today, the production of papier-mâché, which is exclusively concentrated in the capital of the province of Lecce, can unquestionably be considered the result of craftsmanship verging on pure artistic expression.
In general, the aim of it is to construct statues that recreate sacred subjects, sometimes even in full size, that require both technical and artistic skills: subjects in a static or dynamic position, realistic figures, faces expressing religious devotion, pain and joy, loaded with emotion and with careful attention to every detail of the paper folds.
Partly because of an increased interest on the part of young people, in recent years production has been directed towards a variety of new models: nativity scenes, dolls, home furnishings, masks and toys, without neglecting the tradition.
The splendid, typical Lecce baroque style of the Churches, Convents, balconies and balustrades, crucifixes, Madonnas and Saints made of papier-mâché express a truly unique language.
Visiting a papier-mâché workshop is like reading an unusual and fantastical tale of a humble material that gradually became increasingly valuable and unique.
It could be said that a statue is created out of nothing, or that it is the expression of an idea. It all begins with a bundle of curly straw, modelled by twisting it into twine, giving a rough shape to a spun iron core.
The hands, feet and head are made separately with clay. In addition to being able to work with paper, the papier-mâché artists must be good sculptors and know how to prepare the moulds according to given iconographies, which rarely undergo changes, such as those referring to saints and the Virgin Mary.
The moulds are often passed down from generation to generation.Subsequently, the figure is covered with several sheets of paper, which are pasted layer upon layer with glue made from flour, with an added touch of copper sulphate to prevent woodworm. The old masters added alum to the flour, which was effective against mould. The adhesive made in this way was called ponnula.
The first stage of the production concludes with the piece being dried by the air or the sun. Of course, the “trade secrets” must be taken into account, which the artisans are reluctant to let slip.
The preparation of the glue, which supposedly uses only water and flour, must have some mysterious “added ingredient”, given that when it boils it gives off an inexplicable aroma of cedar and incense.
The old papier-mâché masters say that the secret to the art lies in the 'fuocheggiatura' (finishing), the phase in which the statue is modelled with small red-hot spoons that are used to fix the movements or folds that have acquired imperfections during drying, and to consolidate the structure of the statue.
It can be carried out on paper that has just dried, or on paper that has been brushed with a layer of “pearl glue”, another hardening substance that facilitates the work and which turns reddish-yellow, enriching the tones of the paper. The statue can even be left like this, only 'fuocheggiata' (finished).
This is followed by casting, a procedure that requires a lot of experience and the use of the most suitable materials. For example, “Bologna plaster” is preferred for casting because of its absence of porous and absorbent properties, making it an excellent background for the colours and gold plating.
The final processes involve filling, polishing, colouring and decorating the details. The colours are oil-based, but there are some people who prepare it themselves with “earth” (amber, Siena earth, cinnabar) using ancient techniques known only to the professionals.
Curator—Camera di Commercio di Lecce