One of any child’s most favourite crafts surely must be the sticky, messy art of papier-mâché? Who doesn’t recall with fondness the childhood memories of trying to prevent torn pieces of old newspaper from slipping across a blown balloon as you slathered heap upon heap of wallpaper paste from a margarine tub across it with a tiny plastic spatula? Your hands would become wetter and stickier than the craft itself and, as if that wasn’t enough, you would then have to wait a day or two before your hard work would be dry enough to paint. Your patience would be rewarded when you could burst the balloon, cut the hardened newspaper in half and create a mask that would be your very own work of art from start to finish. Remember those days? Even the thought of it has me reaching for a damp cloth to wipe my hands and anything else they’ve come into contact with!
Who would have thought that papier-mâché newspaper, wallpaper paste and balloon craft wasn’t just a way of keeping young children happy and creative in a slapdash and slipshod kind of way, but an actual art form? Well, the tremendously talented scultors and artists of Lecce, actually.
Visitors to Lecce cannot avoid the sheer beauty within it. The paved streets lined with buildings made from the famous Lecce stone, and the wonderfully ornate baroque decoration that runs through them all plunges you into an area of a great and interesting past. As you walk along you will notice the presence of statues and ornaments gracing the shopfronts you pass. Take a moment to stop and look closer, and you will notice that what you might originally have thought to be wooden or even perhaps plastic is actually neither.
These intricate, detailed works for art are made from papier-mâché.
The artistic skill required to create these papier-mâché masterpieces is not to be underestimated. It is a craft that has been passed down from generation to generation and the town of Lecce particularly is famed for its trade. The roots of the art of cartapesta, as it is more accurately known here, can be traced as far back as the 17th century. The lavishness and overelaboration of the baroque period meant that the more ornamented and extravagant the decorative style, the better it was. During this period, churches in the north of Italy began to introduce life-sized models of saints and religious figures. There, they could source and afford marble or bronze from which to create the statues to decorate their churches. In the south of Italy however, the materials and the money were both harder to come by.
With demand in Lecce rising for the artists to create suitable statues to rival those of the north, a solution had to be found which would enable them to create the products quickly and cheaply using whatever materials they had available. And so the art of cartapesta was born. The Basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce is one example of the skill and talent that the masters of this art developed. Look at the intricate detail. It’s hard to believe that this and my papier-mâché balloon mask are in any way related.
I think the two are probably very, very distant cousins or something. Because, and I’m not saying my five-year-old self’s papier-mâché skills are in any way bad, but I wasn’t quite close to this level of skill.
Yes, even the ceiling is made from gloop.
Our family stopped by a cartapesta workshop to see the artists at work and it was every bit as fascinating as you would imagine it to be. To begin with, you really didn’t know what to look at first…
There were statues and models everywhere! Some were small and others were life-sized…
Body parts graced a wall on one side…
While saints and panda bears gathered on another…
All of them are exceptionally extraordinary with the artists here having been honing their skills for many years. When creating religious statues, they explained, they will refer to drawings and recreate the statues from them. Otherwise, no designs are planned in advance. They are developed as they progress, created as the artists work on them.
Each model takes an average of 7 to 10 days to make, from start to finish.
First the ‘skeleton’ of the model is created with wire.
Once the frame has been created, straw is used to wrap around the wire, creating the statue’s shape.
String is then wound around and around to secure the figure. A papier-mâché solution made of glue, flour and a sulphur-based coating is mixed…
…and used to glue on the thick paper around the wire, straw and string base.
Once covered, the model is blow-torched and sculpted before it is painted. This gentleman has been doing this job for 41 years.
And the work he creates is just incredible.
The skill of cartapesta is something that you will not want to miss witnessing if you visit Lecce. It is somewhat unique to the area and a skill that has withstood the test of time, and looks like it will continue to do so for a long while yet! To see first-hand the skills and talent behind the art is inspiring and educational and the children (and parents!) were in absolute awe.
Tailored tours and visits to best suit you can be arranged through touranGo!, the Puglian tour company that prides itself on bringing the real Puglia to visitors through human experiences, with whom we enjoyed this visit. Find out more about any of the 200 human experiences available through them on their website www.tourango.it.