Book Review: The Magic of Scagliola

A new book, The Magic of Scagliola explores the most arcane of all the traditional building arts: scagliola.
By Clem Labine ,

I’ve just run across a brand-new book, The Magic of Scagliola, that strips away much of the mystery surrounding the most arcane of all the traditional building arts: the restoration and creation of scagliola. The author of this fascinating new volume is David Hayles, master plaster artisan and co-founder of Hayles & Howe -- and who has probably made and restored more scagliola than any other living person.

The sumptuous Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne, IN, makes copious use of Marezzo scagliola, as seen here in the columns and side panels of the Circuit Courtroom. Hayles did scagliola restoration for the building’s centenary celebration in 2002.

Although many people are unfamiliar with the term “scagliola,” everyone has seen it. Scagliola is hand-made artificial marble composed of gypsum plaster, animal glue, various pigments and water. Evolved in Europe during the Renaissance, scagliola found widespread use in the U.S. during the early 1900s in churches, theaters, banks, courthouses and other public buildings. When we see “scag” in the interiors of such places, our eye tells us it is real marble. (Hayles gives us a simple test to distinguish between the two: Real marble feels cool to the touch, while scagliola feels warm.) Color and veining in scagliola is integral to the material, so scratches and dings in the surface don’t remove the color as happens with painted marbleized surfaces.

Although the materials are simple, procedures for making scagliola are not. Creating scagliola demands extensive knowledge of how materials react, combined with the skilled hands of a master plasterer, plus the keen eye and instincts of an artist. The number of subtle variations in production techniques and recipes are probably as numerous as there are scagliola artisans. That’s why for centuries craftsmen zealously guarded their scagliola secrets. Happily, Hayles’s volume provides the reader with an excellent understanding of many of the variations

Scagliola is somewhat more economical than real marble, but it has other advantages besides cost. First and foremost is creative freedom for the architect. A designer can specify any type and combination of “marble” without worrying about sourcing from far-away locales and long fabrication and delivery times: An experienced scagliola studio can be the single source for any color and shape of “marble.” Because it is worked in a plastic state, it is easier to produce complex shapes in scagliola than via fabrication of hard natural marble.

Titled The Magic of Scagliola, Hayles’ 324-page self-published hardcover volume has hundreds of full-color images of scagliola installations in Europe and the U.S. -- plus numerous step-by-step photos of scagliola production. Despite its colorful appearance, I wouldn’t call it a coffee-table book. It is aimed primarily at a professional audience: Architects, interior designers, plaster artisans, and other practitioners. It’s essentially one artisan’s master class -- an attempt to pass along to new generations much of the knowledge Hayles has accumulated over a lifetime.

Fully half of the opus is devoted to the little-known origins and development of scagliola in Europe, with informative photos and short descriptions of more than 35 noteworthy installations. Turning to the New World, Hayles recounts the history of scagliola in the U.S., illustrated by installations and restorations in nine major U.S. buildings -- including the U.S. Capitol. Hayles also provides detailed methods for making traditional scagliola, including 10 reprinted pages on scagliola from William Millar’s 1897 classic “Plastering, Plain and Decorative.”

In addition, it includes history and recipes for Marezzo scagliola based on Keene’s cement (also called “American scagliola” because of its wide use in the U.S. in the early 1900s). Practitioners will find recipes, techniques and photos for making eight specific types of scagliola, including porphyry, malachite and Verona rosa.

Currently, the only mail-order source for this limited-edition book is Steven Schuyler Bookseller. The price of this richly informative volume is $90, postpaid. 

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