A disappearing craft in Io, Il Pupo

An interview with alabaster artist Aulo Grandoli

Laura Bennett
August 1, 2016 - 18:05

Known simply as ‘Il Pupo’, Aulo Grandoli has spent his life working as an alabastraio in Volterra. He is 84 years old. Someone who has known him for a number of years is sports writer Luca Caioli. One late summer’s evening the two get to talking about the past after a dinner with friends and family. Il Pupo tells Luca’s 16-year-old son: ‘The world is broken. Who knows if you young people will manage to fix it.’ Struck by Il Pupo’s comments, Luca decides to tell his story. Thirty-three hours of conversation later and the book Io, Il Pupo is the result. It is the story of a craft that is disappearing, of a forgotten ideal, of a town, Volterra. It is a book of memories, artworks and opinions. A dialogue that looks back at life in Italy from the 1930s to the present day, offering a snapshot of a country that no longer exists and a world in need of change.


LC: What values did your parents have?
AG: My father was a communist. He had always been a party member, had always believed in it and hoped for a better world. My mother was constantly ready to sacrifice herself for others and she passed this on to her daughters. They had to do everything at home while the men did nothing. The women also had to go to the bottega to polish the alabaster. I never had much to do with my father, he wasn’t that interested in us as kids. He had been to elementary school and knew how to read and write. He read L’Unità and books about the partisans {...} He was a lathe turner; it was the most sought-after job. He specialized in scorollare, cutting into the block of stone and hewing it out to minimize waste {...} Back then we didn’t count for anything as kids. You had to do what your parents wanted e basta. You couldn’t have your own ideas or ask questions. What you learnt, you learnt from the street. The relationship between kids and their parents has changed dramatically: kids are in charge now.

LC: Let’s talk about Volterra. How would you describe it to someone who’s never been there?
AG: I’ve always thought of it as an island surrounded by important places: Florence, Siena, Pisa. An island in the middle of Tuscany. You walk around the walls and it expands your mind. The Etruscans, the Romans, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance: they’ve all left their mark. There has always been a cultural understanding. Craftsmanship was thriving and alabaster was meaningful. Now it’s all about business: bars, shops, pizzerie, paninerie. It’s frightening how many there are. It’s a miserable place, we’re just living on past glories and ancient monuments. It should be a cultural center where people want to come to learn about alabaster but that’s never been encouraged. Quite the opposite.

LC: Tell me about alabaster.
AG: Alabaster is perfect: you can see what you’ve created immediately. Its color and shading depend on the structure of the ground, the minerals, substances, and organic materials. I love working with it. Cutting, breaking, carving, it’s like therapy. If I didn’t have my bottega I really don’t know what I would do.

LC: Do you remember when the front came through Volterra in the summer of 1944?
AG: We were lucky because when my father joined the partigiani, people said there would be reprisals. We had to hide in a village, but the Germans came through and people died. My mother refused to leave because she had four kids and it was difficult. She chose to stay with family in a refuge in Borgo San Giusto instead. We were there for nine days. On the last night we heard a huge bang: they’d blown up the road. Next morning we were told there weren’t any Germans left in Volterra and people started coming out to wait for the Americans.

LC: What were the 1960s like, the Vietnam War, the Autunno Caldo?
AG: It was a period of hope. It seemed as if the world really was going to change, but I had my doubts. A young student told me about the revolution but I said I was afraid it would all go back to the way it was before, piano, piano. Capitalist society is so powerful.

LC: What do you think about today’s world?
AG: I don’t like anything about today’s world.

LC: Why are you so negative?
AG: What’s going well? Tell me because I really don’t know. Money prevails. We’re in the hands of the banks and the multinationals. It’s money that makes you powerful these days, not your qualities as a human being. I can’t see anything positive; even progress has been exploited in the wrong way.


LC: Do you think there’s anything that can save the world?
AG: As far as I’m concerned, friendship is the only thing that’s valid. You’re so busy trying to survive that you don’t have time to look around you, time to be with other people. People think they’re making their lives better but by doing so they’re hurting others.

Io, Il Pupo
by Luca Caioli is available for purchase in Italian from Le Distillerie. A publisher is currently being sought for an English translation.

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