We The Italians | Italian handcrafts: Rolo inlaying

Italian handcrafts: Rolo inlaying

Italian handcrafts: Rolo inlaying

  • WTI Magazine #132 Oct 24, 2020
  • 65

An important role in the production of Italian wooden furniture with inlaid decoration must be attributed to the workshops of Rolo, a centre in which this art was already established in the eighteenth century. The merit is due in particular to the rural environment, with its knowledge of wood and woodworking techniques.

The construction of inlaid furniture in this area was also encouraged by the presence – for about three centuries, until 1776 – of the aristocratic Sessi family, who commissioned fine furniture. At this time, the guilds tended to hinder the development of crafts rather than protect them. Rolo therefore benefited from the absence of any such guilds, as well as from its strategic location on the border between the provinces of Reggio, Modena and Mantova. The development of its workshops was also helped by the policy of the Sessi counts, who placed no burdens on those who practised arts and commerce.

In the eighteenth century, when artistic cabinetmaking reached its highest levels of quality in Italy, ten workshops were operating in Rolo. These were mainly engaged in the construction of chests of drawers, drop-leaf bureaus and tables for various uses, all inlaid with carvings, designs and particular cabinetry details, as shown by the discovery of Louis XIV and Louis XV furniture made by cabinet makers from Rolo. The most active workshops in the middle decades of the eighteenth century produced a wide range of Rocaille-style furniture, commissioned by religious institutions and wealthy families living in the nearby Duchy of Este and the Bologna area. 

Other business opportunities were provided by the major trade fairs of that time, such as the one held in Reggio Emilia in May. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when Baroque and Rococo were no longer predominant, there was growing demand for furniture influenced by a neoclassical style, and inlaying returned to occupy a prominent place in furniture decoration. During those years, and almost to the middle of the 19th century, the Rolo workshops produced all types of inlaid furniture, for furnishing living rooms, bedrooms, places of study and offices.

In the second half of the 19th century the most skilful inlayers proved capable of adapting to new aesthetic trends and the changes brought by the start of industrial growth in the Italian economy. The centre table was considered one of the most desirable and important items of furniture for the living rooms of bourgeois houses and the cabinetmakers of Rolo specialised in the construction of this piece of furniture.Small machinery began to appear in most workshops to facilitate certain repetitive operations, although the management remained in the hands of the craftsmen. 

Thanks to the railway network, maritime transport and postal services, the inlayers also managed to market their coffee tables in Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, North America and some countries of Latin America. The inlaid tables from Rolo were one of the earliest examples of progressively assembled furniture in Italy, preceded in Europe only by the great Austrian production of bentwood chairs (Thonet). This allowed the final cost of the product to be reduced.

In the early 20th century, between six and seven thousand inlaid tables were being produced in Rolo each year, employing with a workforce of around two hundred, including both adults and minors. 

However, the closure of many frontiers during the First World War led to a fall in exports and declining sales, which was accentuated over the following years by the establishment of new aesthetic tastes. With its inlaid furniture, the ancient cabinetmaking of Rolo has now become a source of inspiration and the focus of renewed interest from some workshops connected with artistic woodworking, obviously due to different circumstances and motives than those of the past.

The Inlaying

The municipality of Rolo still has workshops involved in the production, restoration and marketing of inlaid furniture, under the “Tarsia di Rolo” and “Tarsia Tradizionale di Rolo” trademarks, created as a guarantee for both the craftsmen and the purchasers.

The “Tarsia di Rolo” trademark is used for inlaid wood products designed in a style that is modern or not strictly bound to tradition and produced within the Rolo area, whereas the “Tarsia Tradizionale di Rolo” version is used exclusively for artefacts in wood featuring the typical shapes and decorations of Rolo inlaid furniture production, carefully and creatively revised according to a new and refined artistic taste.

The “a buio” inlay technique was prevalently used in Rolo neoclassical-style furniture, involving the insertion of various types of wood different from that of the support into recesses carved in solid wood or veneer to create geometric and figurative decorations through the combination of various colours. One of the most common types of decoration was the use of stylised, symmetrical racemes placed within bordered geometric panels. 

Once the centre of the panel was determined, the desired design was marked out using the powder technique. The mark left by the charcoal powder was scored using a small carver’s knife. The strings inserted into recesses, obtained from strips of willow or maple, were immersed in boiling water to make them more pliant and then glued in place.

From the second half of the nineteenth century, geometric inlays were mainly used in the decoration of the tables produced in Rolo. The inlaid motifs were created while the wooden base was being veneered with more precious woods of various different colours.

The tables from the second half of the nineteenth and the twentieth century also featured boulle inlay: the prick and pounce technique was used to transfer the original design to a panel of light-coloured wood, usually maple, which provided a contrast with the walnut base. The outlines of the figures were more clearly defined in pencil and then perforated. The (white) “part” was inserted into the (dark) “counterpart” and both were then glued to the poplar base support. Before varnishing, the central perforated motif was completed by etching the defined detail.

By Camera di Commercio di Reggio Emilia with Unioncamere