Wherever you are in Catania, you don’t have to look far to catch a glimpse of Mount Etna. As it peeks over the rooftops of its namesake Via Etnea and round the corners of the bustling alleys of Sicily’s second largest city, its presence is as imposing as it is calming.
Mt. Etna is Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, and its influence runs deep through Catania’s history and culture. To this day, architecture, sculptures and streets in the city all bear Etna’s iconic black lavastone. It can be found in churches, public spaces and ordinary homes, making its way into just about every area of Sicilian life.
Despite being responsible for destroying Catania and the villages surrounding Mt. Etna numerous times, through creativity and craftsmanship, the people who live in this area have harnessed lavastone as an important resource for the local economy and real works of art. In this report, we will explore the unique journey of Sicily’s love affair with lavastone as a material of beauty and function, and showcase its innovative role in Magda Masano’s dinnerware collection, On the Table.
The type of lavastone produced by Mt. Etna is basalt; the most common volcanic rock on Earth. The basalt is formed through the slow solidification of Etna’s lava flows, meaning its source is both natural and renewable, but limited in quantity. Mt. Etna’s basalt in particular is known for its durability, versatility and high resistance to heat. These characteristics have ensured that lavastone is the protagonist in Sicilian craftsmanship, used for functional and artistic works alike.
Traditional vs. contemporary extraction techniques
In the past, miners known in Sicilian as pirriaturi extracted only the superficial, more porous layers of lava which were easier to work with using simple handheld tools such as chisels, mallets and hammers, sometimes aided by explosives.
Today, however, the extraction process relies mainly on mechanical equipment, including shovels, bulldozers and excavators. To cut the lava into slabs, diamond tipped sawmills are used, alongside mechanical drills, flexes, cutters and sanders. These
advanced and powerful tools allow access to the deeper, denser layers of lava which can be lighter in colour and can be used for a variety of purposes. Although their role is reduced now compared with the past, artisan stonecutters continue their work in the final stages of lavastone extraction when they shape the slabs for specific purposes.
Traditional vs. contemporary stone carving techniques
- Lavorazione a pupillo – making indentations by hand with the use of a chisel. Used for flooring and road surfaces. Lavastone hammered with a fine chisel is used for thresholds, fountains, coatings for fireplaces, solid steps, arches and curbs.
- Lavorazione bocciardata – bush-hammering. A mechanical bush hammer is used to give the stone a rough, textured surface.
- Lavorazione pallinata – sandblasting. When subjected to a continuous jet of steel grains, obtaining a rough surface similar to orange peel. Used for exteriors such as stairs, steps, floors, squares, non-slip tiles, swimming pools, curbs, fountains.
- Lavorazione levigata – polishing. The polished lavastone is obtained by polishing the surface with a coarse-grained grinding wheel. The result will be a perfectly smooth surface, but not shiny.
- Lavorazione bucata o occhio di pernice – a type of lavastone known as partridge’s eye is light with a perforated surface. With the help of sandblasters it is possible to make its surface smooth while accentuating the natural perforations. Used for fireplaces, portals, arches, portholes, fountains, internal and external coverings.
- Lavorazione lucida – polishing. The polishing takes place by smoothing the surface with gradually finer grinding wheels, until all porous holes are filled and the surface is as shiny as a mirror. This kind of finely worked lavastone is easy to clean, resistant to shocks and scratches, and is used for interior furnishings, floors, stairs, kitchen tops, tables, thresholds, skirting boards, steps, frames, windows, sinks and fireplaces. Also used for the exterior coverings of modern buildings, shopping centres and bathroom surfaces.
- Lavorazione ceramicata – ceramasized lavastone, including Majolica. Dates back to the 1800s introduced in large part by the work of Filippo Severati who introduced the new technique for enamel paint on lava and its success blossomed due to its capability to resist atmospheric changes and outdoor conditions. The lava plate, once cut to the desired design, is sprinkled with ceramic powder to a thickness of 3mm. Then, it is decorated. The plate with the design is then fired at temperatures of around a thousand degrees so that the lava and the ceramic become fused. These decorated lava pieces are then able to be used as floor tiles, kitchen tiles, and wall panels. Seats, benches, bathroom and kitchen surfaces.
Historical use of Lavastone
Some of the oldest use of Etna’s lavastone was by the ancient Romans, who used it for the construction of roads as well as for the only known example of a Roman Amphitheatre made of volcanic rock. A portion of the 1,800 year old structure can still be seen in central Catania.
You cannot walk down a street in Catania without seeing lavastone. Starting in Via Etnea we walk down to Piazza del Duomo, home to some of the most iconic examples of Catania’s use of lavastone.
In the middle of the square is the unmissable U Liotru. The sculpture of an elephant, made from black lavastone, has been the city’s emblem since 1239. The origin of the curious sculpture is shrouded in mystery, some claiming it was a religious idol that protected Catania from Mt. Etna’s eruptions.
Architecture and decoration
Unfortunately, U Liotru did not do his job when in 1669 an eruption destroyed much of Catania and an earthquake 24 years later levelled its architecture. Subsequently, Sicilian architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini was tasked with rebuilding the city, and so Catania acquired its distinctive Black Baroque style that we see today. Vaccarini used the lavastone mainly as a decorative element, skillfully combining it with other rocks like limestone to create a striking contrast of black and white.The Black Baroque style features heavily in the city’s historical districts, examples include the Cathedral of Saint Agatha designed and Porta Garibaldi.
The presence of lavastone is also conspicuous in the houses surrounding Etna where lavastone arches, known as portico, were a ubiquitous feature. These arches were free from cement and used the keystone as a pivot. Embellished with foliage and letters, the carver had to determine the precise size and weight of the keystone in relation to the height of the arch.
In the past, very fine lava, the consistency of sand or flour was used to paint the exteriors of houses in this region. The lava was excavated from under the lava flows with the use of tunnels big enough for men and a particular breed of small mules. Then, it was mixed with lime and azole [crushed lavastone] and painted on the exterior walls, giving a distinctive red hue which would fade to grey over time. This tradition has now been abandoned and other modern products have been used to try and imitate the colour, but these don’t match up to this tradition, neither in terms of durability or consistency.
Contemporary use of Lavastone
The same characteristics that made it an attractive choice for the architecture, sculpture and streets of Sicily continue to make lavastone a popular choice for an increasingly wide range of products today. Thanks to the ceramization technique, we now see table tops, flooring tiles, sinks, furnishings for kitchens and bathrooms and exterior and interior coverings all made of lavastone.
Chosen for its durability, heat resistance and versatility, lavastone offers an elegant yet functional solution and demonstrates both lavastone’s and craftsmen’s ability to diversify in order to meet the demands of today’s market.
Magda Masano’s dinnerware collection, On the Table, demonstrates an innovation in the use of this incredible stone, featuring a range of plates, cutting boards, centrepieces, trays, place cards and more of different shapes and sizes made from pure lavastone from Mt. Etna.
The soft, curved forms of the table accessories, coupled with the hard and tough lavastone create a contrast that is truly a joy when handling them. The stone’s distinctive dark grey hue, speckled with flecks of black, white and sometimes burgundy, compliment the skillful selection of colours of the enamelled glazes. The designs range from contemporary geometry to those that echo Sicily’s ceramic tradition, but are always sensitive to enable the lavastone’s natural beauty to shine through. Finely handcrafted, the imperfections in these pieces are to be celebrated, not hidden.
From this range of designs in vibrant and muted glazes, the collection offers the freedom to select individual pieces and construct a personalised dinner set. With the collection, you are able to construct a microcosm of Sicily on your own table, enjoying fresh local produce off the material produced by the volcano that has allowed the island to become famous for its fertile soils, and which has provided one of its principle building materials, while still threatening its existence to this day.