The origin of Cartapesta as an artistic expression dates back to seventeenth century Italy. Development of the art was assisted greatly by the construction of many churches and monuments. The Catholic Church attempted to bring the faithful back to worship during the counter-reformation period when Lutheran influence was growing. They built elaborate cathedrals with much ornamentation and many statues of all the well-known Saints to entice people to return to the Catholic faith.
This proved a very costly venture and, as this excessive religious art program neared completion, monies became less available. Local paper artists befriended some of the northern stone carvers and Neapolitan sculptors and together devised an affordable method for creating larger than life-size statues and exquisite architectural detail for a fraction of the cost of carved stone. Cartapesta was born.
By the late 1700s Italians were known throughout Europe for these lovely, affordable, stone look-a-likes, and for newly available painted statues of well known Saints, and Crèche sets. Large figures were the fashion until the 18th and 19 th centuries when the people demanded miniature versions for themselves.
The sculpted terracotta busts, hands and feet are mounted on a straw wrapped steel wire form. Arms and legs are positioned and paper is tightly wrapped around the straw and tied with silk string. Hand-made, glue moistened sheets of paper are carefully draped and attached to the figure to form the clothing foundation. Larger statues have additional patches of glue-moistened paper applied to build up the thickness of the garments. Hot metal burnishing tools are rubbed over the surface of the paper to smooth, shape and preserve it. A plaster is applied several times, each layer sun dried and sanded smooth by hand. It is the multiple layers of hand-sanded plaster that create the stone like appearance of the museum quality pieces.
Today a few artists, for the most part, university art professors, continue to practice the labor-intensive process of Cartapesta in the restoration of antique figures for cathedrals and museums worldwide.
The Italians first learned the art of making paper from the Egyptians. It was centuries later when the Italians began using paper to create sculptural art, called Cartapesta. The intricate process of Cartapesta was originally developed as a supportive craft function for use in church statuary and architectural detail.