The Art and History of Italian Inlay
by Taylor Evans May 05, 2023 6 min read
Italian inlay has a rich and colorful history that dates back to at least the 11th century, although the craft itself has been around for much longer. Today, Sorrento, Italy is the center of the industry and is known for its exquisite craftsmanship.
To truly appreciate the art of wooden inlay, you need to understand its history and the process.
What is Italian Inlay?
Inlaying is a process of inserting different materials into a base material. It’s used to decorate flat surfaces, such as boxes, desks, tables and urns for ashes.
The complex inlaying process creates intricate designs that are nothing short of stunning. What’s even more impressive is the fact that this practice has such a long history in Italy.
The History of Italian Inlay
Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, spoke of the wooden inlay process in book 16, written in the first century AD. He described beechwood as being easy to work and flexible, making it an ideal option for desks and boxes. Pliny describes a number of other woods that were commonly cut into layers, including maple, root of the elder, palm, box, poplar and holly.
Turtle shells were also used in the craft, according to Pliny.
At the time of the Roman Empire, the craft was known as intarsia or tarsia.
Over time, the art of inlaying continued to evolve. During the Renaissance, the intarsia craft flourished. Grand examples of this work can be found in Umbria’s Cathedral of Orvieto.
By the time we reached the 1400s in Tuscany, craftsmen were enriching their inlay work with shadows and using different perspectives. They became realistic paintings.
In the 1500s, Italian inlay art shifted to geometric patterns similar to the modern works we see today.
Examples of inlay works can be found all throughout Italy’s churches, museums and palaces. The Doge’s Palace in Venice, for example, features inlaying in geometric patterns that look as though they are floating in the air.
Intarsia was commonly used in architecture for decoration, but it was also used to create balconies, friezes and entryways. Inlaying adds a level of sophistication and grandeur that’s difficult to recreate.
Today, the craft is still alive and well in Italy, particularly in Sorrento, which is world-famous for its woodworking.
The Intricate Inlay Process
The inlaying process is a complex one that requires precision, attention to detail and patience. Each element is cut independently, similarly to how stained-glass windows are made. While every artisan has their own process, here is a general overview of how inlaying works.
Drawing, Marking, and Carving
The first step is to draw or trace the desired design, which is called cardboard. The design is sometimes colored with gouache and the outline is made as sharp as possible to ensure precise cuts.
Next, the design is carved onto the wood. Everything from the outline of the shadows to the direction of the wood grain is taken into account.
Cutting the Wood Veneer
Craftsmen use their expertise to select the right wood species for the design. Wood is chosen based on its colors and patterns to create works of art.
Each veneer is cut according to the design’s outline and shaded immediately.
Cuts are made using manual, laser or electric saws.
Assembling the Inlay
Once a tensioned background has been prepared, the next step is to assemble and press the pieces.
All of the pieces fit together like a puzzle. After being glued onto kraft paper, the design is put into a press for 12 hours. The pressing period allows the pieces to stretch. Joints are filled with wood dust.
Gluing, Sanding, and Polishing
Once the pressing is done, the pieces are glued onto another wood veneer or a piece of plywood.
Next, the kraft paper is removed, and the piece is sanded down or polished.
Once the piece has been sanded down or polished, it’s time for the final step: applying shellac or hard wax. Shellac is the classic finish for inlay work, but either one will help preserve the piece for years to come.
Sorrento, Italy – The Center of the Industry
Sorrento, Italy sits in the Campania region in southwestern Italy. Picturesque and enchanting, the city inspires artists across the world to come to its shores. Sorrento’s immersion in beauty helps artists create new, stunning works.
The hillside oasis attracts tourists and artists who want to enjoy a slower pace of life compared to bustling cities, such as Naples.
In Sorrento, skilled artisans have been creating a vast number of inlay works since the 19th century.
For generations, craftsmen have been drawn to Sorrento for its superb woodworking. Generations of artisans have passed down their skill in woodworking to friends and family – and students.
Apart from history, Sorrento is also famous for:
- Inlay art
Handcrafted woodwork goes back centuries in Sorrento, and the artisans do not like to use coloring agents in their works. Instead, they opt to use veneersmade from different colored wood to make their art “pop.”
For example, a Sorrento woodworker may choose to add elm or rosewood as an inlay color to their work.
Today, Sorrento is best known for its inlay music boxes, although you can still find stunning works of art and wall panels from skilled craftsmen.
Note: Marquetry is an art that is very similar to inlay, but it does have a slight difference. One example is that with inlay, as we’ll discuss more shortly, the pieces are cut into specific shapes, while they are not cut with marquetry.
How Sorrento Woodworkers Make Inlays
Woodworkers in the region spend a lifetime refining their craft, but some of the “trade secrets” are more well-known than they were in the past. When working with inlays, veneers, like those we discussed previously, are used for coloring.
The artist will trace pictures onto the wood’s surface to improve precision and reduce the risk of the final product coming out less than perfect.
Adding color requires the artisan to:
- Carefully choose the wooden veneers they plan to use
- Cut the wood into the desired shapes, in some cases the wood is colored
- Piece the wooden pieces together, similar to a puzzle
Finally, the inlay is then placed into the final piece of art – in our case, a box cremation urn. Once the artist is content with their work, they’ll polish it with a lacquer to provide its unique shine.
Sadly, inlay and woodwork are becoming harder to find in Sorrento as younger generations have less interest in the craft that their ancestors saw great value in just a century or two ago. The masters of inlay today are highly dedicated to the inlay craft and create one-of-a-kind artwork with it.
Even when the same Italian inlay urns for adult ashes are created, they will have slightly different aspects to them due to them being handcrafted. Just as your loved one was in life, each urn that is handcrafted is truly unique and special.
The Amalfi Collection: Three Exquisite Inlay Designs
Our Amalfi collection is a stunning example of Italian inlay. These ornate cremation urns are works of art, offering the deceased a beautiful place to have their ashes stored. Each piece is handcrafted, so no two pieces are exactly the same.
The attention to detail and complex inlaying process makes these wooden cremation urns truly special.
The Amalfi collection is comprised of three main models:
Adult Amalfi Hugo Cremation Urn
The Hugo wooden cremation urns are designed for adult ashes and have dimensions of 7.5” x 7.5” x 7.5” with 274 cubic inches of interior space. Ashes are added to the urn with a bottom plate firmly secured with screws.
Hugois a beautiful example of how complex and intricate Italian inlay work can be, with its geometric patterns and gorgeous azure color. The lines in the pattern are interconnected and create the illusion of going on forever, much like the memories of our loved ones.
Adult Amalfi Azzurro Cremation
Azzurro is one of the most stunning examples of inlay, featuring a blue cube exterior and white inlays. The urn is a true work of art that uses high-quality wood and laser engraving to create intricate design patterns. Dimensions are 7.5” x 7.5” x 7.5”.
The Azzurro urn features ornate floral details that interconnect. The pattern is symbolic of the cyclic nature of life, and the rich azure color is both calming and peaceful.
Adult Amalfi Fiore Cremation Urn
Fiore, or flower, in Italian, is the final urn in our collection, and it is different than the other options on our list. This adult urn has flowers in an array of colors on the exterior, all connected with a stunning inlay design.
Like the other patterns in our Amalfi collection, this one represents interconnectedness and the cycle of life.
The floral pattern repeats on each side of the wooden urn.
One major difference with this urn is that it is rectangular in shape with a 12.2” length and a width and height of 5.9”.
Click here to view our entire Amalfi Collection, featuring Italian inlay.
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