What does ‘scagliola’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scagliola…

In Rachel Cusk’s plot-free novel Outline, she presents a word I had never before seen, scagliola. Upon using the dictionary, however, I came to learn I was already quite familiar with what it meant. Here’s how Cusk used the word:

But he was growing an old dog now, and he tended more and more to lie not even under the fountain — for the cobbles were too hard for his old bones — but in Mrs. Browning’s bedroom where the arms of the Guidi family made a smooth patch of scagliola on the floor, on in the drawing-room under the shadow of the drawing-room table.

Scagliola, it turns out, is imitation marble or other stone, made of plaster mixed with glue and dyes which is then painted or polished. I had a friend who did this kind of work for a number of years and made a very successful business of it.

The word is derived from Italian scaglia, meaning “chips,” and the technique came into fashion in 17th-century Tuscany as an effective replacement for costly marble inlays.

In the United States, scagliola was popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Important US buildings featuring scagliola include:

  • Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana,
  • Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi (1903),
  • Belcourt Castle in Newport, Rhode Island,
  • old El Paso County Courthouse (Colorado) in Colorado Springs,
  • Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, Kansas,
  • Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York,
  • Navarro County Courthouse in Corsicana, TX.
  • St. Louis Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri (Grand Hall)
  • Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet, IL,
  • Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, MT,
  • French Lick Resort Casino, French Lick, IN

The picture at the top of this post shows a detail from the Allen County Courthouse.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Aug. 21/19.

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