The Fillarte workshop provides an insight into how carved figurines are created from raw wood through a process of modelling, carving, painting, and embellishment.
Craftsmanship has a long tradition in Val Gardena. People began carving here in around 1600. Wooden toys were the first objects to be made, and later artistic works. This provided extra income to supplement the often meagre livelihoods of peasant farmers.
The Fill family has likewise pursued an artisan path since the 1930s. Helmuth Fill discovered his passion for creative woodworking in the workshop of his grandfather, who turned bowls from pine wood. His interest in the symbolism of nativity scenes and colours, in religious and historical influences and in the philosophy behind the nativity scene ultimately grew into a great passion. Over the years, the carving of nativity scenes has thus become the principal focus in this South Tyrolean family workshop. The Fill family identifies itself as part of the Verband der Krippenfreunde (Association of Crib Friends), which has the task of maintaining the crib tradition.
Wood is a natural, sustainable raw material which, thanks to its properties, can be used in many varied ways. Erich Fill is responsible for processing wood at Fillarte. First, suitable trees are chosen in mountain forests. The logs are sawn into boards and vacuum dried to guarantee uniform colour quality. They are then cut into smaller, square timber blanks.
Fillarte uses slow-growing sycamore wood for figurines of up to 40 centimetres, and also uses coarse-grained ash for its Ars-Nova nativity scenes. Carvings measuring over 40 centimetres in size are made from lime wood, which is particularly well-suited to this.
Helmuth Fill designs the carvings himself. These designs are then moulded by a master sculptor and long-standing partner of Fillarte from Val Gardena into plasticine figurines. The plasticine model consolidates the idea and at the same time serves as a template for the hand-carved wooden model. This is then cast in bronze and used as a template for reproduction. Here, a mechanical pantograph, guided by hand, is used to give wood, which has already been cut to size, the form of the model figurine. Each individual piece is then reworked by hand.
In Fillarte’s in-house traditional painting studio, its employees paint, gild, and stain the wood carvings. All the work is done by hand under the direction of Helmuth’s wife, Gertrud. In South Tyrol, the professions of ‘Fassmaler’ and ‘Vergolder’ (traditional painters and gilders of sculptures and carvings) require an apprenticeship. This highly skilled work by trained craftspeople makes each figurine unique.
The symbolism of colour is highly important here. For example, red stands for love and blue for faithfulness. This is why Mary wears a deep red undergarment and a blue cloak to symbolise her love for and loyalty to Christ.
The majority of Fillarte’s products are painted using lazure techniques: the figurines are first varnished and then lightly painted with oil paint. Here, shading helps to convey a sense of height and depth. The grain in the wood shimmers through the paint applied to it. Stained and watercolour finishes are also available. Imitation gold leaf made from a copper-zinc alloy is used for most of the gilding. Genuine 23-carat gold is used by Fillarte on selected consoles and crucifixes.
Use a dry cotton cloth and a soft brush to clean carvings. This allows you to dust them and polish them a little at the same time. Do not use cleaning agents, water, or wet cloths under any circumstances.
Over the course of several years, wood will inevitably become discoloured by light. Paint can also be bleached by sunlight over time. It is therefore advisable to keep crib figurines away from light. Storing them at room temperature in a dry place where they cannot sustain knocks is also recommended. Never use damp moss in the crib scene. This will help to avoid damage and cracks.