We have very little information about where our ancient Italian Alabasters and Onyxes were extracted, but it’s probable that there were many more locations than some historians believe.
History is carved in the rock
It may be that the producers of these stone varieties sold them as “oriental” in order to increase their value.
The alabasters we are so fond of do not always come from well-known quarries, but are sometimes part of occasional discoveries found among limestone rock used for other purposes. In 1845, F. Corsi gave the name “Alabastro di Palombara” to a particular type of alabaster onyx, found in the Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill in Rome – once part of an Imperial residence; he believed its origins to be in Asia Minor.
Referring to the same type of stone, in their 1979 book Le pietre ornamentali di Roma Antica, Vincenzo De Michele and Ugo Zezza write that this alabaster in fact appears to come from the quarries at Montaione. This type of stone, although the base colour varies, generally has undulating markings which range from ivory white to amber yellow and even black, and it is marketed with the names: amber yellow, silver, bronze, black.
An examination of the Catalogue of the Collection of Materials for construction and ornamentation produced by the R° Comitato Geologico Italiano in 1875 reveals that Montaione Onyx was used in large quantities, although there is little documentary evidence of its use in buildings, as it was probably traded under a different name.
Montaione Onyx was supplied in various colour versions: dark brown, brown and white bands and black and white bands. When cut parallel to the direction of the bed, the patterns known as “clouds” or “flowers” were obtained, and even “tortoise-shell”; the latter appear in some examples of Palombara Alabaster.
But when cut perpendicular to the direction of the bed, the patterns were “linear”, showing alternating bands of colour. These “linear” versions are the type predominantly used in decoration. One specific case of linear onyx from Montaione appears in the type “Fisherman’s Onyx”, which has black bands alternating with more or less pale bands (called “unique in the world” by M. Pieri).
The Montaione area
The area of Montaione has been inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, as we know from extensive archaeological finds such as the remains of necropolises and furnaces at Poggio all'Aglione, Belafonte and other places.