What is Fontaninini?
Developed from the ground up, Fontanini is now a thriving international business, known worldwide for the beautifully crafted Nativity sets and figurines that this amazing family-based company produces each year.
A History of Fontanini
What sets the Fontanini figurines apart is the attention to detail on each one. These charming, life-like pieces are individually hand-painted and have over 100 years of heritage standing behind every piece. What some people don’t know, is that Fontanini has a rich family tradition behind the beautiful figurines.
Fontanini developed from humble beginnings, starting with a man named Emmanuele Fontanini. After taking a position as an apprentice at the age of 13, Emmanuele trained under a professional artist in a particularly cultural, art soaked area of Tuscany. After learning the trade of figurine crafting, Emmanuele travelled through Europe, expanding his knowledge and skills and selling some of his pieces. The money that he earned on his travels funded his return to Tuscany, where he opened his first shop in 1908.
With his own shop open, Emmanuele partnered with some of the most skilled painters and sculptors in the Tuscan region, to begin creating a line of nativity figurines and decorations in his single room shop. Over time these humble beginnings, grew into a flourishing business which soon gained recognition in the local community. When Emmanuele’s sons Ugo, Mario and Aldo joined the family business, Fontanini expanded into a rapidly growing enterprise, quickly gaining a strong reputation for their broad selection of fine nativities.
Four generations later, the Fontanini family are still carrying on Emmanuele’s legacy by creating and distributing Fontanini’s elegant Heirloom Nativity products. While the small space originally used to produce the refined, graceful pieces is no longer used to create the figures, the ‘House of Fontanini’ continues to operate by Emmanuele’s great-grandchildren who oversee each and every detail of the figurine production, from design, to sale.
Today Fontanini has established itself as the world’s most premier designer and producer of heirloom quality nativities and figurines, and has earned a reputation for pieces created out of an illustrious heritage of both artistic talent, and sheer determination.
Today Fontanini continue to create in the tradition of excellence that Emmanuele began 100 years ago. Fontanini nativities and figurines continue to possess breath-taking workmanship as well as unparalleled beauty. It is well known that Fontanini pieces can be found within the Pope’s private quarters in the Vatican, as well as displayed throughout churches and cathedrals all over the world. Fontanini pieces have even featured in films and television shows and continue to be enjoyed in private homes everywhere. Collecting Fontanini has even become a more meaningful passion for some, who create extensive displays with their pieces which feature buildings, accessories and figures to create a beautiful village scene. In response to this, Fontanini has incorporated several special features into some of their pieces, such as waterfalls and lighted nativity villages.
How Does Fontanini Create the Figurines and Nativities?
Every facet of Fontanini is a family affair. Fontanini’s unique crafting process is extremely labour-intensive and is personally overseen by members of the Fontanini family. The great-grandson of the founder, who is also named after Emmanuele, closely supervises both the figurine sculptors and paint artists, personally seeing every piece through until it is complete. In addition, Emmanuele’s cousins are in charge of quality control while another is responsible for all domestic sales. Emmanuele’s brother is also employed to manage the business affairs of the House of Fontanini.
The crafting of each Fontanini figure follows a very specific nine step process.
Step One: Developing an Idea
This step involves the Fontanini family developing original ideas for each new piece. This creative part of the process starts with a quick sketch which is then given to the Master sculptor for discussion and planning.
Step Two: Creating a Clay Sculpture
Once the design has been set, the sculptors utilise their artistic gifts to create a clay sculpture according to the idea. The Fontanini family work closely with the sculptors in order to ensure that each piece is correctly detailed and appropriately scaled, according to the original design.
Step Three: Creating a Wax Sculpture
Once the Clay Sculpture is completed and approved, a wax sculpture is produced. This piece is a vital step – the wax sculpture is necessary for creating the master mold.
Step Four: Creating the Master Mold
This stage of production is the most expensive, time consuming, and crucial step in the entire process.
In order to create the master mold, the previously created wax model is positioned against a piece of clay which will become the base of the master mold. Clay is then applied to half of the figure. When the piece is set, it is removed and the process is repeated on the other half. The finished product, is a completed mold. This mold is then replicated from a special kind of alloy which forms the master mold for the entire product line.
Before the mold is given final approval, an artist corrects any defects and runs several test pieces to ensure the quality of the mold. The mold is now ready to produce beautiful pieces for collectors to enjoy.
The mold-making process is so precise and detailed that it can take up to two years to complete a single, workable mold at a cost of several thousand dollars. The steps taken throughout the process are precise and careful, in order to ensure that every figurine produced is of the highest quality standard, and to ensure that every mold contains all of the intricate details that are desired for the final pieces.
Step Five: Casting in Polymer
Once a master mold is set the figurine is then cast from an extremely durable, high quality polymer. This material is especially suitable as while soft, it captures each and every detail from the original mold, but hardens to create an exceptionally robust, resilient piece which is resistant to any chipping or breaking, making each figure able to stand the test of time. This also makes Fontanini figures perfect for families as they can be enjoyed and handled by children without fear of damage.
While the figures come out of their molds warm, they are quickly cooled by being plunged into cold water where they remain immersed for around two hours to permanently set the polymer.
Step Six: Bestowing the Fontanini Mark
After each piece is set, it is endowed with the Fontanini mark which allows each piece to be authenticated as an original Fontanini. The original Fontanini creator, Emmanuele, marked each individual piece he created with a spider underneath, in order to establish each piece as something which was exclusively created at the House of Fontanini. Today, Fontanini pieces can still be identified by this special mark on the base, which is now indicated by a ‘fountain’.
Step Seven: Hand Painting the Figurine
Emmanuele’s original use of having artist’s hand paint each figure has remained unchanged in the Fontanini tradition. Home-based artisans in the Tuscany area are still responsible for hand painting each individual figure using skills that have been passed down through the generations. What sets the Fontanini process apart is the distinct process - the figures are not painted all in one session, but rather are painted in a production line of sorts. For instance, one painter will work on the robe, while another works on the belt, followed by another artist who will work on the hair. This comprehensive hand painting process not only produces the heirloom quality that Fontanini is known for, but also guarantees that every figure is unique, since each artist is able to capture the essence of the figures and express their own personality in the process.
Because Fontanini is a family business, many collectors also take comfort in the fact that it all figures and nativities are painted with non-lead based paint, making the pieces suitable for collectors of all ages.
Step Eight: Applying the Patina
When the hand-painting process is complete, each figure is sent to the House of Fontanini for the final phase of production – the patina application. While the patina process is fairly simple, it can be time-consuming due to the time that needs to be allocated in between each step, to ensure a perfect application. Made from a compound of burnt oils, earth and lime, patina is applied to each piece individually using a special brush. The effect is that each piece is covered almost entirely in brown before being wiped with a cloth and immersed into tubs containing specialised soaps. When the figures are removed and dried, the patina is permanently bonded to the material underneath, protecting the figure for eternity.
Step Nine: The Stories
The final step in the process is creating the story card. The story card is an opportunity for each figure to tell its story through the craftsmanship of the Fontanini family and the gifted artisans they work with. Much time and creativity is put into each story in order to present each figure with his or her profession, what he or she was doing when the star appeared, and often the background story to each piece. Though the story card is a small token, it is one which enriches the authenticity and artistic aesthetic of the piece, which can be enjoyed by all collectors.
Creating a new figurine or nativity set is a very detailed, thorough process which can span years from beginning to end. Regardless of the time put in, one thing is certain – the Fontanini family will always be intimately involved, every step of the way.
Fontanini figures became widely available in the United States in the 1970s, and have been gaining in popularity ever since. Collectors in every state search for rare and retired pieces, as well as adding new pieces to their growing collections.
New figures are released from Fontanini each year, in collections scaling from 3.5 inches to 7.5 inches. With so many beautiful pieces to collect, you can create not only a nativity with stable, manger, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but entire towns, with whatever focal point you prefer. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Be sure to check out our brand new range of beautiful Fontanini pieces!
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