The Quilietti Family

The story of a Scots Italian family


In these mountains, 30 km. north of the beautiful city of Lucca, you’ll find a collection of small towns and villages close to a town called Bagni di Lucca. The making of plaster figurines started in Bagni di Lucca as early as theto Lucca14th century. As a matter of fact, a document from 1373 in the archives of Lucca mentions a figuris gesso, a figure of plaster. Nevertheless, emigration of the figuristi did not begin until the 18th century, when (according to Cherubini) a certain Salsini emigrated in 1712 with his son to Germany.
It took another century before the emigration from Lucca expanded the early 19th century, Italian figure makers began to come to Britain in increasing numbers to produce ornaments for town and country houses and to sell cheap plaster figures as an itinerant trade. It was also a time when the demand for bronze statues was growing as a result of the desire to commemorate the wartime heroes and political leaders of the day through public statues and church monuments. While at first these two activities, plaster figure making and bronze sculpture founding, were largely separate, as the century progressed some plaster figure makers came to specialise as sculptors.   Moulders and also began to have an impact on the trade in electrotype reproductions.

It certainly was not an easy step to emigrate in these times. The small villages were very isolated from the bigger cities, most of the time being only accessible by small paths through the mountains. As new inhabitants of a foreign country, these emigrants had to adapt to the yet unknown culture and language. Usually no help was expected. The area close to Bagni di Lucca was certainly not one of the poorest in Italy, and there was a relatively high degree of culture and education. Thus, poverty can not be considered the main reason for leaving. People had a great variety of incomes and were relatively wealthy.

Our family was also crafted in the art of the plaster and indeed Augusto Quilietti was more often described as a Marble Sculpturer than he was in the restaurant business.

The market for plaster figures reached its height in the 19th century. Such figures were used to ornament interiors from the grandest country houses to the most ordinary homes. They were also used as sources of inspiration for artists, designers and others, whether in artists studios or in museums and academies. There was also a period when plaster phrenological heads were a focus for the study of the human head.The business of producing plaster figures became associated with immigrant Italian workers, mainly from the province of Lucca, who would come to London in groups and who would sell plaster figures on the streets. Indeed, the image of a youth holding aloft a tray of plaster figures became one of the 19th-century ˜Cries of London. John Thomas Smith’s etching, Very Fine. Very Cheap shows how well-established this street trade had become in the public imagination by the time of its publication in 1815.Unknown man selling plaster figures ('Very Fine Very Cheap'), by and published by John Thomas Smith, published 31 December 1815 - NPG D40098 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Italian plaster figure makers, from the mountains north of Lucca, journeying across Europe, to France, Germany and even to Russia (˜Wandering Italians, Penny Magazine, 2 February 1833, no.54, p.42, accessible on Google Book Search). One or two men, experienced in casting figures in moulds, would collect a number of poor boys, of whom they would become the captains. They would cross the Apennines and the Alps, marching in a little corps of twelve or fifteen. Their moulds and a few tools were sent on ahead by wagon to Chambery, capital of the French department of Savoy, where they would make their first stay. They would find plaster and other simple materials for forming figures locally. On arriving at Chambery, the artist, or the captain of this company would set to work, despatching his boys through the city and the little towns and villages in the neighbourhood, to sell the figures which he had rapidly made. Once the market had been exhausted, the master would send his moulds and tools to Geneva, and follow on foot with his troop, each of whom would carry a few figures to sell at towns and villages on the road. From there, they would cross France, perhaps to Fontainebleau, and so on to Paris, Amiens and Calais and finally to England in search of ˜a golden harvest. These itinerants sought not to settle in England but to return home with enough money to become owners of a house and a little land in the immediate neighbourhood of the villages where they were born.

It appears that such itinerant figure makers only began to come to Britain in large numbers following the fall of Napoleon. Evidence for migrant groups of plaster figure makers in Britain comes through the official ˜Returns of Aliens Passengers, recording foreigners landing in Britain and through the 10 yearly census returns. Such figure makers, their occupation given as figure maker or as ˜figurista in the vernacular, would travel from France, usually in April, May or June, at the beginning of the summer season. One of the largest such groups arrived in the Port of London from Boulogne on 9 May 1853, with 14 men and boys led by Luigi and Pietro Sarti. In the 1841 census, another maker, Dominic Cardosi, age given as 35, was listed in Gray’s Inn Lane heading a crowded lodging house of 14 men and boys, ages from 40 to 15, all listed as figure makers.

Many of these men and boys will have been on lengthy fixed-term contracts, of as much as three years, under which they were paid a bonus on completion, leading to occasional abuse of the system whereby they were harassed towards the end of their contract to the point that some left in desperation, losing their wages and their bonus . In 1858 a court case against a master, Luigi Caproni, was dismissed concerning the wages of Mansueto Mei, a plaster figure maker who had left him after 20 months of a 30-month contract to make images.

Domenico Brucciani’s success as the leading Victorian plaster figure maker came as a result of a competition to select a moulder in 1853 or 1854 for what became the South Kensington Museum. Four figure makers, Brucciani, a Mr Caproni, a Mr Sacchi and a Mr Ambrosi were each asked to make a mould of a certain relief. Brucciani’s appointment to the South Kensington Museum was followed by his selection as formatore to the British Museum in 1857, following William Pink’s death. These appointments probably gave him the resources and incentive to open his splendid Galleria delle Belle Arti in Russell St in 1864.

Other moulders who worked for the South Kensington Museum in the late 19th century included Enrico Cantoni, in England by 1881, and on a more occasional basis, Fernando Meacci and Lorenzo Giuntini. Cantoni produced various reproductions for the Museum, 1892-1912, mainly plaster casts, copies of which were supplied to other museums including those at Edinburgh and Dublin and he also undertook some bronze founding work.

Domenico Brucciani (c.1815/18-1880) gave his place of birth as Barga in the 1851 census, when his age was recorded as 33 and his occupation as ˜Professor of Modelling in Clay (information from Peter Malone). He married firstly Mary Ann Richardson in 1841 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and secondly Eliza Sumner, as Domenico Giovanni Brucciani, in 1846 at Richmond. He traded from Little Russell St from 1829. He also traded in the 1850s from 1 Leather Lane in partnership with Giovanni Graziani as plaster figure makers, a business which he continued following the dissolution of the partnership in 1857 (London Gazette 20 March 1857). When Brucciani’s new premises, the Galleria delle Belle Arti, opened at 40 Russell St in 1864, the size of his new gallery of casts was given as 100 by 25 feet

Brucciani worked as a modeller for the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the British Museum, taking casts of items in their collections and supplying other casts. He described himself as ˜Formatore’ [i.e., maker] & Modeller to the Science and Art Department, as well as to the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts, on his handsome blue invoice paper (examples from 1870s, National Portrait Gallery records

On a note nearer to home we find this group of figurine makers from Barga enjoying working in the Tradestown district of Glasgow.  Giovanni Brucciani, Pietro Nardini, Pietro Caproni, Cesaro Biagi

31 Responses to “THE FIGURINE’ MAKERS”

  1. Babs File says:

    My gg grandfather was Leone Puccini, who in the 1871 Census was living in Luceys Buildings, Laystall Street, Holborn with his wife, Ellen nee Roach and children.

    Leone Puccini described himself as an Ornamental Plasterer in 1871. On certificates he is a Carver & Gilder and Looking Glass Maker, Silverer. He also lived in Leather Lane and Tyndalls Buildings, Chancery Lane.

    I don’t know where he originates from in Italy but most people seem to think he came from Tuscany. His eldest known child was born circa 1857 and he must have come over before meeting his wife. From the marriage certificate I know that his father was Antonio Puccini, a labourer.

    Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks.

  2. Helen says:

    Have posted your comments. A vast amount of the figurine makers were from the region around the Marble Mines in Carerra. Let’s see what happens now.

  3. Geoff Marsh says:

    Whilst researching my wife’s family history I found she had a great, great, great uncle Pasquale Bertini born 1813 in Lucca, Italy. He married my wife’s ggg.aunt Lucy Edwards in 1833 in Birmingham, England. He is shown on the 1841/51&61 English census’s as a Figure Maker. He died 1870 in Birmingham. Although they had no children and was only an in-law of the main line of my wife’s lineage, he must have made quite an impression as his surname was passed down as the middle name of the first son of every succeeding generation.
    I have found this site very interesting and I would love to know whether the Bertini’s were well known Figure Makers in Lucca before his emigration.

    Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Helen says:

    Your wife’s ancestor would have been one of the very first of the figurine makers to leave for U.K. The mass immigration came in the 1870s. I have approved your post and hope that anyone with knowledge of this family see the post and get back in touch. The history of these figurine makers is unique and fascinating, so lets see if anyone else can help us here.

  5. Hello, I am Margaret Adams nee Murray. my father was Bill Murray son of Alex and Valentina Murray. My dad was born on 11 June 1921 and died 30 December 1998. He was an engineer. he married Pearl Louis Smith born 19 October 1919. I have 1 brother Ian Joseph Murray born 8 September 1946. I was born 15 August 1951
    I married David McDonald Adams 30 April 1983 and we have 1 son Scott Murray Adams born 5 October 1987.Scott has a BSc in Sports Studies and works and lives in Aberdeen.
    Scott looks so much like many of his cousins and is definately a ‘Murray/Quiletti
    David and I live near Oban on the west coast of Scotland where we run a small Bed & Breakfast.
    I have always felt very honoured to be part of the ‘Murray’ family, I was brought up in Edinburgh and spent a lot of my time at my ‘nannies’. with all my uncles and aunts. My Uncle Joe was my godfather and Auntie Minnie was my godmother They were all very important to my development and growing up

  6. Helen says:

    Hello Margaret and thank you so much for your comment. I have tried to e.mail you but my letter has bounced back. Please contact me on I am so pleased to have you onboard and am really looking forward to speaking with you.

  7. william caproni says:

    my grandfather leo martin caproni of ripley ohio told me pietro p. caproni of boston plaster works from 1862-1962 was my great 3x uncle and my grandfather jake when he came from barga to the us worked in the basement making shipping crates for the plaster works till he had enough money to go to the ohio valley and maysville ky

  8. Helen says:

    Hi William, thanks for leaving a comment. It is so very interesting to hear all these stores and how the families spread throughout the world.

  9. Terence Doyle says:

    Looking for home village/town of Antonio Bertolini who was born around 1805 and went to England probably in the 1820s. He was a plaster figure maker. He was in Hull in the mid 1820’s, then married an English girl in Norwich in 1829, before moving to Leather Lane in London and working for Vincenzo Marchetti and later Louis Brugotti. Grateful for any information thanks!

  10. Kevin Dobson says:

    My 3rd Great Grandfather is Francesco Marchetti, born in Barga around 1807 and arrived in London sometime before 1836. Married into an English family (Moore) in 1836.

    Listed as a figure maker working at 1 Leather Lane, death records show his location at death was also 1 Leather Lane.

    looking for more information on the Italian family.

    Possible parents are Domenico and Bernadetta (DePrato?)

  11. Helen says:

    I see your family must be from the Barga region with these surnames, Marchetti and De Prato. I dont have any further information on this direct line without doing some research. Meanwhile could anyone out there help


    Bonjour Je souhaiterais des renseignements sur Antonio (Antony) Bertolini (1805-ap.1871) figurine maker a Londres en 1871 originaire de Massa Carrera et de Malte. Merci.
    Michel Verge-Franceschi
    Professeur des universites

  13. Paula Assenti says:

    Hi I’m dong a bit of searching of my sons family history. His ancestors were Daprato (Da Prato). Simon Thomas Daprato ended up in Edinburgh as a stucco figure maker in the late1800’s.

  14. Helen says:

    Very interesting comment and also a Barga surname. I have approved your post Paula and hope someone out there will be able to help. You do not say where you live now or if you have any more information on Thomas.

  15. Vernon Kinrade says:

    Thank you – a fascinating read.

    My second great Grandfather was Rinaldo Paoletti.
    He arrived in London, aged 23, from Tuscany, via Boulogne, on a ship called the “Panther” on 2 May 1857. On the list of Aliens, he is described as “Artisto” and seems to be travelling in the company of three other artists from Tuscany and a Milanese “Commercianti”, although their names are hard to decipher.

    By 1861 he was in Leeds working as a Figure Maker, sharing lodgings with four other figure makers; three from Italy – Charles Renuci, Charles Jeffrey and someone identified by the intials N.K (probably Not Known) who being the eldest (at 35 years) I imagine to have been the captain of the group; there was also a Thomas Wright (aged 17) working with them, but from Leicestershire, England.

    Rinaldo was described on the census of 1871 as a Toilet Maker, and in 1881, by now living in Liverpool, a Looking Glass Frame Maker. He continued to work as a carver and glass-paperer working in wood and was still sanding at 77 years of age.

    His eldest son, Americo, followed in his father’s footsteps and during his short life was a cabinet maker.

    I would dearly love to know where Rinaldo came from. The only other information I have is that his father’s name was Nicola,(or possibly Nicolo, or Nicolao).

  16. Helen says:

    Great story Vernon. I have approved your post and hope that someone out there can help.
    1857 is when many of the Tuscans travelled so hopefully we will have some luck.
    The Paoletti family may be from Collodi, Lucca – Which is west of Lucca. And Veneri, Province of PISTOA, Lucca.
    There are certainly a family which originated there c1750 and whose family members include an Amerigo.

  17. Ian Upward says:

    Fascinating information on your website. My gg grandfather was Giuseppe Agostini (1822-1872) from Tiglio near Barga in Lucca, although he was later known as Joseph Agastina. He travelled from Calais to Dover on 29 Mar 1839 on the ship Royal George accompanied by his younger brother Agostino in a group of 11 figure makers led by Giuseppe Bonaccorsi assisted by Pietro Pellegrini; they were described as figure makers. He repeated this same trip on 21 Apr 1845 on Ondine, leading the company of 11 assisted by his brother Agostino, but this time they were described as hawkers. He married my gg grandmother Maria Cole (formerly Hill) in the Limehouse area of London, one of his witnesses being Charles Renouche, who later moved to Leeds. My gg grandmother remarried after his death another plaster moulder called Carlo Notini, son of Bartolomeo, whose daughter Maddalena had apparently married Carlo Renucci in Tereglio in 1850.

  18. Helen says:

    Thanks for posting this very informative comment. A lot of familiar names there Agostini, Pelligrini and Notini being of course the Barga surname most well known to myself. Lets hope someone out there has a direct link with your branch.

  19. Lesley Calder says:

    My Great Great Grandfather Adriano Bernardi was living with a group of other Italians at 55 Bristo Street Edinburgh Scotland in the census of 1871. They were Angelo Bernardi 24yrs, Alesio Bernardi 32 yrs, Bernardo Bernardi 48 yrs – all noted as being born in Italy, Tuscany, Lupinyna? And C. Biagiotti of Barga. Adriano seemingly married a Mary Brown and had a daughter Teresa Maria Bernardi – have no further info – is Bernardi a name associated with Barga? Figure making? Any info welcome, grazie.

  20. Helen says:

    Hello Lesley and thanks for posting this comment. Your family must have been the amongst the very first of the Italians to arrive in Edinburgh. Bernardi is also a name well known in the Barga region. I have a Giuseppe Bernardi in my own tree, a relation of a sort from Barga

    Casola in Lunigiana is a commune in the Province of Massa and Carrara in the Italian region Tuscany, located about 100 kilometres northwest of Florence and about 20 kilometres north of Massa. And many of the first immigrants did the figure making as a way to get an income. Many of them had worked in the Carrera Marble Mines.

    There is also a Lupaia in Tuscany near Sienna between Montepulciano and Pienza. Hope some other Bernardi folks see this and get in touch.

  21. Dan says:

    Hi Helen

    You’ve had mention of Mary Chavrine and Antonio Da Prato b 1866 on
    another page. Mary was my great great aunt; Antonio her husband. He was a figure maker from Barga who went first to Belfast where he married Mary and later to Edinburgh and Glasgow where he worked as both an ice cream man and a marble works labourer. His brother Giuseppe also came to Scotland – Edinburgh and had a family that branches out to Ayrshire. Their father was Raffaello, mother Teresa Alberti. I’m pretty sure Antonio worked for Luigi Fusco in Edinburgh at his ice cream shop in Easter Rd in the 1890s. I’d be keen to find out if the family is linked to other Da Pratos who arrived from Barga. Yet to make any connections.

    My ggg grandfather Domenico Bonino was also a figure maker originally and he arrived via Dover in 1842. Likewise his father in law Giovanni Rigoli who arrived even earlie in Dublin – certainly before 1833.

  22. Kay says:

    I am fascinated to find this webpage as I am currently searching for information regarding my GGGG Grandfather, born in Lucca in 1805. He was listed as a ‘figure maker’, living in York by 1951 when he married.

    His name was Petro Betchetti, however I have seen a number of variations in the spelling:
    Petro / Peter / Petri
    Betchetti / Barretti / Bitchetti / Baccetti

    I have seen a few others searching for information about him (he had a lot of children!) so I would be delighted if anyone can help.

    Would he have most likely been from Bagni di Lucca? I understand that the Italians didn’t start registering births until 1809, such a she as I’ve been dreaming of this Italian link to my heritage for years?

    Fingers crossed!

  23. Helen says:

    Hello Kay. Thank you for leaving a comment. I have approved this and it will be there now. Lets hope someone out there can link up. However your dates do not work. Born in 1805 and York in 1951. Should this be York 1851.

  24. Kay says:

    Hi Helen

    Thanks so much for the approval. Yes a typo there, he was born in Lucca in 1805 and first appears in the UK census in 1851 in York. Married to a Maria Welch, they had 12 or 13 children. I’d love to find out if anyone knows what area he was from, I understand the figure makers were predominantly from Bagni di Lucca?

    Thank you again.

  25. Ian Thewlis says:

    Hi, my wife has recently been researching my genealogy after discovering some birth and marriage certificates a year after my mother’s death. My great great grandfather is Charles Renucci plaster moulder from Tereglio near Barga born Gio. Carlo Renucci who settled in Leeds and married and raised a family. He was first married to Maddelena Notini in 1850.
    He died in Bramley aged 76 years at the home of his daughter Maria.

  26. Ian Thewlis says:

    Hi, or is that Caio! I’m the great great grandson of the Charles or Carlo Renucci who settled in Leeds in the 1860s. He is described as a moulder or figure maker and was born in Tereglio, a beautiful village in the province of Lucca near Barga and died in Bramley, Leeds in 1901 whilst living with his daughter Maria who was my mum’s paternal grandmother.
    We only found about this Italian link recently when we were checking documents following the death of my mother last year. We discovered marriage certificates & birth certificates which led us on a fascinating genealogical journey to Tereglio.
    Strangely, we have strong links with Italy already so we were able to visit the Barga region and were so impressed with its beauty we plan on visiting again.

  27. Helen says:

    Thanks for leaving comment Ian. Lets see who gets back in touch

  28. Steve Cross says:

    Hi, my 3xGt Grandad, Michelangelo Mencarini, was born in Gragnano, about 15km east of Lucca and about 30km south of Bagni di Lucca. He was in England by the late 1820’s & married an English woman called Elizabeth (Gray or Grant) from Malmesbury by 1831. By 1832 they had their first recorded child, Angelina Mencarini (b. Brighton). By 1841 they were living in Leeds and they had 2 other children born in Devon (& baptised in Wolverhampton)… but Michelangelo wasn’t living with the family at the time of the Census (March/April 1841)… though a figure maker with that surname arrived in Dover around July that year (so this was perhaps him returning from a trip). By 1851 they were living in Little Italy, London… which is where they lived for the rest of their lives (but with Michelangelo possibly making other trips back to Italy over the period until he died 1878). This short story shows how, even in England, a Figure Maker could travel around a great deal! His daughter, Angelina met my 2xGt Grandad, Giuseppe Cardinelli, in Little Italy, London, and they married there in 1852. Giuseppe was from Rovinaglia, near Borgotaro (Parma)… and he left around 1849 after the Duchess of Parma died and the are became unstable. This resulted in young men being conscripted & many emigrated to avoid having to sign up. Fascinating how two different branches of my otherwise English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh background arrived in England from different parts of Italy at different times.

  29. Helen says:

    Thank you Steve for your so very informative comment. I do agree about the travelling that was achieved, not only from Italy to England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland but also across to the USA sometimes on many trips back and forth. Today we are spoiled by easy travel and could never imagine how such achievements could be done by our ancestors. I do hope that someone out there recognises your family names. Cardinelli is a name intertwined by our own Brattesani and Giulianotti family also from Rovinaglia and Borgotora areas at the same time.

  30. Karin says:


    Do you have any information on the surname Predegia. They are my Italian ancestors, figure makers that came to London in around 1850 and settled in Holborn.

    Any information would be much appreciated.

    Kind regards

  31. Helen says:

    Sorry I do not have any information on this particular surname. But have approved your comment and hopefully someone will recognise the name.

Leave a Reply