Fig Pith Carving In Azores

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Fig Pith Sculptures In The Azores
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© W.P. Armstrong 30 October 2010
Miniature Carvings From
The Pith Of Fig Stems

A Little-Known & Unique Art Requiring
Remarkable Patience, Skill & Dexterity

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There are many articles on Wayne's Word dedicated to fig trees (Ficus), but one of the most interesting topics under "uses of figs" is the remarkable art of carving fig pith in the Azores. The Azores are a chain of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean, about 900 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal. This amazing art form dates back to the convents of Horta on the island of Faial between the 16th and 19th centuries. The carvings of flowers, lighthouses, windmills, buildings and masted ships are incredibly detailed, and some are smaller than a U.S. penny! To this day, traditional fig pith art still survives on the island of Faial. One of the most famous artists was Euclides da Silveira Rosa (1910-1979). His collection of 70 miniatures in 39 display cases is on permanent exhibition at the Horta Regional Museum. According to a museum brochure, the collection consists of 35,000 fig pith parts and altogether weighs no more than 1.2 grams (0.042 oz). One of his sculptures is a scale model replica of the Queen Mary.

Fig pith is obtained from small stems of the cultivated fig (Ficus carica) that is naturalized throughout the Azores. Small cylinders of pith are collected between the months of November and February when the sap of these deciduous trees no longer flows. The pith tissue is white due to the milky latex produced by special cells called laticifers. When dry, the pith makes a soft carving material that is easily worked by scalpels tweezers and needles, without the hardness and grain of porous wood cells. Thin slices of pith are glued together with extra-pure gum arabic to make the desired shape and volume. Although it is very delicate, fig pith lasts indefinitely and does not discolor with age. The gum arabic must be applied very carefully with the tip of a pin to hidden faces only. It spreads easily and will turn yellow with age, especially if exposed to light.

A young branch from the Calimyrna fig, one of the many cultivars of Ficus carica.

An example of fig pith art from the Horta Museum on the island of Faial.

  Gum Arabic From The African Acacia (Acacia senegal)  

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