Soapstone: the story of the steatite stone

Would you ever have thought that there is a direct connection between the stone of your faithful barbecue and one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro?
Probably not, but soapstone, a particular metamorphic rock with a greenish colour, surprises us with its versatility of use. It proves to be a guarantee both for the success of our culinary recipes and for the preservation of world-famous historical monuments.

where does soapstone come from?

The history of soapstone begins in remote times when barbecues and monuments were not even remotely predictable: the birth of this material on our planet dates back about 2/3 billion years ago. But when human beings, many eras later, appeared, steatite (another name for soapstone) immediately showed great affinity with human activities: even prehistoric man exploited it to create pots and utensils to neutralise poisonous substances inside food.

Throughout history, it has continued to prove very useful for human purposes, and as we can see, it has not ceased to be so even to this day. This is also contributed by the widespread presence of soapstone on the Earth’s surface, which is essentially found worldwide. Focusing on Italy, however, it is mainly extracted and worked in Valchiavenna and Valmalenco, as well as throughout Valtellina, famous places for the production of typical objects in soapstone (such as the “lavec” or “stuin,” traditional Valtellinese pots).

its characteristics

The great versatility of the material in question is also evidenced by the different names by which it can be indicated, each of which reveals its peculiar characteristics:

  • Steatite. From the Greek “stèatos,” meaning “fat”: it was named this way because of its smooth and slippery appearance, which makes it resemble a greasy stone;
  • Soapstone. From “olla,” meaning “container for food preservation”: the name derives from the fact that soapstone is known for its easy workability on the lathe, which makes it suitable for creating pots and containers for food. Furthermore, being characterised by high thermal conductivity and having a non-stick surface, it is perfect for cooking without adding fats during cooking (for this reason, it is widely used in the production of cooking plates and stones for cooking and barbecues);
  • Saponite stone. The high presence of talc in soapstone is responsible for this designation and its use in the preparation of talcum powders for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry;
    Gypsum of Briançon. The origin of this nickname can be found in the mountains of the French town of Briançon, where several quarries are located for the extraction of soapstone. The term “gypsum” is not entirely accurate because, despite its powdery appearance, soapstone is much harder;

From this focus on names, a synthetic portrait of soapstone can be drawn: it is an easily workable stone, obtainable from metamorphic rocks with a scaly structure, in which minerals from the chlorite group appear almost exclusively. Its characteristics make it perfect for the numerous uses already listed, to which another must be added: artistic-conservative use.

statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro

The undisputed emblem of the just mentioned function is the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro: this wonder of the modern world features, on its surface, a coating of soapstone.
The original project of 1923, conceived by engineer Hector da Silva Costa, envisaged a sculpture in reinforced concrete, which was effectively realised. However, the need arose to cover it, make it more impactful, and prevent deformations caused by weather and high temperatures. What better solution than soapstone, which has among its most renowned merits thermal conductivity?

Thus, since 1931, the year of the inauguration of the work, the Christ the Redeemer, located in the panoramic point of the Morro del Corcovado, embraces Rio de Janeiro wrapped in its impervious soapstone attire, still intact and efficient.

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