In Val Gardena/Gröden the centuries-old tradition of artistic wood carving and sculpturing began with religious figures, dolls and other toys.
Around the beginning of the 17th century the inhabitants of the secluded, Ladin-speaking valley Val Gardena began passing their time during the long winter using whittle knives to make things from logs lying in front of the stove – plates, spoons, masks, small figures. Soon they were earning a second income selling wooden toys and as some became skilled artists. Eventually wood carving became a profession in its own right. The most successful soon received commissions to produce sculptures of saints to furnish churches while others specialised in carving small figures, produced in large quantities in winter, then sold door-to-door in summer. During the baroque period as the population became increasingly devout the demand for Nativity cribs rose. Around 1850 up to 2,500 persons in Val Gardena were engaged in this craft, corresponding to every second inhabitant. The local arolla pines were threatened with extinction and wood needed to be rationed. Cribs became increasingly more opulent. Animal figures such as horses and elephants were added to the repertoire and sold as individual toys. Soon Europe and America were awash with Val Gardena toys. The Val Gardena jointed dolls became famous as “Dutch dolls” because they were shipped abroad from a Dutch port. The largest collection of Val Gardena toys can be admired in the Museum Ladin at San Martino/St. Martin in Thurn. Gradually competition on the European market began exerting pressure on prices and it became necessary to increase the quality. The first wood-carving school in Val Gardena opened in 1872.
After the First World War and the ensuing economic slump the Val Gardena toy industry collapsed and only a few artisans remained true to their craft. Soon the question was posed: art or craftwork? Since then the traditional wood-carving community has been divided. In 1920 the first exhibition association was founded, preparing the way for the production of unique works of art, while craftsmen continued making large quantities of exact copies of objects according to patterns. This division continues today. Since 1994 numerous sculptors, wooden figure carvers and painters, and carvers of ornamental objects have joined the Unika association. To join a sculptor must be able to submit unique works. The association runs a gallery in the village of Ortisei/St. Ulrich with exclusively individual hand-carved creations are on show, and each year in September a sculpturing fair is held.