The history of mosaic and the development of the micro-mosaic art technique at the Vatican School of Mosaic in Rome.
The mosaic technique represents one of the first expressions of art. Both the Sumerians and the Egyptians used it to decorate walls, furnishings, sarcophagi and many other with precious tiles: clay cones, glass, glazed bricks, hard stones and precious stones.
From the II millennium BC, a single pebble mosaic solution started to be used as main floor decoration, as an alternative to carpets. In ancient Greece, paved mosaics made of pebbles had a more practical than aesthetic purpose: they were indeed more resistant and impermeable than clay floors.
In ancient Rome, in line with the research of aesthetic refinement, the mosaic technique became a luxury accessory to just a few. Mainly black and white geometric shapes were represented since the polychromatic mosaics were typically Hellenic artworks. In fact, the decorative repertoires varied according to the origin: for example, geometric motifs prevailed in Gaul, while in North Africa artworks included figurative subjects.
With the refinement of the executive technique, the size of the tesserae became progressively smaller and they were used either to compose figurative scenes inspired by paintings or to be part of the architecture of the building.
The wall mosaic was born only in the I century BC in the “Muses Caves”, buildings gouged into the rocks, either buried or artificial, to bring out a spring or a fountain. Since the walls had to be resistant to possible damage due to high level of humidity, decorating the walls with the mosaic technique with glass paste or stone material was the most effective solution.
Over time, the mosaic became of common use and was present in all houses. This spread was the cause of its impoverishment in terms of technique and materials used.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the IV century AD, the Byzantine art brought important innovations in the mosaic technique: in addition to the static nature of the figures, the use of precious stones and gold for the depictions was introduced. The most important testimonies are still preserved today in Ravenna, in the Church of San Vitale, the Church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuova and the Church of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe.
In the Middle Age, Romanesque art preferred the frescoes to mosaics for economic reasons. Nevertheless, the few mosaics produced in this period present innovative elements: low sparkling glasses were alternated with shiny glasses to create a play of lights. Colored stones were also used: green tiles were made of malachite, the blue ones were of lapis lazuli, marble or mother-of-pearl were used for grays and whites respectively, whereas skin tones were reproduced through natural stones. The majority of artworks produced were commissioned by the Church, especially for floors, reusing fragments from older mosaics or from archaeological remains such as sarcophagi, or pieces of marble extracted from ancient columns. Biblical scenes were mostly represented, although some oriental or mythological animals was made too, for example the griffin.
The most famous mosaic floor of this period is at the Cathedral of Otranto, in Apulia, which dates back to 1163-1165. It depicts the Tree of Life, made by monk Pantaleone in just a couple of years.
In the Renaissance, the mosaic became pure artistic virtuosity, with the aim of making the painting artwork everlasting. In Rome, the technique of fake mosaic represented in frescoes made a large spread.
During Mannerism and Baroque periods, the mosaic became an art subordinate to architecture and painting. Pebbles and other natural materials (such as shells, rocks spongy, stalactites, stalagmites and semi-precious stones) were included into paintings and sculptures.
More and more refined manufacturing techniques of glass paste allowed the production of an almost infinite range of colors and the creation of not iridescent opaque glazes whose characteristic was to guarantee an artwork with the right color tone.
In 1727 the Vatican School of Mosaic was established and promoted research into the production of glass pastes, competing with Venice.
One of the greatest results of the Vatican School was the spinning of the glass paste into sticks to obtain very small pieces, even less than a millimeter, that allowed great art refinement and virtuosity, giving birth to the technique of the “minute mosaics”. Representations included both sacred subjects as well as landscapes.
The micro mosaics enchanted foreigners and made collectors literally fall in love with it.
In the 19th century, this type of mosaic was stopped because of industrial revolution which overshadowed manual artworks. The mosaic returned only in the Romantic period, when medieval art techniques regained popularity.