History of Micromosaic - Micromosaico Filato Romano, Mosaico ed Arti Antiche

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History of Micromosaic


Following the flowering of mosaic traditions in the classical Roman, Byzantine and medieval epochs, modern mosaics trace their origin to the founding of the Vatican Mosaics Studio in Rome, at the end of the XVI century. From its founding, it became responsible for the care and maintenance of the works of art in the Basilica of San Pietro.
An essential part of the Church’s programme for decorative works was to take original paintings and provide copies of them in mosaic that would be less perishable. Consistent with this objective there arose the need to replace stone tiles, which had been used traditionally in mosaics dating from the classical and medieval epochs, by tiles made of glass or vitreous material, and to perfect the techniques involved so as to become comparable with the texture and refinement of representation as found already in painting.
Production of micromosaics dates from the end of the XVIII century. These, unlike the macromosaics [large-scale mosaics] of the classical era, were designed to be seen from up close; they took the form of small plates generally applied to snuff or tabletop items, or were less frequently embedded in pins or strung together forming bracelets and necklaces.
The subjects represented in these micromosaics, where relevance to religious iconography was no longer required, at first found inspiration in neoclassical allegorical themes that could be traced direct to the ancient world. Subsequently the repertoire of the works expanded so that compositions involving flowers, animals and ruins appeared, magnificently set in landscapes and brought to life with a romantic style of lyricism.
As the repertoire became focused on scenes of Rome and its immediate countryside, these works acquired a distinctly “Roman” character.
As demand for these works grew and the first collections were being created, the initiative was taken to set up the Workshop of San Pietro with the aim of formalizing their production; in this way micromosaics became part of the output of the Mosaics Studio alongside the macromosaics [large-scale mosaics] made in the traditional way (1795).
As the Pope made presents of the most valuable of these artefacts to visiting diplomats and sovereigns engaged in state visits, so they came to circulate more widely and acquired greater prestige, and micromosaic (miniature-mosaic) pieces came to be favoured by wealthy and cultivated travellers engaged in their “Grand Tour” to Rome.

The constituent parts of the mosaic are traditionally called tiles [tessere in Italian] from the Greek word τέσσερις [tesseris] meaning four, referring to their four-sided shape.
The tiles are made of a vitreous material known as enamel, obtained by fusing silica with mineral components that generate various colours. These enamel tiles were produced by Roman alchemists who kept their composition and procedures a carefully guarded secret; they produced them in approximately circular or cubic shapes known as “loaves” that had a cross-section measuring less than a millimetre and a length not exceeding two or three millimetres. There ensued a technical evolution from the cut enamel tile, that had been adapted from its large-scale predecessors, to a “spinning” process, whereby the enamel was fused with a naked flame and could be produced as long, thin rods which were then cut, with tweezers and saw, into the small tiles.  
The characteristic micromosaic technique consisted, then, firstly in transferring the preparatory sketch [cartoon] of the image, rendered usually in chalk, into a support medium where the design was drawn in charcoal, capturing its essential features. Next, the mosaicist would cut out small portions of the support medium, taking care to apply sealing compound to fill in the holes created, and insert the tiles in this. Drawing paper might sometimes be utilized instead of chalk. The next step consisted in using pigmented wax to fill in the gaps between tiles. Finally, once the wax had hardened, the mosaic surface was smoothed, sanded and polished.

The process through which micromosaic technique evolved is marked by several important milestones.
In the years between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the work involved in producing mosaics was careful and meticulous. The mosaicist Antonio Aguatti took the process further with his development of a new type of filamentous material that allowed a greater variety of colours and half-tones to be produced, while changing the outline of the traditionally four-sided tiles. The enamel thus produced (known as “malmischiato” [poorly mixed]), together with growth in the scale of production of tiles, allowed the mosaicist to achieve better chiaroscuro effects and thereby depict flowers, trees, buildings and, even, furred animals.
The technique of "malmischiato" was further refined by Joseph Matthia who, under the direction of Michelangelo Barberi, adopted the new procedure of mixing enamels using a goldsmith’s torch; he was thereby able to obtain tints that could be described as “light as breath” – brighter and sharper than those spun by the traditional method.
Towards the mid-nineteenth century, the new technique was allowed to come into its own; efforts were made to reveal its traces, instead of seeking to conceal them, going beyond compositional arrangements which had suited larger tiles with their fixed colours and attaining instead tones which were more fluid and distinct.
As the century advanced and the demand for the new mosaics became more pressing, techniques were developed which allowed for faster execution until the point was reached where a whole pattern, involving for example columns or frames, could be expressed in a single tile.

Allegorical subjects, particularly Allegories of Love, appealed to the neoclassical tastes of the end of the eighteenth century, along with mythological themes, executed in a single colour on a dark background. One of the most favoured was the Cup with Doves attributed to Pliny.
Archeological discoveries dating from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the interest they generated in choice of images, also exerted their influence in the field of micromosaics. The monuments that were most frequently reproduced were those of the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, the Pyramid of Caio Cestio, the Pantheon, the Temple of Vesta, the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Temple of Minerva Medica as well as some Roman bridges.
The sources of inspiration were, firstly, engravings produced from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, amongst which the most successful were those by Domenico Pronti gathered together in his “New collection of 100 views of ancient Rome and its surrounds engraved with a burin”. The views were rendered either from the perspective of setting ancient ruins in wide and open spaces, or from that of the paintings by Salvator Rosa or Claude Lorrain.
One should also mention the so-called “Souvenir-views” of Rome, which were also popular for many decades, with views of the Roman Forum and of San Pietro being the most sought after,
Animals themselves constituted one of the most popular images in these times, dating from the late eighteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Earlier images of single static animals gave way to groups of animals in motion, culminating in freer representations of animals fighting with each other.
Floral themes, drawn from mosaics of the ancient world, came to be chosen by mosaicists in order to display their technical skill and choice of colours.
Figures in traditional costume, finally, were one of the most difficult subjects to be taken up by the micromosaic techniques, given that the softness of the facial features ill-suited the rigid geometric lines of the tiles; on the other hand such figures came to be treated as decorative elements in necklaces, pendants or brooches.

It was not the custom for mosaicists to attach a signature to their own compositions. When a work was signed it indicated not so much the authorship of the individual work as much as the continuity of a commitment to excellence, guaranteeing the overall quality of the works produced.
Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836 who is credited with the discovery of the technique of “spinning” of enamels, was the first to put his name to the delicate products of this new technique. His stature as recognized pioneer of the new technique led him to conduct some of his activities abroad and to found a School of Mosaics in Milan; here he executed a mosaic copy of the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci (now found in Vienna, at the Minoritenkirche), a work which was mentioned in glowing terms in an epitaph at the Church of St Stanislaus of the Polish people in Rome.
After him, other mosaicists expanded the expressive possibilities of micromosaics, introducing substantial innovations in the shapes of tiles (tesserae) and in the spinning processes employed for enamels. One can point to the extraordinary floral depictions of Domenico Moglia (around 1780 - 1862) and those of animals by his son Luigi (who came to notice 1847 – 1861); to the works pervaded by a lively sense of line and relief in the pastoral compositions of Antonio Aguatti (around 1846), who specialized, along with Clemente Ciuli (active in the first half of the nineteenth century) and Liborio Salandri (who came to notice in the first half of the 19th century), in evoking the themes of classical myths. The principal figure in this genre, around the middle of the 19th century, was Michaelangelo Barberi (1787 – 1867), who created a magnificent series of table tops decorated with scenes of the major monuments of Rome and of Italy. He was called to Russia where he founded the Imperial Mosaics Studio of St Petersburg, commissioned by Czar Nicholas I on the model of the Vatican.


Translation © John Mathews  9 August 2014

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