Most of us know Gustav Klimt’s artwork. His oil paintings look like Byzantine mosaics. They’re mesmerizing. Mosaics are like life, made of small regular pieces, bits flashing in time, each reflecting its small significance. Arranged just so to complete a picture showing the world who we are. Perhaps, that’s what art’s supposed to do. Give us a glimpse into humanity. But, art can also be practical.
Just look at ancient Roman civilization.
As engineers with a love of art, they took advantage of the practical application of mosaic artwork. They installed stunning examples in their buildings to protect and cover floors, walls and pools.Mosaics were very popular in the Ancient Roman world as stone flooring. Byzantines loved to use glass tiles to decorate walls. Modern mosaics can be seen in high-end hotels such as the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan to the stunning Katara Mosque in Doha to the Murano mosaic of butterflies adorning the casino floor at Wynn in Las Vegas.
That got me to thinking: Perhaps adding a mosaic could be a worthwhile investment. It not only would increase the value of a property, but it would be an interesting conversation piece. If well placed, even a small mosaic could stand out.
If you want to have a first-hand look, there are quite a few samples of Roman mosaic floors in France and Italy. Actually, they can be found throughout the former Roman Empire, such as the one made of stone discovered in Liffol-le-Grand, just a few miles from my house in Bourmont, France. “It’s a First Century AD, Gallo-Roman mosaic illustrating water flowers from the villa of La Goulotte. I would say that a mosaic is representative of the Roman art of living which has always known how to associate utility with beauty,” says Christian Wagner, who studied history at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
Mosaics are forever
Mosaics are typically grouted to a surface. If someone tried to remove them, they risk destroying the
pattern by disorganizing all the tiny pieces. That makes them hard to steal, which may contribute as to why
so many historic examples are found intact today, Wagner says.
He has a point.
“We have another mosaic with marine animals from Second Century AD. It’s now at the MUDAAC, in Epinal,”
says Wagner. That one really caught my attention. The mallards and trout were readily identifiable, like what we see everyday outside. That’s when I realized that the mosaic of the trout reminded me of scenes from the Roman of Aquileia in Northern Italy: Both depict fish from their region.
The stuff the Romans left behind tells a fascinating story of their daily lives. In Aqulea, there’s even a mosaic of food Romans threw on the floor after a party. It’s like they gave us this geological time capsule that gives us a glimpse into a small part of their daily lives, reassuring us: “We’re more like you than you realize.”
That got me to thinking about our own era. What will we leave of ourselves for others to find? How will time view our civilization? Now, imagine adding something to your own home, of yourself, that could add such significant value. Hopefully it won’t be “ocean plastic,” but a mosaic of your kid’s toys strewn across the floor might be pretty cool.
With that idea in mind, I decided to take a course in mosaic making. I signed up at the “Scuola Mosaicisti del Fruili for a week-long hobby course. It’s a few hours drive from Venice in Spilimbergo, Italy and claims to be one of the most prestigious mosaic schools in the world. Creative types such as car designers and celebrity chefs take courses there for inspiration, but short courses are open to anyone who can wield a hammer.
Giulia Palamin, a graduate of the school who teaches special projects and workshops gave us the choice to create one of three mosaic styles: Roman, Byzantine or modern. Chiseling stone and hammering pancakes of colored glass into neat centimeter cubes requires a nimble sleight of hand. Arranging all those tiny tesserae and smalti into grout using tweezers requires assiduity. But then, there’s that meditative quality of doing artwork that can bring hours of reflective absorption to the creator.
After five eight-hour days of steadfast absorption, I had assembled my mosaic.
Viola! It measures 10 inches square: And I was one of the fast students. The result is a visually stunning mixture of modern and Byzantine styles, all in glittering hand-chiseled glass and gleaming stone. Even though it was rigorous, creating that mosaic is one of my more memorable artistic undertakings.
The words of Marthe Bibesco hit home: “One should make one’s life a mosaic. Let the general design be good, the colors lively, and the materials diversified.”
Buying and commissioning mosaics
Don’t have the time or artistic wherewithal to create a mosaic? Commission one at the school in Spilimbergo. An even less expensive option is to select a completed work such as the amazing replica of fish copied from a floor design at Aquileia. The shop prices start under 100 euros going upwards to thousands.
If you are going to spend the money and take the time to add a permanent multi-tile feature to your home, really think it out because mosaics are a bit like a tattoo: you better be sure you like it; ‘cause once you have it, it’s pretty much permanent.
Sources for purchasing and creating mosaic art
You don’t have to follow the crowd by installing tile from the limited choices of whatever is currently trending in the industry. With a little research, you can find hand made mosaics online and can even commission something specific. After all, we will spend $300 for a pair of shoes or a weekend getaway; so why not something permanent that will last forever.
• Mozaico – online retail, Illinois, USA
• Nevenka Pavic – commercial mosaic artist, Barcelona, Spain
• Norma Vondee – commercial mosaic artist, Great Britain
Classes and programs:
• Short course: 3 days with 28 hours total, 330 euros
2021 short-week courses are offered 2 April and 29, 30 May 30, 1 July , 15 July; 19 Aug.; 9 Sept; 29 Oct.; 5 and 27 Dec.
• Family course (3-days, 240 euros) 15 July 5 days with 46 hours total, 550 euros
• Weekly courses are 19 and 26 July; 2 and 9 August
Evening course 13 Sept.
Pro Artist three-year program
One must be between 18-40 years of age, speak Italian and pay 300 euros to apply. Full-time students spend three years to master Roman, Byzantine and modern styles of mosaic and terrazzo. The education also includes courses in graphic design, geometry, computer science/graphics, digital modeling, documentation and color theory courses.
Many of the courses are currently taught via the school’s distance learning program. The school only accepts 50 new students per year with half going to Italians. Students come from up to 16 countries of origin including France, Spain, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Mexico and Colombia to name a few.
Spillembergo School also gives guided tours, English and Italian, 9 Euros, Saturday 3 p.m. Tour includes artist’s studios, discussion of artistic techniques and over 800 mosaic artworks on permanent exhibition.
Spilimbergo Mosaics Around the Globe
• Opera in Paris
• Library of Congress, USA
• Dome of the Holy Sepulcer in Jerusalem
• Monastery of St. Irene near Athens
• Restoration of the Foro Italico in Rome
• Venice Railway Station
• Sanctuary at Lourdes in France
• New York City, Ground Zero, USA
Dispatches’ recommendations for mosaics
• Barcelona, Spain, Casa Batllo and Parc Güell mosaics
• Chartres, France, one of the world’s most beautiful mosaic gardens
• Chateau de Fleurac, France, modern pool mosaic by SICIS Corp.
• Grand, France Adesina 1 st century Roman floor mosaic, 232 sq meters, one of the largest in Europe
• El Jem, Tunisia, home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, mosaics from the Roman Empire
• Vienna, Austria, Hundertwasserhaus
• Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Magic Gardens
• San Antonio, Texas outdoor installations
• NYC subway system
• St. Louis, Missouri Cathedral
Dispatches picks for mosaic art in Italy
• Orvieto: Duomo (considered one of the most beautiful churches in the world)
• Puglia: Cathedrial of Otranto (1163 million tiles telling ancient history with references to the Bible)
• Ravenna: Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, San Vitale Basilica UNESCO World Heritage site
• Rome: Sant Maria Maggiore Basilica
• Sicily (Palermo): Cathedral of Monreale (gold glass tiles created by Venetian and Muslim craftsmen)
• Sicily (Villa Romana del Casale) 4 th century bikini-cad Roman women weightlifting and doing sports
• Trastevere: Santa Maria and Cecilia churches (golden mosaics)
About the author:
Alice Verberne is a freelance artist and writer who holds a degree in fine art and studied early Byzantine art at a masters level at Louisiana State University.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.