Professional Jeweler Archive: Micromosaics

November 2000

From the Vault


Souvenirs of the Grand Tour were painstakingly crafted

Fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity took hold in Europe soon after the discoveries of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii 10 years later. The grandeur of the artifacts uncovered at these and other sites was extolled in literature of the time and emulated in the decorative arts. People with financial means took a “Grand Tour” of Europe that included a visit to the ancient ruins. These new tourists wanted tokens of their visit and, to satisfy this need, the “souvenir” was born (the word is French for reminder). Many souvenirs took the form of jewelry, and some of the most charming were micromosaics.

Vatican Mosaics

The Vatican Workshops were renowned for their mosaic work. These workshops were established in 1576 to restore artwork in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Workshops were revitalized in 1727 and the art of mosaics became increasingly refined. Glass mosaics were made of hundreds of tesserae – little tiles of an opaque glass known as smalti. Smalti was made of silica, tin oxide for opacity and other metal oxides to impart color. Melted and formed into cakes, smalti was made in over 20,000 tints and then broken up into tesserae for use in mosaics like paint on a canvas.

By the mid-18th century, Giacomo Rafaelli, an artisan in the Vatican Workshops, developed the technique for micromosaics. Melting broken bits of smalti, he pulled them into glass threads, or smalti filati, that were cut into tiny tesserae. These minute glass fragments were inserted with tweezers into a frame of opaque glass or hardstone lined with an oil-based gum-mastic. This slow-drying adhesive allowed the artists several weeks to place the tesserae tightly against each other using variegations of color to give depth and perspective to the picture they were assembling. After three months, the adhesive dried, a fine grout of marble dust and cement was rubbed in to fill any gaps and then the micromosaic was polished with steel wool, given a final coat of wax and buffed to make the surface smooth. In the early 19th century, Antonio Aguatti introduced two subtle refinements. He produced tesserae in shapes other than square or rectangular and by fusing glass threads of different colors he produced patterned tesserae called millefiori. Millefiori tesserae added a new dimension to micromosaics because they allowed more realistic representations of eyes, fur, feathers, petals and leaves. The finest micromosaics have around 1,400 tesserae per square inch and, at first glance, look like painted enamel.

Popular Souvenirs

The popularity of micromosaics as a tourist souvenir gave impetus to the art; soon artisans outside of the Vatican Workshops began to produce them also. Micromosaics were used to decorate gold jewelry, table tops and the lids of snuff boxes and bonbonnieres. Micromosaic jewelry stayed
in fashion from 1775, when Rafaelli held his first exhibition in Rome, through the end of the 19th century.

Subject matter for micromosaics varied greatly. Classical ruins were especially popular, but scenes from nature and fables were used frequently as well. Painted friezes depicting birds and flowers found on the walls of ancient Greco-Roman villas and original mosaics from antiquity were replicated in micromosaics. Religious themes derived from Byzantine mosaics were favored, as were detailed replicas of famous Renaissance paintings.

–by Elise B. Misiorowski

From a distance, fine micromosaics look like painted enamel, but closer examination reveals dozens of tesserae assembled to make the image. Note the millefiori used for the bird's eyes and the multicolored leaf-shaped tesserae used for the plants (inset).

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