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Mosaic: Painting With Stone Part I

This is part one of the Life in Italy guide to mosaic in Italy. You can find out more about the art and its roots.

Mosaic art is an ancient art. It has been around since two thousand B.C., spreading all over the world. Mosaic art in Italy dates back to the Romans and their Empire. Romans purchased mosaics “off the shelf” with a variety of predetermined patterns and designs. Also like purchasing a poster nowadays.

Mosaic art prospered between the third and fifth centuries. Then again between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. That’s when many churches started featuring this art.

Mosaic in Italy: the example of Ravenna

In Italy, the city of Ravenna is the place to visit for lovers of this art form. In fact, it’s here that the art prospered.

For example, Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo hosts a collection of mosaics. The theme is the New Testament. The cycle contains twenty-six Christological scenes. They are particularly interesting because they incorporate both traditional Roman mosaic style and Byzantine style. The chapel was built in the 5th or 6th centuries by Theodoric and it served as the Royal Palace chapel for the Arian cult. Until the Catholic Church gained ownership.

The mosaics depict the teachings of Jesus Christ and fundamental aspects of his life, such as his birth and baptism have been left out. This is because the Goths did not see Christ as a man or as a god, so these scenes would have made little sense to them. Early Christians also found themselves uneasy with depictions of the flagellation and crucifixion of Christ so the Passion cycle of this mosaic does not contain these scenes.

Like most mosaics, the mosaics of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo were not completed by one person, but by many people. Variances in line, style, and stone placement can be seen in many of the cycles. Because of this it is often impossible to identify the artist of a particular mosaic.

Sometimes the name of the person who designed the original concept or who contracted the mosaic to be built is recorded, but this does little to determine who actually tiled the mosaic, how many persons where involved, or how long it took to complete the images. While mosaics were designed by artists they were often executed by ordinary workers who were contracted to lay mosaic tiles.

Read more on mosaic in Italy, head to our part II here.

By: Jamie Sue Austin

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