The Almost Lost Art of Florentine Mosaics
Florentine mosaic stones crafted so carefully that the finished product resembles a painting.
Florentine art is generally associated with the height of culture. Paintings, sculpture, architecture are often looked to as the preferred modes of artistic expression. There is, however, another remarkable type of artistry little appreciated today: Florentine mosaics.
Most visitors to Florence have seen them, but few know what they are really looking at: painstaking hand-made mosaics made so well that the average on-looker doesn’t even realize they are mosaics. Called opera di commesso or “fitted together works,” today these one of a kind works of art are a Florentine treasure.
The art of stone mosaics has a rich history in Italy, developing first in Rome, but coming into its own in Florence during the 16th and 17th centuries. The practice grew out of the Byzantine tradition of mosaic art, but focused on depicting images with a greater sense of realism. The craft became so popular that in 1588, the Grand Duke Ferdinando I instituted the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones) dedicated to creating mosaics using precious and semi-precious stones.
Although the workshop is now dedicated to preserving great works of art, it was once the center of Florentine craftsmanship, producing abundant and stunning stone mosaics. At times, as many as four artisans would work on a single image, each mosaicist dedicated to a particular part of the process. Today, several family-owned businesses and several workshops are scattered throughout Florence. Typically, only one artisan works on a single image, requiring each craftsman to retain more knowledge of the entire process.
The striking beauty of Florentine stone mosaics conceals the painstaking work and assiduous attention to detail that is required of the craftsman. The mosaicist begins by drawing a sketch that is divided into different parts, each representing the particular stone that will be used. The stones are then carefully measured, carved, filed, and artfully assembled so as to disguise the number of stones that populate the final product. The finished product, reflecting the subtle tones and varied grains and striations of each stone, resembles a “painting in stone.”
The images rendered are as varied as the stones used to depict them. Jade, lapis lazuli, amethyst, chalcedony, paesina, and malachite are all regularly used to depict a diversity of images: scenic landscapes of the Tuscan countryside, detailed renderings of grapes or other traditional food, illustrations of birds, and vegetation such as lilies or sunflowers. The art of stone inlay lends itself to different types of decorations: vases, tabletops, jewelry boxes, frames, etc.
Many of the pieces that were produced during the Renaissance adorned Florentine homes or were retained in chapels throughout the city, for example, the Medici Chapels in the Basilica of San Lorenzo are adorned with these stunning stone mosaics. The Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes,) is another example, which includes a 28-meter-wide (~ 92 feet) mausoleum dedicated to the Medici family. It is decorated with colorful and extravagant mosaics, displaying the full breadth of Florentine craftsmanship.