The History Of Mosaic

The earliest mosaic dates back to the 3rd millennium BC in Mesopotamia and its main purpose was protecting floors and walls. A real use of mosaic as a form of art was made only in Roman times (IV-III c. BC), when tesserae were introduced.

Pergamonmuseum_InannaCone Mosaic Courtyard, III millennium BC - Uruk, Mesopotamia

In the late Roman Empire mosaic was very appreciated, around IV century AD one of the currently most important mosaic sites in the world was built. Maybe the seat of the self-proclaimed Roman emperor Massenzio, but more likely the property of the governor of Sicily, Lucio Populonio. The Villa Romana del Casale near Enna, is now under the aegis of UNESCO. It was discovered only in 1950 under a landslide and now it represents the largest collection of Roman mosaics ever known; one may have seen, for example, the famous Girls in Bikini, athletic women in the act of playing a different sport each.


Villa_del_Casale_Girls_in_BikiniGirls in Bikini - Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Italy).
Villa_Del_Casale_CharWinner of the Chariot Races, Circus Mosaic - Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Italy).

 The end of IV century saw also the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, whose name recalls a unique style in the art of mosaic, indeed, the tiny polychrome glass tesserae became a fundamental tool to express the need of visual religious content. The prevailing characteristic of the Byzantine mosaic was a large use of gold background as well as of the light through which the artist showed their icons in an intangible world, almost two-dimensional, but very colourful. Beautiful examples in this sense are the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (Italy) and the Hagia Sophia in Instambul.


Basilica-san-Vitale-RavennaApse, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Apse_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia_Virgin_and_ChildThe Virgin and Child, Apse of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Turkey).

From X to XII centuries, the typical fresco starts prevailing because cheaper than the tesserae, nevertheless the most important testimony to mosaic in the Middle Age is represented by the floor of the Cathedral of S. Maria Annunziata in Otranto (Italy), work ascribed to the Romanesque art, dominant in that period. This mosaic is a path through a theological labyrinth showing in its central part the tree of life along which the main representations take place (original sin, the expulsion of Adam and Eve etc.). The mosaic made by Pantaleone conveys a sense of horror vacui in the way every little space is filled with details and can be considered an encyclopaedia of Middle Age images.


Otranto_cathedral_mosaicDetail of the Floor Mosaic, Cathedral of S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto (Italy).
Mosaico_otrantoOverall view of the Floor Mosaic, Cathedral of S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto (Italy).

 Interesting is also what happens in Sicily - where a peculiar Arab-Norman style plays a key role - and the importance of mosaic for the creation of fundamental works in the Holy Land by the Crusaders, although only a few parts of them still exist.


Cappella_Palatina_PalermoCappella Palatina, Palermo Sicily (Italy).
Christ_after_death_JerusalamChrist after Death - Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

 The period that sees the birth of the Renaissance and of the Baroque (1500-1600) marks also a loss of interest in the mosaic art which, having a great durability, becomes just subjected to the pictorial work. Magnificent examples can still be found in the Chigi Chapel, Rome - which protects the Creation of the World, designed by Raffael - and in St. Peter's Basilica.


Raffaello_Sanzio_Dome_of_the_Chigi_ChapelDome of the Chigi Chapel, Raffaello Sanzio - Rome (Italy).
Vaticano_cupolaDome of Saint Peter's, Vatican City State

 Only at the end of XIX and the beginning of XX century there is a rebirth of mosaic, especially through two different art movements: Impressionism and Divisionism, which characteristics implies the fragmentation of colours. Later on, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco make again this art a starting point for new techniques and styles, see the Sagrada Familia of Gaudì and the work of Klimt, who was fascinated by the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna (which clearly influenced his works) but also the famous lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany.


Sagrada-familiaSagrada Família - Towers from the Nativity's façade, Barcelona (Spain)
The_Kiss_Gustav_KlimtThe Kiss - Gustav Klimt

 Today mosaic is an art that still attracts attention and interest all over the world, in many ways it lends itself to new forms showing all the potential these little tiles, pebbles and beads are filled with.

In Ravenna an updated archive (Databank Mosaicisti Contemporanei) has been created to collect as many contemporary mosaic artists as possible so that any kind of information, pictures and workshops can be accessible to all.