a Labor of Love; Louis' Legacy
Studio Adds New Twists to an Ancient Art
25, 2005 .- What is it about St. Peter's Basilica that makes us
catch our breath every time we cross that threshold? Perhaps the
gleaming marble, the two millennia of history or even the sheer
size account for the awe felt by millions of pilgrims through the
But even with
the grand design of the dome, the broad sweep of the nave and the
memory of the 265 successors of St. Peter, part of the magic of
the basilica is in the details. The mosaics of St. Peter's, often
so perfectly executed as to pass for paintings by most visitors,
shimmer all over the church, enhancing its transcendental quality.
the art of taking little colored tiles, either of stone or glass,
and fixing them with cement in figurative or geometric patterns.
Long before frescoes adorned the vault of the Sistine Chapel, mosaic
was the greatest artistic medium of Christianity.
of this fine art are not troubled geniuses such as Michelangelo
or passionate visionaries such as Bernini, whose personalities are
almost as large as their works. Today, for instance, the men and
women of the Vatican Mosaic Studio are talented, meticulous artists
who prefer to stay behind the scenes as they dedicate their lives
to preserving the ancient mosaics of St. Peter's while breathing
new vitality into the art by producing original works.
There is certainly
enough work to keep the studio busy: Mosaics cover about 10,000
square meters of the basilica.
I spent a morning
at the Vatican Mosaic Studio speaking with its director, Paolo di
Buono. The studio just completed the yearlong restoration of the
mosaics in the cupola over the altar of Pope St. Pius X.
"This is the
third major restoration in the past decade," di Buono told me. "Mosaics
take a long time to make and a long time to restore."
technique of the studio is a very painstaking one. They detach the
tiles, cataloguing all the pieces as they go, and then reapply them.
This method is considered old-fashioned by most modern restorers
who would simply inject a form of glue to consolidate the mosaic
tiles thereby saving much time and energy.
"We like to
know everything about the mosaic we are restoring: how it was made
and what happened to require restoration," explained di Buono. "We
regenerate the wall underneath so the mosaic is as sound as when
it was first unveiled."
gained by experience abounds in the Vatican Mosaic Studio after
500 years of preserving ancient techniques and developing new ones.
In the 16th
century, Pope Gregory XIII founded the laboratory (as it was then
called) to decorate the newly completed basilica of St. Peter's.
The craftsmen became so proficient that in the 18th century, they
developed a new opaque tile allowing them to replace all the altar
paintings in St. Peter's with mosaic copies. To this day, it amazes
visitors to hear that the altar "paintings" are actually mosaics.
studio employs 10 masters. "This is not a school," di Buono told
me. "The people working here are highly trained artists, each contributing
his or her own special expertise."
creates micro-mosaics, another technique invented by the Vatican
studio, in which long, colored enamel filaments are stretched as
thin as spaghetti. The artist clips off a tiny piece and places
it in a design sometimes as small as an inch in diameter. Once the
favorite souvenir of 19th-century tourists exploring Europe in the
Grand Tour, today they are very rare and only a few artists have
a slow technique," observed di Buono. "In painting you see the results
immediately; in our art you have to wait." A mosaic altarpiece can
take two to three years to make. A master of this art must have
"great manual dexterity as well as a sensitive understanding of
color," the director pointed out. "One must be in part a painter
in order to be a good mosaicist."
on painting caused it to be dismissed as minor art in the 19th century.
"Byzantine was considered an inferior art and mosaics were seen
as Byzantine," explained di Buono, "so from the highest Early Christian
art form, mosaic became a minor art."
is a renewed interest in mosaic. Most of the masters in the studio
are young men and women and more are studying the art. People are
beginning to take an interest in commissioning mosaics again as
all kinds of mosaics either commissioned or not," said di Buono.
"Many are copies of older works and techniques but some are our
own original work."
for a copy of a Roman floor mosaic, we use stone tiles just like
the Romans did," he continued. "We even use the same tools for cutting
and shaping the pieces."
For a copy
of a medieval mosaic, the artists use enamel pieces and make the
gold tiles in the same manner as medieval artists. The tiles are
not painted. They are either colored stone or dyed glass paste.
To restore mosaics, the studio keeps on hand colored tiles from
its works. At the height of the studio's activity, there were 30,000
colors of tiles catalogued.
As we are
speaking, one of the artists entered a little room next to the workroom.
"He's going to make a color, another special studio technique,"
di Buono said. The master takes some blue and yellow enamel pieces
and heats them with a blowtorch fusing the shades together so that
the pale blue is speckled with the yellow.
Di Buono explained:
"This is the 'filato' technique -- the most characteristic of the
mosaic studio. It was invented by the studio in the 19th century
and we are still finding innovative ways of using it."
It works well
for the mosaic copies of modern paintings. This piece is for a copy
of a Van Gogh. The artist's study of the Dutch painter's colors,
brushstroke and style comes out in the mosaic. Instead of square
tiles, many have been cut into arcs to emulate the distinctive lines
of Van Gogh's brush. The pieces are laid unevenly, some raised high
above the surface of the work to create the light-catching effect
of the painter's heavy daubs of oil pigment. The rich complex colors
are achieved with the filato technique.
tells a story beyond the picture," noted the director. "The tiles,
technique and color reflect choices and offer insights into the
work of art. It just takes time to read the story."
the real beauty even of monumental works is found in the tiniest
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne
University's Italian campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.