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                                           WHAT ARE MICROMOSAICS                                         

              Micromosaics are assemblages of small pieces of enamel, an opaque, vitreous substance which is similar to glass. The Vatican has kept the actual formula a secret for over 200 years. Micro mosaics, which are the very smallest of these, were produced from the late eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. The term “micromosaic” was coined by Sir Arthur Gilbert to refer to these mosaics with tiny pieces - sometimes up to 4,000  per square inch. The spelling I have established is one word: micromosaics. However, word processors tend to break this into two words (micro mosaics) and some people  use a hyphenated form (micro-mosaics), so no consistent  spelling has yet been established. Even this web site name uses the hyphenated form because that was the only form available at the time. For thorough scholarly evaluation of the history of this subject, please to Jeanette's book, Micromosaics.

            What were the early events in Italy that led up to the development of micromosaics?  After St. Peter’s Basilica was completed around 1600, a crisis arose: the basilica was so vast that clouds formed in its interior, and the altar paintings by famous artists were decaying from dampness . A desperate search  began for a lasting material with which to reproduce the paintings. Seeing that the architectural mosaics had retained their color and had not decayed, St. Peter’s artistic staff began to experiment with ways of modifying existing mosaic methods  to serve a new purpose of copying paintings. In order  to reproduce master paintings, thousands of new shades of tesserae would have to be developed. Also, traditional glass mosaics were shiny. A mosaic  material must be found  whose surface was non-reflective and had the appearance of painting.

            Over a period of many years, 28,000 different shades of tesserae were created. These were composed of an opaque substance which was neither shiny nor brittle like former glass mosaics. While the exact formula has been kept a secret, the Vatican calls the substance “enamel”. “Persons who have never seen a mosaic made find it difficult to imagine how with small bits of colored enamel the most valuable paintings may be exactly copied.” [Begni, The Vatican, 1914, p. 501].  By 1770 most of the altar paintings by the great masters were successfully reproduced in mosaic; to this day, most visitors to Saint Peter’s do not realize they are looking at mosaics and not paintings. Around 1775, some artists at St. Peter’s began making miniature mosaics using exceptionally small tesserae. These were the first of  what   we now call “micromosaics”. Initially, as in larger pictures, the tesserae were all square or rectilinear in shape, but methods were eventually refined so that individual pieces could be shaped to appeared almost like brush strokes.

            By the early nineteenth century, a number of private mosaic workshops had sprung up in Rome near the Spanish Steps and a growing tourist market created a demand for micro-mosaic souvenirs. Commercial mosaics became available in a vast range of sizes and quality. Inexpensive mementos such as pill boxes and paperweights were available to the average tourist, while elaborate and costly tabletops, pictures and jewelry were made for the nobility of  Europe. Esamples of these can be seen at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg,  Russia, at the Vatican, and at the newly opened Gilbert Collection museum in London.

            Sadly, like so many time-intensive art forms, by the end of the nineteenth century the art of micromosaics™ at its finest  had disappeared.

Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel

© 2015  Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel, All Rights Reserved
Images ©2015 Gilbert Collection, unless otherwise noted.

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