Here is the second post on micro mosaic jewelry. An interesting side note, I ran into two friends at Starbucks today and one was wearing a pair of contemporary Roman micro mosaic earrings from Italy. A relative had given them to her as a gift. They were very pretty!
By the late sixteenth century, two important centers for the production of mosaics had been set up, one in Rome and the other in Florence. The mosaics produced at each center were entirely different in style. The Florence center really perfected the pietra dura technique which involved the use of precious stones and marbles. They used agates, chalcedony, carnelian, lapis, onyx, etc. to create their beautiful designs. The main feature of the Florentine mosaics was their purely decorative quality. The abstract designs and stylized flowers were all about the natural beauty of the stones themselves.
We will be talking about the Roman micro mosaic jewelry in this post. We will save the pietra dura technique for another time.
The Roman micro mosaic jewelry has its roots at the Vatican, which had its own secret formula for making the glass like enamel tesserae for hundreds of years. Not long after St. Peter’s Basilica was erected around 1600, damp clouds began to form inside the vast structure, ruining altar paintings made by some of the most famous artists of the day. Seeking a more durable material, Vatican artists noticed that architectural mosaics of ancient Rome had retained their color. They started looking for ways to adapt mosaic techniques for copying paintings, which required developing thousands of hues of tesserae, also known as “smalti,” in a non-reflective material to give the appearance of a painted surface. Although the tesserae were an engineered success, the Roman glass tesserae were considered virtually worthless next to the Florentine natural stone, pietra dura mosaics.
An new industry began to take shape.
Eventually, the Romans came up with 28,000 tesserae colors needed to accurately replicate most of the basilica paintings. By 1770, nearly all of them had been successfully copied in mosaic. Even now, tourists visiting St. Peter’s are often unaware the artworks they are viewing are mosaic and not painted. In the mid 1770’s, a few of these artists applied their skills to miniature mosaic art using teeny tiny tesserae, creating the first of what we know of as “micro mosaic”.
Inspired by the great mosaics of antiquity, the most direct inspiration for micro-mosaics was the so-called Doves of Pliny, a wall panel measuring roughly 3 by 2.5 feet, discovered in 1737 at Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome. Though the first introduction to the art of micro-mosaics in jewelry started in the 1770s when Giacomo Raffaelli created a brooch with a copy of the Doves of Pliny, the best micro-mosaics are those created in Italy in the 19th century.
The actual term ‘micro mosaic’ was coined by wealthy 20th century collector Sir Arthur Gilbert in reference to Roman mosaics. Packed with 1,500 to 5,000 pieces per square inch, this type of miniature mosaic was sold as fine jewelry to Victorian ladies in the early and mid 19th century, when the tourism trade blossomed in Rome. Tourists taking “The Grand Tour” had to come back with a piece of micro mosaic jewelry.
Micro mosaics were most commonly found as brooches and pendants but were also sold in large parures, demi parures, and as individual bracelets, necklaces and pairs of earrings. Cemented to a glass, stone or metal background and framed, the glass tesserae were originally so small, these brooches appeared to have been painted or enameled, until they were examined under a microscope. At first, the tesserae were rectilinear or square, but after a while, each piece could be individually shaped to resemble brush strokes. In the early 1800’s, commercial mosaic studios opened in Rome, offering the rapidly growing tourist market, micro mosaic mementos.
The imagery on the mosaics reflected the renewed interest in antiquities and all things from the Classic period. Victorians on holiday in Rome could take home an image of the Colosseum, the ancient ruins of Pompeii or miniature versions of ancient architectural sites that they had just experienced. The mosaics served as a combination of modern day souvenirs like postcards and t-shirts.
Perhaps the most important designer of micro mosaic jewelry was the Italian designer Castellani. He became quite the fashionable jeweler. The workshop was founded in 1814 and run by Fortunato Pio Castellani and craftsman and Dante scholar Michelangelo Caetani. Much of their work, including their cameo and micro mosaic pieces, had been inspired by recent archaeological digs in ancient Rome and Egypt. Castellani’s unusually fine micro mosaic work was set in gold frames and adorned with Etruscan filigree and granulation. Often, the shop would incorporate Latin sayings in its mosaics, using Roman capitals surrounded by geometric designs. Today, Castellani’s work is still collected and high prized. Another future post.
The earliest micro-mosaics produced during the first half of the 19th century depicted naturalistic landscape scenes either incorporating monuments of ancient Rome or copied from 17th century landscape paintings. Flower bouquets and animal subjects were also popular motifs of early 19th century micro-mosaics. By about 1830 micro-mosaics of pastoral and bestial imagery had reached a peak in fashion; and by 1850, the intricate art form had nearly fallen out of favor all together.
The Victorian tourist trade that had brought great success to Italian micro mosaic jewelers, also brought the downfall of the form. While micro mosaic jewelry clearly sold well, it was rarely mentioned in the jewelry trade press of the time. This would indicate that tourists did not fully appreciate the level of craftsmanship that went into these pieces. By the mid 1800’s, artisans started looking for ways to sell to the masses and the tesserae got larger and larger, until they were visible to the naked eye and there was very little craftsmanship to behold.
A smiling bunny driving a biga (a two horsed chariot) led by two peacocks, circa 1850. The frame was added at a later date. Such wonderful playfulness.
Italian micro mosaic necklace, circa 1830, photo courtesy of Pinterest.
This is a contemporary micro mosaic ring created by Le Sibille Designs. Le Sibille is a collective of three Italian women – one archaeologist who designs and two goldsmiths who create the pieces. They are inspired by historical techniques and materials.
“During the 1880s and 90’s, the Roman mosaic was adapted to include Egyptian imagery on brooches and suites, set in classic style gold mounts. According to Vivienne Becker in Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery, “The idea of mosaics was seen as a way of capturing the color and richness of original jewels.” The mosaics had uneven surfaces, usually with white backgrounds, while the images were depicted in red, royal blue and turquoise. Often, a pharaoh’s head would adorn the center of a pendant or bracelet.
On the pendant, the pharaoh is flanked on either side by sphinxes, the mythical creatures with the body of a lion and a human head. The wings are adaptations from the Greek interpretation of the sphinx. On the bracelet, a pharaoh’s head graces the center flanked by non-Egyptian images of urns with flowers. Gold rope twist frames the pharaoh’s head, emphasizing his importance.” Photo courtesy of Jewels du Jour.
A signed Castellani brooch from the “Periodo Moderno”, a period in which Castellani’s master goldsmith and designer Michelangelo Caetani was strongly focused on designing micro mosaic jewelry with Greek and Latin text, 1870-1880. These are Greek letters “EY” that stand for good health. One could also say it’s the abbreviation for “Eternally Yours”. Photo courtesy of Adin Antiques.
A Castellani “Bulla” pendant, circa 1860, photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
In the Roman revival style, designed as a hinged pendant applied with rope work decoration, to a central circular image of a dove, the symbol for The Holy Spirit, inlaid with white, gold, brown and blue tesserae, the reverse inscribed ‘VIVAS IN DEO’ meaning: may you live in god, within a wreath, signed to the inside with the monogram of interlaced C’s within a cartouche.
Notes: In Ancient Rome a bulla, worn like a locket, was given to children by their families on the occasion of their birth, it was worn as an amulet to protect against evil spirits. Bulla could be made of many different materials which was dependent upon the wealth of the owner. Often they were made of leather, poor families might have one of cotton but the wealthier families would have bullae of gold or silver. A girl would wear her bulla until the eve of her marriage, when it was removed and kept with other childhood possessions, a boy however would continue to wear his bulla until he became a Roman citizen and then would only be worn on special occasions as a protective talisman.
An Italian micro mosaic plaque, circa 1810, depicting a view of the Roman Forum showing from left to right, the Arch of Septimus Severus, Foca’s column and the ruined Temples of Vespasian and Saturn, photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The following set of micro-mosaic pieces, an urn shaped pendant and matching earrings, exemplifies the intricate art of micro-mosaics at its very best in the late 19th century. Created by the hands of esteemed Italian jewelers Domenico and Giuseppe Petochi, whose family established their legacy in Rome in 1884, this set has beautiful imagery, detailed mosaic arrangement and is in remarkable condition. Photo and description courtesy of Jewels du Jour.
The main oval micro-mosaic depicts two doves, a traditional Roman symbol for love as well as the Christian emblem of the Holy Spirit. One of the most popular motifs for Italian micro-mosaics, the doves in this set, accented by stars, flowers and scrolls, are exceptionally illustrated with precisely laid tiles in brilliant blue, red and white ceramic. Photo and description courtesy of Jewels du Jour.
Italian micro mosaic brooch, circa 1880. Photo courtesy of 1st dibs.
An Italian locket/pendant with the dove theme, circa 1880. Photo courtesy of 1st dibs.
Decorated to the obverse with a panel set with multi-colored tesserae depicting a scene of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome with their wolf mother on the banks of the Tiber River, between two reclining personifications of the River Tiber, to gold rope work borders, decorated to the reverse with a repeating rope and granulated gold work of octagonal design, circa 1860’s. Photo and description courtesy of Sotheby’s.
What do you think? Are you a fan of the technique? Let me know!