Where i grew up: The Vatican Studio of Mosaic


Secluded and discreet, it occupies a segment of VaticanCity which is the ancient hospice of Santa Marta. Set between two arches, in the shadow of the Audience Hall, two steps from Largo della Sagrestia and from Piazza dei Protomartiri Cristiani, the Vatican Mosaic Studio is not much talked about. On 23 November of last year however the spotlights were focused on this particular workshop of art: the day on which his mosaic portrait was presented officially to Benedict XVI, a medallion created by the Studio artists themselves, from a cartoon by a painter from Piacenza, Ulisse Sartini. A portrait that has gone to join the other two hundred and sixty four of the Chronological Series of the Supreme Pontiffs, that adorn the naves of the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. All of them, since 1847, issuing from the hands of the mosaicists of the Vatican Studio. And yet, once the threshold has been crossed, one finds oneself unexpectedly in a kind of place of marvels: a true and proper atelier, where ten artists with white tunics patiently weave their miniscule colored textures in religious silence, giving life to compositions of great beauty in mosaic. Thus it is that from the meticulous work of the first mosaicist that we meet, the famous Sunflowers of Vincent Van Gogh are taking form: soon the work will fly to the United States, probably to the house of some American customer. Some steps farther on and we are at the kiln: and in the manner of an ancient alchemist, another Studio artist is melting the glazes to create new subtleties of color. Finally, still farther on, we find ourselves in a room that at first sight resembles an old pharmacy, with hundreds and hundreds of wooden drawers: it is the color store. Each drawer has a number and every number corresponds to a color of glaze: twenty six thousand colors in all. The laboratory continuously turns out mosaic jewels of every dimension. And once finished, they are exhibited in a small “art gallery”, right next to the long and narrow room of the workshop: in front of our eyes parade mosaic reproductions of the Madonna of Guadalupe, venerated in the sanctuary of that name in  Mexico City, of the Madonna of Perpetual Succor, whose painting is in the Roman church of Saint Alphonsus Maria of Liguori, and also of theMother of Good Counsel in the sanctuary of Genazzano, in the province of Rome. The copy of the very ancient mosaic of Christ which is in the Niche of the Pallia, next to the Tomb of Peter, in the Sacred Grottos of the Basilica, arouses particular emotion. There are not only sacred subjects but also copies of pictorial masterpieces of Monet, Chagall, Roualt. And also delightful small “easel” works with views of Saint Peter’s Square, the Colosseum and the Roman Forums. An extraordinary visual impact that still however doesn’t account for the importance of the place. A place charged with history and artistic exploits, to say the least, titanic.

The diplomacy of gifts

It is a history that intertwines with that of the Basilica itself. At least since 1578. Since when, that is, Pope Gregory XIII decided to make a start on the decoration in mosaic of the new Saint Peter’s. So much so that the Studio from its beginnings is linked to The Fabric of Saint Peter’s and here, in the manner of an old art studio, the older members gradually transmit to the young artists techniques and secrets that have remained the same for centuries. The Vatican Mosaic Studio has a double function: the conservation and restoration of the mosaics that cover the Basilica (that of the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament between 1992 and 1993 was very demanding); and the execution of mosaic works inspired by sacred and profane works of art, ancient, medieval, modern, for sale to the public – by commission also and of whatsoever size. In recent years requests have come from many parts of the world such as the United States, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. But there is another very fascinating aspect. Many of the gifts that the Pontiff makes to heads of state and foreign sovereigns are often mosaics created by the Vatican Studio – an ancient custom. So much so that a sort of “diplomatic micro-history” could be recounted through the papal gifts: suffice to remember, for example, the very famous table in mosaic with the representation of Achilles’ shield, that Pope Leo XII donated in 1826 to the King of France Charles X: a gesture of gratitude to the sovereign who had encouraged the trading of the papal ships in the waters of the Mediterranean. Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of his first visit to the Quirinal, also followed the tradition, presenting the President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi with the reproduction in mosaic of the Salus Populi Romani, the image of the Madonna venerated for centuries in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major’s. Whereas last summer, on his journey to Germany, the Pope brought the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Horst Kohler, a mosaic portraying a nineteenth century view of the Colosseum. But the “diplomacy of gifts” has other extraordinary episodes. John Paul II, for example, on his journey to the island of Cuba, gave a gift of the reproduction of the Christ of the Niche of the Pallia in the Vatican Grottos to the lider maximo Fidel Castro. It was one of Pope Wojtyla’s favorite subjects: he took it with him many times on his journeys to present it to the powerful of the earth. He gave a landscape, instead, to the King of Morocco, and the same occurred with the then President of the United States Bill Clinton. As has been said, along with the reproduction of sacred and celebrated images, the Studio has another function that would make ones hands tremble: the conservation and restoration of the ten thousand square meters of mosaic that ‘carpet’ almost the entire Basilica of Saint Peter’s, taking into account the internal covering of its eleven domes, its altar pieces and altar frontals. Decoration began in the second half of the 16th century and continued up well into the nineteenth century.

Rome beats Venice: the Roman manner in mosaic

Everything began in the second half of the 16th century, when Pope Gregory XIII decided to decorate, in mosaic, the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, begun on the initiative of Pope Julius II in 1506, after the demolition of the one built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. The intention of Pope Gregory was to link back to to the mosaic tradition of the ancient paleo-Christian Roman Basilicas, overflowing with mosaics. After he had exhausted the local mosaic talent, he called to Rome the best that were available in the marketplace, – that is to say the Venetian masters who, teaching the technique to local students, created the first equipe of Roman mosaicists. «It is not in Venice that Renaissance mosaic concludes its splendors but in Rome and in Saint Peter’s» writes the art historian Carlo Bertelli in Rinascimento in mosaico(‘Renaissance in mosaic’ tr.) (various hands, Il Mosaico. Mondadori, Milan 1988, ed. by Carlo Bertelli), adding that : «In the Vatican Basilica, where Giotto’s mosaic continued to be admired throughout the Renaissance as an indisputable masterpiece, mosaic was meant to show continuity with history and did so in the most imperious way, with the immense inscription in Greek and Latin, in mosaic letters on a background of gold, that runs round the whole church… Mosaics lie a little everywhere throughout Saint Peter’s Basilica and the dome in particular is covered with mosaics that, because of its dimensions, constitutes the greatest enterprise in mosaic ever attempted». [Giotto created for the first Constantine Basilica a mosaic representing The apostles’ small  boat, set above the three doors of the ancient portico. Dismounted and remounted several times, it is presently to be found in the portico of Saint Peter’s. Just as Clement X placed it there in 1674, ed.] The first phase of the undertaking involved the decoration of the Gregorian Chapel in 1578 following cartoons by the painter Girolamo Muziano. Immediately afterwards it was the turn of Michelangelo’s dome. The vault, divided by sixteen groins with six orders of mosaics, followed the drawing of Giuseppe Cesare, called the Knight of Arpino, one of the most illustrious painters of Rome, Caravaggio’s great rival. Gradually an immense mosaic carpet spread to cover the other nine domes of Saint Peter’s. For those first interventions, glazes – mixtures of colored glass fused with metallic oxides – produced in Venice were used. And a type of putty with a linen base was employed for the first time to fix the mosaic tesseras to the dome, whose recipe, jealously guarded for four and more centuries, is still used today by the Studio mosaicists. Girolamo Muziano and Paolo Rossetti: they were the pioneers of the great enterprise followed, in the course of the seventeenth century, by Marcello Provenzale, Giovanni Battista Calandra and Fabio Cristofari. Alongside these expert masters of mosaic technique, but also good painters, worked important painters who provided the cartoons, such as Cristofaro Cavallo, called the ‘Pomarancio’, Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Lanfranco, Andrea Sacchi, Pietro da Cortona and the already mentioned Knight of Arpino. At that time in Rome there was nothing but talk about all the artistic commotion in Saint Peter’s. The guides who accompanied visitors learned the stupefying measurements of the Petrine mosaics: they explained that, for example, in one of the pendentives of the dome, the pen held by Saint Mark drawn by Cesare Nebbia was a meter and a half long, the small cross that separated the inscription under the dome was two meters high and so on. At a certain point however a problem of a technical  nature posed itself: the Venetian glazes used in the dome of the Vatican Basilica propagated a sparkling of colored lights that did not comply with the intention of making the results of mosaic technique resemble those of painting, achieving effects that would trick the eye. But to imitate painting meant being able to use glazes capable of covering an infinitely extended chromatic scale just as the paintbrush can, which is able to modulate an extraordinary range of tones from one color with extreme facility. It was thus then that The Fabric of Saint Peter’s, from the end of the seventeenth century, promoted research aimed at finding glass compounds suitable for this purpose and favorable to the development of kilns specialized in the area. Also because a growth in productivity meant escaping from the Venetian monopoly. In short, a little over half way through the 17th century, Rome was able to produce such glazes. So much so that Venice itself, which had lost 46 thousand people in the terrible plague of 1630, among them all the principal mosaic artists, had to turn to the Roman mosaicists. 1727: Pope Benedict XIII officially institutes the Vatican Mosaic Studio At the beginning of the 18th century, two new protagonists appear in the forefront of mosaic art in Rome: Pietro Paolo Cristofari, nominated by The Fabric of Saint Peter’s as superintendent and head of all the painters working in Saint Peter’s, on 19 July 1727; and the ingenious Roman kiln worker Alessio Mattioli who, more or less in that same period, had found a way of producing opaque glazes of an extensive range of tints, a new type of paste on a base of metallic limes that he called “peel”,  and crimson, a color much appreciated for the vividness of the tint and produced in sixty-eight different shades. But 1727 itself was indeed a decisive year for another reason. Through the wish of Pope Benedict XIII the “laboratory” coordinated by two personages was organized as a permanent institution with the name of “Vatican Mosaic Studio” directed and protected by the The Fabric of Saint Peter’s, the senior authority in charge of the conservation and the care of every type of intervention on behalf of the Petrine Basilica. Also because by now Cristofari had transformed the place into a real and proper industry, working as a business. Mattioli’s successes meanwhile marked the overcoming of every barrier settling the equation: mosaic equals painting. The opacity of the new glazes, furthermore, were a guarantee against the chromatic changes connected with the conditions of the light and, along with the range of newly acquired tints, insured optimal results in the making of pictures in mosaic considered as oil paintings to be seen from close up. In 1731 the Fabric guaranteed to Mattioli the monopoly for the supplying of crimson and the so-called “complexion” glazes necessary for defining the complexions of figures. In that year also a kiln was constructed directly in the Vatican. The moment had therefore arrived to achieve an old dream: that of executing copies in mosaic of all the pictorial masterpieces existing in Saint Peter’s, so as to transfer these last to drier and more secure places and at the same time to leave unaltered and enhanced in mosaic the ornamental display of the altars. It is enough to think that in 1711 there were only six mosaic pictures in Saint Peter’s. Today, all the altar pieces in mosaic that we see in Saint Peter’s, that went to substitute the old paintings, were created in the course of the eighteenth century, except for the Deposition of Christ from the Cross from the original by Caravaggio, made during the first two decades of the following century. The artists, called painters in mosaic, admitted to work in the Studio, had to undergo an apprenticeship that could actually last four years, under the guidance of expert artists. And so then it was that gradually over the years these extraordinary artists went on to transfer into mosaic The burial of Saint Petronilla by Guercino, The Communion of Saint Dominic and The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Domenichino, Poussin’s The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Guido Reni, only to mention some of them. At the same time as this titanic work, the Vatican Studio began to produce works destined for private commission: numerous pictures were made, among them two destined for Maria Amalia of Saxony on the occasion of her marriage to Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples, representing The Savior by Reni and The Virgin by Maratta. Many others took the road to the courts of Portugal, England, Spain.

The minute mosaic

But the great adventure of Roman mosaic was not yet over: about 1770, just at the moment when the Vatican Studio was in a difficult employment crisis, the first steps were taken in Rome toward a new type of mosaic that used “spun glazes” for its compositions. The inventors were Giacomo Raffaelli and Cesare Aguatti, among the most esteemed and expert mosaic painters active between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. What did they discover? That by subjecting the glazes to the heat of the flame a second time, they changed into a ductible substance that could be drawn. This procedure allowed the drawing of long and subtle rods, excellent for the smallest tesseras, even less than a millimeter, and different from the traditional glazes cut to the strokes of a “small hammer”. A real revolution! From that moment onwards works of a fineness and elegance that mosaic had never before known could be achieved. Another mosaic master, Antonio Aguatti, had made a further discovery: the production of rods in which more color tones were mixed and that came out as variously shaded. These glazes were called badly mixed and proved extraordinary for the rendering of the most subtle shifts of light. A new season of miniaturized mosaic began therefore that was utilized to decorate small objects for daily use, such as containers, tobacco boxes, jewels, vases, small pictures, and even table tops, votive offerings, and wall cornices. The subject-matter was generally antiquity. And then there were the landscapes, scenes with the ruins of ancient Rome, but especially reproductions of Saint Peter’s Square. The fact remains that lay and religious aristocracy, foreign travelers, diplomats and royalty on official visits, were literally dazzled by the new expertise in Roman mosaic and made it a success, also economic, of enormous proportions. So much so that in 1795 the Fabric of Saint Peter’s decided to introduce manufacture into the Studio so that it could enter into the market in competition with the private Roman studios that, in the meantime, had flourished in the streets most frequented by the tourists. And it was thus that the Vatican Mosaic Studio gained new vitality. In fact the Vatican mosaicists were called to France, England and, within Italy, to Milan and Naples to teach the noble and profitable art.

The roundels of the pontiffs in Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls

Finally, there is another chapter in the long account of the events of the Vatican Mosaic Studio that merits attention: on the night of 15 July of 1823 the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls was devastated by a violent fire. It seems because of some burning coals that fell from the braziers of the solderers working on the roof. Among the many masterpieces destroyed, almost all the paintings of the Chronological series of the Supreme Pontiffs, a series completed by Salvatore Monosillo in the Holy Year of 1750 at the behest of Benedict XIV, were lost. The forty-one paintings that survived are kept today in the museum of the monastery of the Benedictines, who are in charge of the Basilica. A year after the fire, Leo XII had work begin on reconstruction of the Basilica and it was only sixteen years afterwards that Gregory XVI consecrated the transept, whereas the entire new Basilica was finished under the pontificate of Pius IX who consecrated it in 1854. Some years before, in a decree of 20 May 1847, Pius IX also asked that the chronological series of the popes be repainted, to then be reproduced in mosaic. It was thus that Monsignor Lorenzo dei Conti Lucidi, the then president of the Vatican Studio and bursar-secretary of the Fabric of Saint Peter’s, involved the entire “painter class” of the Pontifical Academy of Saint Luke and nominated a commission for the assignation of the works and the formulation of judgment about the works. Different painters were chosen and, to execute the “roundels” in reasonable time, it was arranged to motivate some of them through the allocation of sums of money beyond those already agreed. Between 1848 and 1849 many of the roundels in oil were finished, while translation into mosaic lasted until 1876. The directives on the creation of the portraits of the pontiffs were most detailed and numerous, suggested even down to the smallest details by Pius IX himself. In the agreement between the special Commission appointed for the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s and the Fabric of Saint Peter’s it was established, among other things, that «the said images should be made in mosaic in the Studio of the Fabric of Saint Peter’s», and that they should begin with the «venerated image of the Prince of the Apostles, Saint Peter, down to that of the reigning Supreme Pontiff Pius IX». From then onwards, the paintings and the mosaics were all made according to and respecting the rules of the agreement stipulated for the remaking of the Chronology. Such as happened again with the portrait of Pope Ratzinger presented officially on 23 November of last year and placed on the right nave of Saint Paul’s Basilica next to the effigy of John Paul II. Three mosaicists worked on the mosaic at the same time. They are satisfied, they told us, with their work because they had the impression that the Pope was pleased.

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