Tesserae, small cubes of colored glass and stone, have a rich and enduring history in the world of art and design. Mosaics, which consist of these tesserae, have fascinated and captivated us for thousands of years. Unlike contemporary materials that may fade into obscurity over time, mosaics have withstood the test of time and continue to hold a special place in our hearts. Their beauty, designs, and legacy left by the ancient artists evoke a sense of wonder and admiration even in the present day.
The Origins of Mosaics
The origins of mosaics can be traced back 5,000 years ago to Sumeria in the 3rd millennium BCE. From there, this technique spread to Egypt, the Orient, Africa, and eventually Greece in the 5th century BCE. The Greco-Roman era witnessed a prolific period for mosaics, followed by the Byzantine period that extended until the 12th century CE. The Romans, known for their ingenuity in working with cement, incorporated mosaics into their colossal structures throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia.
One remarkable excavation site that yielded an extensive collection of intact mosaics is Antioch, located in modern-day northern Syria. The expeditions conducted by Princeton University, Wellesley College, and other institutions in the 1930s uncovered numerous well-preserved mosaics. While cities like Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria paved over their treasures with time, Antioch offered accessible and relatively undisturbed structures, delighting archaeologists with its mosaic treasures.
Telling Stories With Tile
Mosaic artists showcased their mastery in perspective, geometry, storytelling, light and shade. These small tesserae allowed them to create intricate pictures and designs guided by patterns or cartoons. Three methods were commonly employed to create mosaics: laying them into wet cement, gluing them with a cloth and setting them into cement, or using a template and reversing the cloth. The Romans, thanks to their vast empire, could source almost any color of stone required for the artists. Wealthier patrons could afford handmade glass tesserae, which added a stunning array of brilliant colors to the mosaic palette. However, due to their fragility, glass tesserae were often reserved for less demanding placements.
In a manner reminiscent of Renaissance artists, principal mosaic artists would establish workshops where they would conceive designs and oversee the implementation. These workshops developed distinctive styles and schools that are recognizable even today. Mosaics featured various motifs, with the Greeks and Romans often using central themes called emblemata, imported from elsewhere and surrounded by decorative borders. Romans, known for their inward-facing houses, utilized mosaics to provide interesting views while maintaining privacy. Different rooms would showcase various scenes, such as bathing areas adorned with water, fish, and sea nymphs, reception areas with drinking and banqueting scenes, and bedrooms adorned with romantic or love-related imagery. The most exquisite pieces were strategically placed where they could be admired by the most people.
Learning The Truth of Our History
Mosaics can be dated based on their subject matter. For example, in the 3rd to 1st century BCE, there was an emphasis on imitating paintings. In 242 CE, when the Emperor Constantine relocated the Roman throne to Constantinople, Eastern Mediterranean artists incorporated Christian symbols such as crosses and churches. Hunting scenes, aquatic scenes, vegetables, and naturalistic running scrolls of vines and ivy were prevalent in the 4th to 6th century CE. Animals, including lions, tigers, and peacocks, were frequently depicted, introducing the citizens to exotic creatures. Interestingly, more polychrome figured mosaics were used outside of Rome in the colonies. Mosaics found their way into various applications, adorning houses, temples, baths, churches, synagogues, palaces, and even brothels. The versatility of mosaics was truly boundless.
One of the intriguing aspects of mosaics is the way they were installed and preserved. Vitruvius, the Roman architect, described a multi-layered approach, with meticulous preparation of the lower levels to ensure the integrity of the mosaic. In contemporary times, when removing mosaics from their original installations, a strong piece of canvas is often glued to the design, slicing through the underlying layers. The mosaic is then turned over and framed with cement and metal rods. While mosaics do not respond well to torque, their resilience against hurricanes, theft, and damage has contributed to their longevity.
A Wide Diversity of Materials
The diversity of materials used in mosaics is truly remarkable. Glass tesserae come in various forms, including vitreous (non-porous and frost-proof), iridised (with a reflective quality), marbled (featuring contrasting and complementary colors), metallic (semi-transparent with gold or bronze veins), and millefiori (round handmade Murano tesserae with intricate patterns). Additionally, there are Sicis tesserae from Italy, which are square with rounded corners, and smalti, rectangular bricks of opaque glass used in Byzantine mosaics. Ceramic tesserae can be glazed or unglazed, while stone tesserae encompass materials like marble, pebbles, slate, granite, and even semi-precious stones. Broken crockery, shells, mirrors, and buttons have also found their way into mosaic creations, showcasing the endless possibilities for materials.
Mosaics continue to inspire and captivate us today, offering a unique and enduring art form that can be integrated into our daily lives. Whether adorning our walls, floors, bathrooms, or even wine bottles, mosaics bring a touch of timeless beauty and artistic expression. Their ability to withstand the test of time, both physically and aesthetically, speaks to their exceptional durability and everlasting appeal. As we incorporate mosaics into our contemporary spaces, we pay homage to the ancient artisans who paved the way for this remarkable art form to thrive and enchant us for centuries to come.