Mosaics: a Labor of Love; Louis' Legacy

Vatican Studio Adds New Twists to an Ancient Art

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 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 centuries.

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.

Mosaic is 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.

The creators 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.»

The restoration 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.»

Knowledge 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.

Today the 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.»

One artist 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 this skill.

«Mosaic is 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.»

Mosaic’s dependence 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.»

Today there 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 well.

«We produce 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 example, 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.

«Each mosaic 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.»

Sometimes the real beauty even of monumental works is found in the tiniest details.

* * *

Rome’s French Gem

King and saint are not easy things to combine. Aug. 25, however, commemorates one of the greatest success stories of blending the trappings of royalty with selfless sanctity, the feast of St. Louis IX of France.

Born in 1214 or 1215 to King Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile, Louis IX became king of France at the unlikely age of 11. His mother, ruling as regent while Louis was still underage, deeply influenced the future saint, telling him that she would «rather see him dead at her feet than guilty of a mortal sin.»

This extraordinary ruler led two Crusades, assisted Robert of Sorbonne in founding what is today the world renowned Sorbonne University in Paris, and commissioned the exquisite architectural gem, Sainte Chapelle. While battling for conversions on one front, he was inspiring souls at home through art and study.

In 1270 Louis IX died after embarking on the seventh Crusade. He had declared that to see the emir of Tunis baptized he would himself joyfully spend his life in Saracen chains — no small frivolous claim as the king had spent three years in a Saracen prison during the sixth Crusade.

Indeed, the serene acceptance of his imprisonment and the prayerful example he set during his confinement is often cited as a demonstration of the heroic virtue of this great saint.

St. Louis left another great legacy 300 years after his death, this time in Ro
me — the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Built in 1580 as the French National church in Rome and dedicated to this great saint-king, the church became a magnet for splendid art patronage, boasting the first public works by Caravaggio.

The St. Matthew cycle executed by Caravaggio from 1598 to 1601 remains to this day one of Rome’s greatest artistic and spiritual treasures. In the little chapel at the left transept, the brilliant painter portrayed scenes of St. Matthew’s calling, his writing of the Gospel and his martyrdom.

On this feast day, the panel of «The Calling of St. Matthew» is the most poignant. Matthew, as tax collector, is represented as wealthy and privileged. Wearing luxurious silks and velvets worthy of royalty, Matthew is interrupted as he sits with his friends by a barefoot, woolen-cloaked Jesus who gestures toward the future evangelist. Like King Louis, Matthew leaves all his comforts behind to follow Jesus into hardship and death.

Caravaggio added his own unique touch to the story through the dramatic use of shadow and light. Caravaggio brought out Matthew’s uncertainty in his ability to follow the path laid before him by having the saint point to himself in amazement. Bathing Matthew’s face in bright light from no apparent source, however, reminds viewers that God’s grace is ready to carry all sinners, if we will only heed it.

For 400 years this painting has battled neglect, controversy and cynical interpretation to bolster faltering souls and stimulate conversions.

St. Louis must be very proud, in a holy sort of way.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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