Piecing together the art of mosaics in Italy

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2013 - 11:14 AM

The ancient art of mosaics thrives in Ravenna, the Italian city known for the art form. A master's five-day crash course teaches the technique to visitors.

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The Italian mosaic master sat poised behind her small, wooden work stand, a log placed on end and embedded with a small, sharp steel tool.

She held a piece of marble no larger than a stamp against that ax-like tool and struck it with a hammer, cutting it into progressively smaller cubes.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

Luciana Notturni had no need to look as the pointed hammer swiftly descended into the tiny gap between finger and thumb. Her body knew the drill.

In no time, she had eight or so perfect little cubes resting in the palm of her hand. Her gaze fell on her students, and with a slight smile she shrugged, as if to say, “See, that’s all there is to it.”

We looked at those cubes with pursed lips and furrowed brows, likely harboring a shared sentiment: “How many fingers am I going to lose by the time this class is over?”

Notturni’s full-time students at a nearby mosaic-restoration academy in Ravenna, Italy, must spend four months perfecting their cutting techniques before they can construct a mosaic. The eight women who had signed up for her five-day crash course held at Notturni’s studio — myself included — had about four hours.

Fear of digit damage wouldn’t hold me back during the class, an intensive introduction to the traditional techniques of the Byzantine artists of the fifth and sixth centuries. In recent years, I’d experimented with using tiny preformed squares of Italian glass, but that was a little like resorting to canned Parmesan cheese, when I could be grating up the authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. I’d traveled to Ravenna to learn how to create such artworks the right way.

This Italian jewel of a city proved the perfect place for our studies. While pre-Christian Roman mosaicists excelled at flooring, Ravenna’s mosaics, created mainly when the city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, cover nearly every interior surface of many sacred buildings. The result is a glittering no-holds-barred carnival of color, form and movement, all within easy walking distance of the city’s main square, Piazza del Popolo.

Notturni’s light-filled studio is tucked away, just south of one of the remaining gates (think mini-Arc de Triomphe) in what used to be the city’s defensive wall.

‘Share the knowledge’

On Monday morning the students listened as Notturni, a Ravenna native well known for her skill in mosaic restoration, explained the evolution of the art form and gave a rundown of tools and materials.

“We’re not jealous of our techniques and methods. We want to share the knowledge,” Notturni said.

The workshop would focus on making a replica of an ancient mosaic, using a grout-free “double-reverse” method developed in Ravenna several centuries ago.

Notturni assured us all would go smoothly. “We help you prepare materials. We teach you. Remember, not enough time to make masterpieces while you’re here.”

We chose designs from about two dozen tacked to a wall: a bouquet of flowers, a geometric pattern, a Roman face, each a tracing of a mosaic found somewhere in Ravenna.

I decided on a Pavoncella, a long-legged bird depicted in the apse of nearby Basilica di San Vitale, a massive church covered inside from head to toe with sparkling mosaics. My bird had its own moniker: Pollo Sultano. The Sultan Chicken.

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  • Ravenna, Italy: If you go

    Thursday May 16, 2013

    Mosaic Art School: Two or three 5-day classes per month, 660 euros per week (about $870). More info at 1-877-766-7242...

  • Mosaics cover nearly every surface of the sixth-century Basilica di San Vitale, a few blocks from Ravenna, Italy’s main square, the Piazza del Popolo. The church was built on the site of the martyrdom of St. Vitalis.

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