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Continued: Piecing together the art of mosaics in Italy

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

We students spent a quiet hour or two painstakingly tracing our designs onto contact paper, tessera (individual stone cube) by tessera and then flipping the paper over and retracing the shapes, this time using a water-soluble marker.

And we got acquainted. I tried my ever-diminishing German language skills on a hotelier from Passau.

A Brazilian was our class extrovert, quizzing the group on good places to shop. “You can’t find anything to buy in Brazil,” she lamented.

Three sisters, all New England artists, came to bond on their first “real trip” together.

‘Stay and relax’

The following morning, we arrived to find that instructors working with Notturni had transferred our designs onto hydrated lime, a base that stays malleable. Glass tiles, called smalti, were also arranged in bowls next to easel-mounted lime slabs.

After practicing our finger-amputation-avoidance skills by cutting marble, a material that severs more cleanly than glass, we started in on our projects.

“Stay and relax and think you are in the womb-ah and begin to write the ABCs,” Notturni exhorted us. “Try to having fun. Is what we ask you.”

We tapped away. Tink, tink, tink, oops. Little piles of mistakes accumulated on our work stands and in the far recesses of the room. But ever so slowly, by pressing the tesserae halfway into the lime one piece at a time, our mosaics came together.

Long lunches in the European tradition were strictly imposed, brooking little objection from the eat-lunch-in-your-cubicle crowd.

Evenings, a group of us roamed Ravenna’s laid-back pedestrian center looking for bars offering “aperitivo,” a phenomenon not unlike happy hour. For the price of a glass of wine, we had unlimited access to a spread of grilled vegetables, salads and pastas.

Late Wednesday, after pressing the last tessera into the lime, we were in for a real treat: rabbit skin glue.

As part of the double-reverse process, we needed to temporarily bind the front of the work, flip it over, remove the lime, spread adhesive and flip the work back over onto a permanent base.

The rank-smelling water-soluble glue was thankfully kept outside in a heated pot. We placed cheesecloth atop the mosaic and used a soft brush to drench the cloth with glue. It would soon dry rock hard, securing the front. There are modern alternatives to rabbit skin glue, but they are surely less memorable and they don’t come with bragging rights.

The week only got better as it passed. On Thursday evening, Notturni brought us to Trattoria al Rustichello, a restaurant known locally for its excellent pasta. The meal finished with several types of homemade liqueurs, including limoncello made from lemons and nocino, a regional walnut infusion.

Friday, after easing our precious works into Mosaic Art School tote bags, most of us gathered at a wood-fired pizzeria for lunch, a repast we shared with dozens of excited gradeschoolers and one harried teacher.

Then Notturni’s daughter led us on a walking tour that included an underground museum displaying strata of mosaic flooring discovered when the city began digging for a planned parking garage. Because Ravenna, like Venice, is slowly sinking, floors were repeatedly built over older sunken floors, essentially creating a rich vertical timeline of mosaic techniques and trends.

On the eve of our departure, I and four other students who occupied the entirety of Al Teatro, a gorgeous 18th-century palace made into a B&B, put together an antipasti dinner in owner Daniela Mingozzi’s stylish kitchen and washed it down with a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.

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