by Roderick Conway Morris

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Akomena, Ravenna
Mosaic bedhead by Akomena, 1997

Modern Mosaics Break the Boundaries

By Roderick Conway Morris
RAVENNA, Italy 2 August 1997


Laborious, meticulous, sumptuous in its effects and well-nigh indestructible, mosaic is the antithesis of the mass-produced, utilitarian, ephemeral, throw-away trends of 20th-century design. Yet the medium has been enjoying a notable revival over the past few years.

This is confirmed by two exhibitions in northeastern Italy this summer: 'Objects of Desire: Mosaic and Design' at the Fine Arts Academy in Ravenna (until Sept. 28), and 'Mosaic' at the San Francesco Church in Udine (until Oct. 5). The emphasis of the former show is on mosaic in contemporary design, and the latter on its fine art and sculptural potential.

Ravenna, with its dazzling Roman and Byzantine Church mosaics, has been the epicenter of the renaissance of mosaic, but Vicenza and Spilimbergo (near Udine) have also played a significant role. Ravenna's Fine Arts Academy, founded in 1827, has taught mosaic-making since the last century, and has given rise to two other institutions offering specialist courses in the city. Although originally directed at training artists and craftsmen to maintain and restore historic mosaics, these colleges, along with the School of Mosaicists (founded in Spilimbergo in 1922), have created a substantial pool of artistic understanding and practical know-how that has given rise to numerous independent studios and cooperatives.

The earliest known mosaics date from the eighth century B.C. in Asia Minor, and were used to pave floors imitating the carpet designs of the times. The Romans developed a passion for them as floor coverings -- sometimes providing the floors of the triclinium, or dining room, with trompe l'oeil bits of discarded food and even furtive mice nibbling at them -- and as wall mosaics, which reached their apogee in the late Roman and Byzantine era. In recent years, however, as the shows demonstrate, mosaic has decidedly come off the floor and wall.

Mosaic-clad fountains, chairs, benches, tables, shelves, cupboards, screens, coatracks, mirrors, clocks, stoves and lamps abound in a variety of styles. The most astonishing piece of furniture (at the Ravenna show) is a large box, breathtakingly encrusted with scenes of water fowl and plants in greens and blues, that was inspired by the teeming ancient mosaics at the Galla Placidia Mausoleum and St. Apollinare in Classe Church and that turns out to be a chest of drawers. (Its designer, Giorgio Gregori, was, alas, killed in a car accident two years ago.)

Among the most striking objects are several made by Akomena, a studio founded in 1988 by Francesca Fabbri, a graduate of Ravenna's Fine Arts Academy, with the aim of extending the applications of mosaic in contemporary design and architecture. Two years later Fabbri recruited a former teacher, painter and mosaic master, Giuliano Babini, as the studio's artistic director, and Akomena is now one of the most innovative and energetic players in this burgeoning field.

Last year Akomena won the commission to make Rudolf Nureyev's tomb at the Sainte Genevieve Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris. Designed by Ezio Frigerio, this extraordinary sarcophagus is in the form of a draped, richly woven Oriental carpet. It not only evokes the dancer's Central Asian origins and his love of fine carpets (which he collected), but also creates a wonderful effect of frozen motion, as though the carpet - whose colors in glass mosaic will, of course, remain ever pristine and bright - has just been cast over his prematurely stilled body, the folds of the enveloping material resting casually as they happened to fall.

The construction of the monument, which was done at Akomena's studio opposite the Fine Arts Academy, was the most elaborate the workshop has undertaken, employing five mosaicists for four months to complete the project for its unveiling in May last year.

'We cut very small squares of mosaic - to give the carpet the softest possible appearance - most of which were so tiny they had to be positioned using pincers,' said Babini. 'To emphasize the curvature of the folds, we used many shades of each color - something like 20 shades of gold, for example, to maximize the undulating effect.'

The tesserae, or postage stamp-sized glass squares that are then cut into smaller shapes and arranged to achieve the greatest luminescence, come, as they have for centuries, from the glass furnaces of Murano in the Venetian lagoon.

Akomena has contacts with a wide range of artists, designers and architects, sometimes working to their designs (and often modifying them in collaboration to exploit more fully the unique properties of mosaic), and sometimes initiating the studio's own projects.

Limited-edition tables with intricate tops, like those in their 'Emblemata' series, cost around 3 million lire ($1,700) - most of the cost representing the large number of skilled hours needed to make each piece. (For those with dreams of transforming their homes into Roman villas, the current cost of commissioning hand-laid floor mosaics from Ravenna's artist-craftsmen is about 1 million lire per square meter.)

Over the last two years Akomena has been experimenting with new techniques to try to produce high quality, stylish, but still resolutely handmade products at lower cost in their 'Signini' line, which takes its name from a basic, no-frills form of Roman floor paving.

One of the most successful new designs was conceived by Francis Bibbia, an Italian-German artist. His Signini black table top has a strong but subtle motif of concentric, emerald green circles, whose intriguing illusion of depth was achieved by the artist's placing of gold-leaf mosaic (where the tesserae consist of gold foil set in glass), upside down, with the side normally set in the plaster uppermost.

Signini tables cost about 2.5 million lire, only slightly less than conventionally made mosaic tops. 'Unfortunately,' said Babini, with a sigh that conjured up the image of some hapless Roman mosaic-master presenting his estimate to a cash-conscious patrician wanting to update his dining room floor using the latest technology, 'there still turned out to be so much hand-working involved that there was very little saving of labor in the end.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024