Byzantine Mosaics: Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Palermo, Cafalau

Byzantine Mosaics: Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Palermo, Cafalau

Byzantine Mosaics: Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Palermo, Cafalau

Byzantine Mosaics: Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Palermo, Cafalau

Excerpt

In every form of art, the medium has its own part to play in the general effect. For that reason, a few notes on the making of mosaics may not be out of place here. The foundation of both fresco and mosaic is dry masonry on which plaster of the best quality has been laid in coats of increasing thinness. Wherever mosaics have disintegrated from within, the cause has been the poor quality of the plaster, or damp in the wall which has dissolved the plaster. In fresco, the topmost coat is painted with mineral colours, either while the plaster is still wet, "al fresco", or after it has set, "al secco". In mosaic, on the other hand, tiny cubes of coloured stone or glass are pressed into the topmost layer of plaster while it is still wet. These cubes are worked into place with a little trowel of thick glass plates.

Thus mosaic requires first and foremost a highly developed glass industry capable of producing brilliant colours by means of various mineral salts. The gold cubes are made of ordinary bottle glass with real gold leaf laid on, and coated in its turn with transparent glass. It is owing to this manner of manufacture that so much of the gold has preserved its shimmer for as long as a thousand years. In exceptional cases, mother-of-pearl is also used.

It is obvious that compositions with large-scale figures could not be designed on the scaffolding. As a rule, book illuminations were used as models and enlarged on to a squared surface, in all probability of fabric, since carton was not yet invented. The designs could then be traced or etched on to the wall, only so much of the uppermost layer of plaster being applied as the mosaicist could cover in one day before it set. It was a highly skilled craft; it belonged to courts and great cities, and not to the people. Where the necessary means and labour were lacking, fresco had to take its place, for instance in the monasteries on Mount Athos and the churches at Mistra near Sparta.

The surface of fresco is dull; the brush sweeps rapidly over the picture-space, giving the forms something of the flowing quality of sketchwork, while details can be improvised within the contours of the whole design. In mosaic, one cube after the other has to be pressed laboriously into the soft plaster, following the design with the utmost accuracy. This technique of itself entails a certain stiffness, with forms confined in firm outlines. While in painting the brushwork expresses the personal temperament of the artist, there is in mosaic something impersonal and unemotional. Yet the effect is never dead. The whole is composed of tiny, brilliant squares, but their surfaces do not lie in the same plane, as is the case, for instance, in inlaid work in wood where the whole receives a flat polish as a finishing. The surface of a mosaic is rough, the separate cubes do not reflect the light uniformly; on the contrary, at the slightest movement on the part of the spectator some flash out, others go dead, and even though the separate stones cannot be distinguished at any distance, the surface as a whole has a shimmering, soft brilliance. The effect is, so to speak, soft, "generous", like a thick carpet worked in gold thread. There is no shading between the colours, as in painting; on the contrary, the transitions are abrupt, and the result is a curiously living vibration of the surface. In Byzantine mosaics the stones are as a rule 2-4 inches long; the marble tesserae . . .

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