Ravenna, Italy is a gem of a town. It is located just 2 ½ hours south of Venice, and is only 6 miles (10 Km) from the Adriatic Coast. It’s pedestrian friendly town center is perfect for strolling, cycling and shopping, and the bonus is that there are no exhausting hills to climb. But where Ravenna really sparkles is in its collection of exquisite Mosaic Art. In fact, UNESCO has placed Ravenna’s 8 historic monuments on the Unesco World Heritage list because of their mosaics.
Artisans first started using mosaics around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, decorating structures with cone shaped painted clay. As the art developed over the following millennia, small pieces of shells, pebbles, ivory and stone were used to create intricate designs.
"Pergamonmuseum Inanna 01". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pergamonmuseum_Inanna_01.jpg#/media/File:Pergamonmuseum_Inanna_01.jpg
The ancient Greeks brought the craft to a new level by manufacturing “tesserae”, small rectangular pieces of marble or limestone, which allowed for greater precision in their designs. The marble and stone gave a greater range of color as well and by the 1st century BC tesserae made of glass were also being used. Complex figurative mosaic “paintings” became a common feature in this ancient Greek and Roman decorative art. The mosaics were usually used on the floor, so the glass tesserae, being softer, were not used as frequently.
Dionysos Mosaic (Greek), via Wikimedia Commons
Pompeii, Villa del Cicerone, Street Musicians (detail)
By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As Christianity spread in the first four centuries AD, it began to influence art. The realistic imagery used by the Greeks and Romans was associated with paganism, and so art became less about illusion and more about spirituality. Mosaics became a perfect vehicle for the emerging Christian style. In a new development, glass tesserae were backed with silver or gold, and also were cut at different angles, catching light and reflecting it. These mosaics were used on walls as “paintings” and created a sense of inner light, which glittered and sparkled. The Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire) took this technique to new heights, creating the most gorgeous mosaics that this world has ever known, many of which are located in Ravenna.
In the fifth century AD, Ravenna was the capitol of the Western Roman Empire. After it’s collapse, Ravenna was conquered by the Byzantines and it then became the capital of Byzantine Italy, under control of Emperor Justinian. It was during this time that the 8 UNESCO World Heritage monuments were built.
The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 1st half of 5th century via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Justinian , San Vitale, Ravenna
By Michleb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Justinian (detail), San Vitale, Ravenna, via Wikimedia Commons
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy
By Angela Rosaria (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We are so fortunate today that the art of Mosaic painting has not been lost and there are artists carrying on this amazing tradition. One such artist is Chris Heisinger. You can find samples of her beautiful mosaic paintings at:
Contemporary Mosaic by Chris Heisinger
We would love if you would share your thoughts on mosaic art in the comments below.
Daydreaming through Ravenna:
Article on the excavation of the ancient city of Zeugma: