Insight | Micro Mosaic

Insight | Micro Mosaic

March 1st 2024

Our latest insight delves into the minute world of mosaics and more specifically micro mosaics. We take a look at their composition, history and some key figureheads in the development of the pieces throughout the centuries. First let’s take a look at exactly what micro mosaics are and a look into their composition.

Micro mosaics are a form of mosaic that uses extremely small mosaic pieces of tesserae in a pattern to create a detailed image. The depicted images often portrayed animals, buildings or figures. So with that was exactly is tesserae…? Well tesserae dates back as far as 3rd millennium BC were a it has been discovered in the ancient city of Shahdad in Kerman province, Iran. Tesserae is defined as an individual tile, usually formed in the shape of a square, used in creating a mosaic. In earl antiquity mosaics were formed from naturally formed coloured pebbles and by 200 BC cut stone ‘tesserae’ was being used in Hellenistic-Greek mosaics. In the 2nd century BC the ancient romans crafted decorative mosaic panels that were laid on the walls and floors in sites such as Pompeii. Often marble and or limestone pieces were cut into small cubes and arranged into designs and geometric patterns. As materials developed tesserae also developed and other materials such as coloured glass began to be used often made from clear glass with metal foils. The Byzantines used tesserae with gold leaf, in which case the glass pieces were flatter, with two glass pieces sandwiching the gold producing a golden reflection and portraying a far richer and luminous effect. In contemporary art Tesserae materials include vitreous glass, iridised, marbled, & metallic tessera, ceramic tesserae, stained glass, and household ceramic tiles and china to name a few.

Close up of the micro mosaic tiles.

Close up of an early 1800s micro mosaic plaque from our sold archives mounted on a silver snuff box dated 1808. 

Although mosaics have been found throughout history for thousands of years it wasn’t until the Renaissance that they began to be made in a more refined miniature form in Italy, reaching the height of their popularity around the mid 19th century. Known in Italian as smalto filato (spun enamel), mosaico minuto (minute mosaic), and mosaico in piccolo (small enamel). The story of mosaics in Rome began with the Vatican Mosaic Studio that operated from 1576 set up with the intention of creating mosaic replicas of the altarpieces in St Peter’s Basilica which were being damaged by the humid conditions of the vast and crowded interior. Although Rome had been practicing for a couple of hundred years prior it wasn’t until the late 18th century circa 1800 that the real golden era of mosaics began. As indicative of the Neoclassical period the demand for antiquity was at its peak with thanks to archaeological discoveries and publications with focus on historical aesthetics. In 1737 at Villa Adriana in Tivoli, for example, Cardinal Giuseppe Furietti found a mosaic fragment reminiscent of a mosaic of doves that the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder had famously described in a book. In 1752, the Cardinal published ‘De Musivis’, a highly influential tome (scholars book) on ancient mosaics with the first plate dedicated to “Pliny’s Doves,” which to this day remains an iconic micro mosaic which has been replicated hundreds and thousands of times. One of the earliest micro mosaic producers was Marcello Provenzale (1576–1639) who contributed to St. Peter’s Basilica, Villa Borghese, and other significant Roman enterprises. At this time however, micro mosaics were not currently understood or in existence but Provenzale’s mosaics were made of miniature pieces with splendid colours and extraordinary pictorial values. His masterpieces are on display at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy.

overview of the micromosaic

Italian Grand Tour micro mosaic depicting a dog after the hunt available at Jacksons Antique. 

Another second important figure for the chromatic range of glass was Alessio Mattioli who developed 28,500 tints during his lifetime. Mattioli was the first person to produce opaque enamels which were necessary for imitating the pigments in Old Master paintings. He was also recognised for formulating a bright but opaque red known as ‘porporino’. From 1730 until 1760 he was known to supply glass pastes to The Vatican Mosaic Studio (Studio Vaticano del mosaico) which is still active today.

Two further names that are most closely associated with micro mosaics are Cesare Aguatti and Giacomo Raffaelli (1753–1836). Raffaelli came from a from a family of glassmakers and was invented ‘smalti filati’ (spun enamels) technique which involved a system of spinning enamel rods which, once broken, allowed the creation of tesserae less than one millimetre thick and no longer than two to three millimetres. Both he and Aguatti produced ‘smalti mal mischiati’. which consists of very thin rods of glass made of various colours, this allowed the produced tesserae to come in varying shades. Raffaelli was not only a highly talented artist he was also a very astute business man and played a huge role in promoting micro mosaics in the affluent market. In circa 1810, the Napoleonic government instructed Raffaelli to set up a mosaic school in Milan, northern Italy. Following the move Raffaelli gained numerous commissions including one by Napoleon I which involved reproducing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper now on display at in Vienna at the Minoritenkirche.

View of the Last Supper recreated by Raffaelli in micro mosaic

The Last Supper Recreated by Giacomo Raffaelli after the original by da Vinci

Credit Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

A slightly later mosaic artist named Michelangelo Barberi (1787–1867) apprenticed to Cesare Aguatti and worked from 1820 in the Vatican Workshop became one of the most prominent mosaic artist working in the first half of the 19th century producing both small and large-scale objects. Michelangelo extensively documented the works he made, and he was known for his tabletops, as well as scenes of dusk and nighttime. Barberi went on to make commissions for the Russian Tsars including Tsar Nicholas I and Princess Volkonski. Interestingly although there are some blurred lines a second Barberi is recorded working around the same time as Michelangelo named Gioacchino Barberi (1783-1857) was born in Rome and worked out of Piazza di Spagna 99 in Rome, Italy (see Petochi 1981, p.45). His father Paolo Emilio, was a painter and the decorative arts ran through his family. Gioacchino is credited with the use of black enamel smalti which he used for backgrounds, a device taken from wall paintings at Herculaneum as well as being a highly acclaimed leading miniature micro mosaic artist. There is some disparity between the family relationship of the two Barberi with some suggesting they were related and others defining that they were in actual fact not related.


View of the table top by Michelangelo Barberi

Table top by Michelangelo Barberi credit: Christies 500 YEARS: DECORATIVE ARTS EUROPE lot 21

They micro mosaics were extremely popular purchases by visitors on the Grand Tour mainly because they were easily portable, a reminiscent scene and often taken home to set into an object. Typical scenes were landscapes of Roman views, rarely of any artistic originality, and the micro mosaics were small panels used to inset into furniture or onto snuffboxes and similar objects, or for jewellery. Religious subjects were copied from old masters paintings and the very smallest mosaic pieces come from works from the period between the late 18th century and the end of the 19th. The micro mosaics were even imitated by porcelain painters, who painted faint lines across their work to suggest the edges of tesserae, pieces which in today’s market can fetch a pretty penny. A distinctive feature of micro mosaics is that the tesserae are usually oblong rather than square. The best work can achieve 3,000 to 5,000 tesserae per square inch. The best collections are in the Hermitage Museum and the Gilbert Collection in London. Asia has produced a number of contemporary examples using modern precision machinery to produce the diminutive elements.

A sign off to a highly decorative and sought after art form where the artists are able to create a flawless image via the application of thousands of shards of material dating back centuries.