by Roderick Conway Morris

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An Ancient Craft Gets a Bigger World Stage

By Roderick Conway Morris
RAVENNA, Italy 28 October 2011
Kate Jessup/Jaime Rossignol
Aspen Stump by Kate Jessup, 2012



Mosaic is one of the oldest of the decorative arts and developed into one of the most spectacular. From humble beginnings in such forms as pebbles pressed in patterns into beaten earth floors, at its high points during Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times mosaic became a sophisticated fine art in itself.

Ravenna is home to a unique concentration of Christian mosaics from the fifth and sixth centuries, and seven of the eight monuments that earned the city a place on Unesco's World Heritage List did so primarily for their superb ancient mosaics. But Ravenna has also become the international center for contemporary mosaic, where artists from all over the world now come to study, exchange ideas and techniques, and showcase their works.

In 2009, Ravenna established a biennial event, Ravenna Mosaico , in which nearly a hundred artists displayed pieces at indoor and outdoor venues around the city. The event this year, which continues through Nov. 20, takes place in 18 spaces, public and private, and features 220 artists. It is accompanied by two new prizes for young mosaic makers - for works in conventional materials and for more experimental pieces, respectively. The prizes will be awarded by theMuseo d'Arte della Città di Ravenna at the end of the exhibition of the 10 shortlisted candidates there.

In May, Ravenna opened its first permanent mosaic museum at the former monastic complex of San Nicolï. It is called Tamo, short for 'Tutta l'avventura del mosaico' ('All the adventure of mosaic'). The museum provides a valuable introduction to the masterpieces contained in neighboring churches, baptisteries and tombs.

The new museum has some impressive historic mosaics. Among these are exquisite, near perfectly preserved geometric villa floorings from the age of the emperor Augustus; fifth-century figurative mosaics of soldiers; a scene of the presentation of arms to the Greek hero Achilles, from nearby Faenza; and rare fragments of the floors from the Palace of Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king of Ravenna.

The generous donation from the archives of the Venetian company Orsoni Smalti, which was founded in 1888 and still supplies mosaic glass to artists around the world, includes a section illustrating the raw materials and rainbow of colors available to mosaicists. A large panel - a piece that is both a 'sampler' and an artwork in itself - by the artist and scholar Paolo Racagni demonstrates the range of colors in gold-leaf tesserae, or tiles, alone, as well as the effects that can be achieved by cutting and angling them to absorb and reflect light.

In parallel with the group contemporary exhibitions around town, two veteran artists also have solo shows. In 'Metamorphosis,' running until Nov. 2, Giuliano Babini, who was born near Ravenna, displays his latest disquieting, surreal pieces blending mosaic and zoomorphic and human forms in the labyrinthine setting of the Rasponi Crypt and the terraces of the Hanging Gardens, on Piazza San Francesco.

In the cloister of the Biblioteca Classense, Ilana Shafir has a series of her richly textured and absorbing pieces. Born in Sarajevo in 1924, Ms. Shafir graduated from the Zagreb Fine Arts Academy in 1949. Soon after this, the family moved to Israel. Since the 1960s, in her studio in Ashkelon, Israel, she has fashioned extraordinary works mixing figurative and abstract motifs. Made of multiple materials, including stones, glass seashells and fragments of ceramic, these dreamlike pieces evoke marine and garden landscapes, elusive myths and symbols, and thousands of years of Mediterranean history.

The range of works on display around the city demonstrates how mosaic is attracting an increasing number of talented young artists worldwide.

In the cloister of the Biblioteca Oriani, on Piazza San Francesco, 'Architectures and Mosaic' presents photographs of large works in situ. They range from an amusing image of a speeding motorcycle with a slipstream created by students of Ravenna's Fine Arts Academy for a university campus in Cuba, to Toyoharu Kii's artful blending of Eastern and Western styles in decorative mosaics for institutions in Japan. Also featured are Pascale Beauchamps's pillars on the Côte d'Azur, consisting of thousands of gray-blue stones, which give vertical form to one of the most ancient materials of floor mosaics.

The recently restored Old Franciscan Cloisters offer an attractive setting for 'Mosaic Installations.' More than one of these make playful use of glass mosaic to mimic soft materials, like Nikos Tolis's gold-tasseled 'Soft Cushion' and Enzo Tinarelli's 'Baldacchino,' a marvelous illusionistic airy summer canopy. The latter recalls the trompe l'oeil curtains, through which one can almost feel sea breezes wafting, in the image of Theodoric's Palace in wall mosaics at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.

Lucia Caroli's dazzling white, light-refracting 'Sale dall'acqua' ('Salt from Water'), another of the Mosaic Installations, seems to be built of small blocks of salt with a basin containing a cool, limpid pool of water. The inventive local artist Luca Barberini's 'Condominium 01' brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rear Window,' the windows of the mosaicist's miniature model apartment building revealing a series of deftly sketched-out, cartoonlike domestic scenes - and possibly a crime being committed. Marianna Brambilla's 'Pixel' replaces the screen of an old television with undulating mosaic waves of static.

Outstanding is Kate Jessup's 'Aspen Stump' - made of an artful combination of wood, marble, porcelain, ceramic, slate, shell, acrylic, travertine and even fragments of decorative moldings - which demonstrates the myriad possibilities mosaic can offer. Naturalistic in outline, this sculpture has an unearthly aura, like a fairy-tale mirage shimmering in the depths of an enchanted forest.

'Works from the World,' at the former San Domenico church, exhibits wall-hung pieces by more than 30 artists from 14 countries. Many make strikingly subtle use of color and texture, like the abstract 'Black Square' piece by Matylda Tracewska's and 'Pensiero' ('Thought'), by Takako Hirai, a tour de force in the handling of figurative micro mosaic. While Ruth Minola Scheibler has expertly cut substantial sections of large, brilliantly colored mosaic tiles to compose her exotic bird sculpture 'Ikarus,' the minimalist piece 'Unspoken,' by Samantha Holmes, consists of small, scorched and carbonized wooden cubes instead of more conventional glass or stone tesserae.

In 'Ligne de Faille' ('Fault Line'), Ms. Beauchamps makes a picture with pebbles smoothed by weather and water. Davide Medri's 'Freedom,' on the other hand, entertains us with a giant ship's chain composed of tesserae of mirror glass, illuminated from within the links.

Helen Bodycomb and René Schaefer's 'Manga Medusa' draws on both Japanese comics and Caravaggio's 'Medusa.' Other women artists address topical themes with mordant wit: Antigone Kourakou's Banksy-inspired 'Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower)' is of a masked demonstrator hurling a bouquet, and in Luciana Notturni's International Women's Day tribute '8 March 2011,' a pair of woman's eyes, in the style of the Fayyum portraits, peep out of a black pillar to make an arresting statement about the veiling of women in the modern world.

Indeed, the strong presence of young women across the whole event suggests that they are playing a leading role in the contemporary renaissance of this ancient artistic medium.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023