Travel: Piecing together the ancient art of mosaics

Fear of digit damage wouldn’t hold me back from getting a rudimentary understanding of creating a mosaic work of art.

Mosaics (above) cover nearly every surface of the 6th century Basilica di San Vitale

Jane Friedmann


RAVENNA, Italy—The Italian mosaic master sat poised behind her small, wooden work stand, a log placed on end and embedded with a small, sharp steel tool.

She held a piece of marble no larger than a stamp against that axe-like tool and struck it with a hammer, cutting it into progressively smaller cubes.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

Luciana Notturni had no need to look as the pointed hammer swiftly descended into the tiny gap between finger and thumb. Her body knew the drill.

In no time, she had eight or so perfect little cubes resting in the palm of her hand. Her gaze fell on her students, and with a slight smile she shrugged, as if to say, “See, that’s all there is to it.”

We looked at those cubes with pursed lips and furrowed brows, likely harbouring a shared sentiment: “How many fingers am I going to lose by the time this class is over?”

Notturni’s full-time students at a nearby mosaic-restoration academy in Ravenna, Italy, must spend four months perfecting their cutting techniques before they can construct a mosaic. The eight women who had signed up for her five-day crash course held at Notturni’s studio—myself included—had about four hours.

Fear of digit damage wouldn’t hold me back during the class, an intensive introduction to the traditional techniques of the Byzantine artists of the fifth and sixth centuries. In recent years, I’d experimented with using tiny preformed squares of Italian glass, but that was a little like resorting to canned Parmesan cheese, when I could be grating up the authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. I’d traveled to Ravenna to learn how to create such artworks the right way.

This Italian jewel of a city proved the perfect place for our studies. While pre-Christian Roman mosaicists excelled at flooring, Ravenna’s mosaics, created mainly when the city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, cover nearly every interior surface of many sacred buildings. The result is a glittering no-holds-barred carnival of colour, form and movement, all within easy walking distance of the city’s main square, Piazza del Popolo.

Notturni’s light-filled studio is tucked away, just south of one of the remaining gates (think mini-Arc de Triomphe) in what used to be the city’s defensive wall.

On Monday morning the students listened as Notturni, a Ravenna native well known for her skill in mosaic restoration, explained the evolution of the art form and gave a rundown of tools and materials.

“We’re not jealous of our techniques and methods. We want to share the knowledge,” Notturni said.

The workshop would focus on making a replica of an ancient mosaic, using a grout-free “double-reverse” method developed in Ravenna several centuries ago.

Notturni assured us all would go smoothly. “We help you prepare materials. We teach you. Remember, not enough time to make masterpieces while you’re here.”

We chose designs from about two dozen tacked to a wall: a bouquet of flowers, a geometric pattern, a Roman face, each a tracing of a mosaic found somewhere in Ravenna.

I decided on a Pavoncella, a long-legged bird depicted in the apse of nearby Basilica di San Vitale, a massive church covered inside from head to toe with sparkling mosaics. My bird had its own moniker: Pollo Sultano. The Sultan Chicken.

We students spent a quiet hour or two painstakingly tracing our designs onto contact paper, tessera (individual stone cube) by tessera and then flipping the paper over and retracing the shapes, this time using a water-soluble marker.

And we got acquainted. I tried my ever-diminishing German language skills on a hotelier from Passau.

A Brazilian was our class extrovert, quizzing the group on good places to shop. “You can’t find anything to buy in Brazil,” she lamented.

Three sisters, all New England artists, came to bond on their first “real trip” together.

The following morning, we arrived to find that instructors working with Notturni had transferred our designs onto hydrated lime, a base that stays malleable. Glass tiles, called smalti, were also arranged in bowls next to easel-mounted lime slabs.

After practicing our finger-amputation-avoidance skills by cutting marble, a material that severs more cleanly than glass, we started in on our projects.

“Stay and relax and think you are in the womb-ah and begin to write the ABCs,” Notturni exhorted us. “Try to having fun. Is what we ask you.”

We tapped away. Tink, tink, tink, oops. Little piles of mistakes accumulated on our work stands and in the far recesses of the room. But ever so slowly, by pressing the tesserae halfway into the lime one piece at a time, our mosaics came together.

Long lunches in the European tradition were strictly imposed, brooking little objection from the eat-lunch-in-your-cubicle crowd.

Evenings, a group of us roamed Ravenna’s laid-back pedestrian center looking for bars offering “aperitivo,” a phenomenon not unlike happy hour. For the price of a glass of wine, we had unlimited access to a spread of grilled vegetables, salads and pastas.

Late Wednesday, after pressing the last tessera into the lime, we were in for a real treat: rabbit skin glue.

As part of the double-reverse process, we needed to temporarily bind the front of the work, flip it over, remove the lime, spread adhesive and flip the work back over onto a permanent base.

The rank-smelling water-soluble glue was thankfully kept outside in a heated pot. We placed cheesecloth atop the mosaic and used a soft brush to drench the cloth with glue. It would soon dry rock hard, securing the front. There are modern alternatives to rabbit skin glue, but they are surely less memorable and they don’t come with bragging rights.

The week only got better as it passed. On Thursday evening, Notturni brought us to Trattoria al Rustichello, a restaurant known locally for its excellent pasta. The meal finished with several types of homemade liqueurs, including limoncello made from lemons and nocino, a regional walnut infusion.

Friday, after easing our precious works into Mosaic Art School tote bags, most of us gathered at a wood-fired pizzeria for lunch, a repast we shared with dozens of excited grade schoolers and one harried teacher.

Then Notturni’s daughter led us on a walking tour that included an underground museum displaying strata of mosaic flooring discovered when the city began digging for a planned parking garage. Because Ravenna, like Venice, is slowly sinking, floors were repeatedly built over older sunken floors, essentially creating a rich vertical timeline of mosaic techniques and trends.

On the eve of our departure, I and four other students who occupied the entirety of Al Teatro, a gorgeous 18th-century palace made into a B&B, put together an antipasti dinner in owner Daniela Mingozzi’s stylish kitchen and washed it down with a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.

While the city is graced with many mosaic treasures, the one I will remember best is the workshop itself, a true masterpiece of Notturni’s creation.

If you go:

Mosaic Art School: Two or three 5-day classes per month, 660 euros per week (about $870). More info at 1-877-766-7242 (toll-free U.S.) or

Bed & Breakfast Al Teatro: Airy, elegant bargain. Large breakfast buffet. 10 percent discount for Mosaic students (

Bed & Breakfast Guidarello: Recommended by the Mosaic Arts School as simple, but comfortable. The owner also teaches cooking classes (


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