A George IV gilt-brass-mounted ebony and part-ebonized center table with a Roman micromosaic top circa 1830
- ebony, beechwood
- height 28 1/2 in.; diameter 26 in.
- 72.4 cm; 66 cm
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Micromosaics are made from thousands of tiny colored enamel rods, painstakingly assembled and secured with a slow drying adhesive. The best micromosaics can contain over 5,000 of these tesserae per square inch. The final stages of the process involve waxing (to fill any gaps) and polishing to create the seamless surface characteristic of the art. The color range of mosaics would have been fairly limited, as the material was translucent glass paste. So materials were developed, such as oil based mastics, until circa 1730 when the Vatican studio perfected opaque enamel and boasted it had over 15.000 colors and tints at the disposal of their artists. This new material also permitted mosaics to be thinner and flatter, allowing the artist to introduce more subtlety in execution: 'Painting became the ideal toward which mosaics aspired, but that aspiration would not have been possible without the thousands of different colored tesserae, which permitted an exact imitation of the tonal range found in painting' (F. Difederico, op.cit., p. 33). Mosaics did not only have an extraordinary lasting freshness of color, but they also served a purpose of being able to survive fires, a worry during the 17th and 18th century. By 1770, most of the basilica's altarpieces by artist such as Raphael (1483 -- 1520) and Guido Reni (1575-- 1642) had been successfully copied in mosaic. One observer wrote: 'The popes have established at the Vatican a manufacture where are executed, as at the Gobelin prodigious work. One is well advised there to reproduce the works of the most celebrated masters under the pretext, however honourable, of conserving for posterity the chefs-d'oeuvre which a fire could so easily destroy. Raphael, Titian and the Domenichan are thus ensured eternal life' (see Edward Didron, 'Du Role Decoratif de Ia Peinture en Mosaique', Gazette des Beaux arts, series 2, vol. II, 1875, pp.442-459).
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century the materials used for mosaics were dramatically refined. This enabled mosaic makers to execute much smaller works, leading to the emergence of micromosaics. Most of these were bought by tourists visiting Rome and often executed by poorly paid Vatican mosaicists who established their own workshops. The earliest micromosaics had visible joints between the tiny tesserae and were limited in colours. Nevertheless they were highly sought after and admired, as proves the inclusion of micromosaics in a cabinet from Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland made for William Beckford (1760-- 1844). Soon though the technique was fine-tuned and advanced so the tesserae could imitate the effect of brushstrokes and simulate textures such as animal hair, foliage and feathers. By 1810 over twenty highly successful workshops were active in Rome, mostly clustered around the Spanish Steps. For a table with a very similar Greek key border, now in the Gilbert Collection, see Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel, The Gilbert Collection Micromosaics, London, 2000, no. 3, pp. 53-54.