The technique of micromosaic was an 18th century development of an art that from Greek and Roman times had been used to decorate the floors and walls of villas, palaces and early Christian churches. These early mosaics were made of pieces of stone cut in the shape of cubes called tesserae. Between the 4th and 6th century AD mosaics made of small cubes of multicolored glass were used to decorate Christian churches. By the 11th century, Ravenna had become the center of mosaic production, soon joined in this status by the glass mosaic workshop of St. Mark Basilica in Venice.
The mosaic piccolo or micromosaic technique started to develop in the Vatican Mosaic Workshop in the late 18th century. The size of the smalti, the multicolored tesserae used to create these mosaics was minute; in the best examples up to 5,000 were used per square inch. The name smalti comes from the Italian word for enamel, the material composing the micromosaic tesserae produced at the Vatican Workshop. Smalti were first formed into cakes cut out of which chips were broken off, molten in a furnace and then pulled with tongs to produce filaments known as filati. The multicolored tesserae were then used by the mosaic artists much like a painter would use a paint brush.
In the early 19th century the micromosaics depicted subjects such as flowers, animals, or Roman landscapes. As the century progressed, however, inspiration was waning and technique faltering. This is when Castellani started to turn his attention to the art form, encouraged by Michaelangelo Caetani Duke of Sermoneta and by the Russian Count Vassili Dimitriecitch Olsoufieff, an ancient art scholar. Castellani promoted a return to technical quality and a change in subject matter. Castellani’s micromosaics were made under the guidance of Luigi Podio who presided over the mosaic workshop between 1851 and 1888 and guaranteed a consistent quality of production. It is generally accepted that the Castellanis played an important part in the process of raising the level of the art of the mosaic above the banality and coarseness of contemporary production.
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