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Doves are a common motif throughout Roman micromosaics

From the 17th through to the 19th century, well-heeled English gentry headed off on epic adventures as part of their coming of age ritual. This ‘gap year’ of centuries past consisted of a journey following an often-standardized itinerary starting in the South of England on the coast of Dover, venturing through France, crossing the Alps through Switzerland and winding up in Italy. A rite of passage for the young and entitled men of England, it was intended as an educational journey focusing on the best these continental cultures had to offer of art, architecture, and the roots of classical civilisation.

Obviously, Google wasn’t even a faintly considered possibility at the time, so trips like this to the great artistic centres of Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice offered the rare opportunity to glimpse paintings, sculptures and buildings that otherwise were only fabled visions. Known as The Grand Tour, this tradition faded from popularity following the advent of rail travel in the 1840’s, making it a more affordable luxury for the middle classes. Somehow, this venture just didn’t seem as exciting when you didn’t require footmen to carry your trunks over the alps, and those not listed in the who’s who could also attempt the trek.

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The Arch of Titus was a popular destination on The Grand Tour.

As part of these trips, travellers would brush up their language skills, take up fencing, commission paintings of themselves amongst the ruins of Rome, and naturally, take home a few precious baubles they found along the way. Chief among these for visitors to Rome was micro mosaic.

The history of these intricate beauties dates back to the Vatican Mosaic Studio founded in 1567 established to recreate the masterful alter pieces in St Peter’s Basilica that had started to deteriorate due to the humid atmosphere of the crowded building. As Rome was such a popular destination for tourists of the day, these mosaics provided a wonderfully luxurious remembrance of their journey that was easy to transport home. Early artisans of the mosaics made small oblong plaques that could be sent home and inset into furniture and snuffboxes, with recreations of famous paintings and pastoral scenes.

As interest in the art burgeoned, enterprising artists saw the potential of this market and produced pieces set as jewellery to interest wealthy tourists starting in the 1770’s. Decorated with pictures of famous local architectural landmarks these were a forerunner to the modern day souvenir t-shirt commonly depicting the Colosseum, the ancient ruins at Pompeii, and other destinations typical of the grand tour.  Doves were another subject often depicted as they were symbolic to Romans of love but also emblematic to Christians of the Holy Spirit. In the case of this brooch, depicting both swans and a dove, it was mostly likely not adopting Christian symbolism, as in Biblical symbolism the swan was considered an unclean bird. On the contrary, in early roman mythology the swan was often associated with the goddess of love, Venus. Perhaps this elegant brooch was meant as a token of deep affection between lovers of a bygone era.

The method (to be read in your best Julia Child voice):

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A complicated mosaic often took up to three months to complete

To produce these works of art, a craftsman would start by heating vitreous beads of glass enamel (often Venetian glass as it was reputed to be the best) to melt the glass together and achieve a unique and uniform colour. Once sufficiently heated, the liquid glass would be drawn out in long viscous strings or fileti of glass to dry. The filati are then cut into millimeter long oblong tiles know as tesserae that make up the pixel-exque building blocks of the picture the artist produces.  A silver or gold piece of jewellery would act as the base of the mosaic, and in preparation of the tiling, it would be lined with a gum like substance. This adhesive takes up to three months to dry giving the artisan time to painstaking lay each tesserae into place. In higher quality pieces of micro mosaic, each square inch of the piece of jewellery will contain between 3,000 and 5,000 individual tesserea tiles. Often more complicated pieces were made in individual cells as this period of 3 months was still not enough time to create the entire piece. Once all of the tiles had been laid a grout of sorts made with powdered marble would be applied to hold the piece together. There are very few master artists left that still know the entirety of the method to produce these miniature works of art.

Today, micromosaics command high prices from auctions and antique dealers alike with one French 19th century gold snuff box set with a mosaic top sold for an satisfying $68,500 and then another similar box achieving $160,000 at Christies in New York. Famed artist of the craft Castellani often commands prices between $40,000 and $65,000 for pieces of his mosaics but his signature or any artists attribution does not necessarily equate to a high price. Not all micromosaic are created equal, with the quality of the piece and the finesse of detail often dictating the desirability of the piece. Also, due to the technique required it is rare to find artists capable of creating the depth of field, shading and texture found in the truly excellent examples of the craft.

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Italian Micromosaic Necklace

As an example of depth of field and dynamic textural execution, this micromosaic demi-parure of necklace and hairpin is one of the finest examples of the craft we have found to date. Set in a base of gold gilt silver, the subject matter of iris are meticulously crafted by carefully controlling the length of each tesserae resulting in a three dimensional image of each flower. The set bares no hallmark indicating the identity of the maker, however it is clear from the execution, this is definitely a masterful work probably of the latter half of the 19thcentury.

Works like this are uncomplicated to wear due to their durability, and stand as lasting testaments to a nearly forgotten art heralding a time of elegance and beauty.