(The Rascal)

Commessa Di Pietre Dure - A Florentine Mosaic
by Olive Colhour

Part I

"El Picaro" (1967 - 14" x 16")

   The above caption in Italian literally means the placing together of pieces of gemstone to form what the English refer to as a Florentine Mosaic. "El Picaro" is Spanish for "The Rascal." This is the title of my latest intarsia which will be described in this article.
   In conversing with the many thousands of people who attend our gem and mineral shows throughout the nation I find a very small minority who really understand the composition of a gemstone intarsia such as "El Picaro.'
   A word or two on the history and types for those in the hobby wishing to do something of this sort might prove interesting and enlightening. To refer to an intarsia as being a mosaic can be confusing unless one has studied this form of art. Probably the most familiar to us are the small square ceramic tiles set in mastic and used so much in the craft classes to make ornamental objects such as table tops and ashtrays.
   Perhaps the oldest form of mosaic was made by ancient man using bits of shell and stone to form crude outlines of man and beast as a means of self expression. We do, however, have some fine examples of the art of Mosaics in Florence Italy dating back several centuries. The Roman and Byzantine mosaics were mostly constructed of square tiles of ceramic sometimes stone and shell set ina cement or mastic to form the outlines of a design or the human form on large panels to form ornamentation. Later the Romans were responsible for a better technique, that of breaking, or cutting the tiles into shaped segments and fitting the pieces much closer giving the whole a much more realistic appearance. Perhaps this was the forerunner of the true Florentine mosaic. At least it took the Florentines to perfect the techniques used in what we commonly call an intarsia.
   Florence became the center of this particular form of art. They succeeded in developing the mosaics to a point where the pieces fitted together so perfectly that the mastic did not show form the viewing side. This is what we of the gemstone hobby try to do today when making an intarsia.
   This is very time consuming and therefore the Florentine mosaics were hard to come by and only the wealthy could afford them. So other means were devised to meet the demands of the conservative tourist. Large slabs of stone were fitted together making land, sea, and sky, then the details of buildings, figures, flora and fauna were painted on the slabs in oils al of which was obvious on close inspection and never very popular.
   Another type of mosaic is constructed of pebbles, glass and sometimes gemstone polished and in baroque form these are a conglomerate and referred to as pebble mosaics.
   In the art shops of Germany and finds yet another form of intarsia constructed of thin laminae of wood some natural, some sections dyed and made to look like Florentine mosaics. The pieces are tightly fitted and inlaid in wood panels and called wood intarsias. The grain and pattern of the wood is used in the same manner we use patterns in gemstone for our present day Florentine mosaics.
   During my travels here and abroad I viewed closely a number of works of art that were referred to as Florentine Mosaics. Many were extremely beautiful and defied the eye to discern the joins in any light, nor in any portion of the composition. This bothered me considerably because I don't think anyone could have tried harder than I have to eliminate joins. Perfection is what I strive for and I have since come to the conclusion that only under certain conditions is this possible in true Florentine mosaics. This is especially true of portraiture.
   A little research on the subject of Florentine mosaics proved very enlightening and confirmed my conclusions regarding some of the art objects I had seen. Numerous references are made to a material called Scagliola. This material had been used in the making of imitation marble for a long period of time. Scagliola is made of finely pulverized selenite of high quality made into a plaster or gesso. Sometimes gypsum was used. It could be colored and after dying, fired and polished to a high luster.
   In the early 18th century, a few enterprising craftsmen developed Scagliola as a medium for stone mosaics in order to satisfy the demands of the tourist trade. Scagliola was suitably colored and used like paint on a gesso background, fired, sanded, polished and sold as Florentine mosaics for they were stone. The men apparently were very successful because I have seen more of this type in this country that I have of genuine Florentine mosaics. The astonishing realism and well defined structure defied the eye to detect joins. This aroused my curiosity and prompted me to delve into the subject of mosaics. It is quite understandable why scagliola was used when one realizes the time, effort, material and patience that goes into the making of what I nave always referred to as a gemstone intarsia. Florentine mosaics are highly valued and in those days only the very rich could afford them.
   Perhaps I should mention the ostentatious undertaking by a group of craftsmen in 1633. This monumental task was commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando II. It was for the grate octagonal table now in the museum of the OPTIFICO in Florence, Italy. Done in pietre dure (Florentine mosaic) it took thirteen men sixteen years to complete. Consisting of porphyry, chalcedony, jasper, malachite, lapis lazuli and countless other materials inlaid on a background of black Flanders marble. This can give only a fragmentary idea of the inestimable worth of some of these beautiful relics of the past.
   As far as I can determine the first portrait in Florentine mosaic was done in 1598 by Francesco Ferruci taken from a portrait painted by Domenico Creste and titled "Il Passignano." This mosaic is in the "Museo dell Optifico delle pietre dure" in Florence Italy. The stone portrait is titled Cosimo I and is considered less realistic than the painting; but it must have taken a lot of something to have achieved a work of this order in those days when they didn't have the modern tools and methods we have today.

. . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . .. ."Gypsy Rhythm" . . . . . . . .. .. . . . . . . . . .. .. . .. .. . . .Geisha . . . . . .. . . .

   Sculptured mosaics in pietre dure, in the round and in high relief were never very plentiful. Few remain I existence today. From my personal experience in this field I derived a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Well known to many is my "Gypsy Rhythm" an 18" x 24" gemstone mosaic consisting of five-hundred pieces, carved in relief, depicting male and female dancers in Spanish costume. Each gemstone piece had to be carved and polished before it could be assembled. Another of my carved intarsias is "Geisha" written up in the Lapidary Journal in 1959. Also I have done a few pieces in the round. I do not find them easy; and a great deal of planning is required to figure the placement of materials, plus plenty of experience with the diamond saw and other special tools.


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