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History of Mosaic Art

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Mosaic is one of the oldest and most beautiful art forms known to human civilization.

The great history in mosaic has a foundation in the early cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantine. Each of these empires developed a unique and distinctive style to their mosaics. Their influences have been transmitted to other cultures throughout history and affect mosaic artists in modern day. Even though art has change significantly over the decades, present day artists are grateful for the skills and techniques of mosaic art that have been passed down through the centuries.

Historians have a hard time pin pointing the exact origins of this ancient art. They know that mosaics go back more than 4,000 years. Evidence tells us that mosaics originated in southern Mesopotamia and were first made with Terra Cotta cones embedded in the walls and columns of buildings.  These cones were colored and laid in geometric patterns then tightly pressed tightly together into a wall coated with a thick layer of wet plaster.  This technique was termed Cone mosaic. These cones were used to decorate monumental mud-brick cult and palace architecture.

Egyptians were the first to discover fused glass.  They created a flourishing industry and began decorating everything with it including palaces, temples and even ships.  From Egypt, the use of fused glass spread slowly across the world. Historians have concluded that it is likely that the usage of glass mosaic tile reached Italy from Egypt.

The spread of mosaic tile in Greece is well known. Greek mosaics were crafted out of worn down ciottoli (or pebbles). With time, they learned how to arrange the pebbles in a picture so that shading and designs were created to make the pictures more realistic.  They also used strips of lead to define lines in the pictures. Among the most famous mosaic tile locations was Pergamo, the capital of Misia, where the first school of mosaic tile was born under the master artist Sosos. Mosaic tile became so popular that they were used to decorate even the most modest homes.

Of all the Roman remains discovered over the years, there are more examples of mosaics than any other construction. Mosaics were not just pictures that decorated a room; they were a message to visitors. The Roman works included brilliant geometric displays, celebration of the gods scenes and domestic themes that were used mostly on floors. Unlike Greeks, only the wealthy could afford art, so mosaics were also used to express a statement about the occupant’s status in society and were meant to be studied and discussed in great depth.

The Byzantines took mosaic art to even greater heights in the 4th – 14th centuries.  It took on a new complexity that became respected as an art form. The Byzantine made intricate and well-defined patterns with scenes of people and animals, including religious scenes and portraits of emperors and empresses. Tesserae, individual tile in a mosaic, was manufactured and used to give detail and range of color to the mosaic. Using small tesserae meant that mosaics could imitate paintings. They also used smalti, colored glass. The smalti These mosaic tiles were set at slight angles to the wall, so that they caught the light in different ways.

When Byzantium fell in the 15th century, mosaics were not practiced with the same intensity. In Western-Europe, mosaic went into general decline throughout the Middle Ages. Fresco replaced the labor-intensive technique of arranging tesserae. Mosaics were not revived until the 19th century with new techniques for mass-producing tiles.

The Art Nouveau movement embraced the revival of mosaic art. Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish architect in Barcelona, created unusual new architectural forms covered with mosaics. He used tiles and other found objects to cover buildings and other surfaces. This technique is known as trencadis and was a revolutionary idea in art and architecture. It redefined the traditional methods of mosaic art. In the 1930’s, French artist Raymond Eduardo Isidore began the mosaic work that would eventually cover every surface of his house, both inside and out, using every shard, fragment, and piece of usable material he could find.

Mosaic art in the 21st century represents the greatness of mosaic artists throughout human civilization. Artists today give a new twist to an age-old medium and can draw on a rich and weighty source of traditions for inspirations.  Contemporary artists imaginatively transform mosaics into a vehicle in which to speak to modern audiences and have the advantage of modern visions to stretch the limits even further then any other time in history. Mosaic art is uniquely timeless, unlimited by canvas or material, and in touch with locale.  It is a vehicle for artists to express a message, mood or symbolism for the viewer to interpret and stimulates thoughts and emotions through the senses.


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