Roman micro-mosaics are the 19th century version of modern-day souvenirs from Rome. They are found in brooches, pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and entire parures and reflect the interest in anything from classical antiquity that started in the late 18th century.
This way ‘grand’ tourists could bring home an image of the Colosseum, the beautiful scenery of Rome and surroundings, but also miniature versions of ancient mosaics like Pliny’s doves on the Capitoline, as well as insects, birds and dogs, and often with a touching message like ‘Pense à moi’, think of me.
From the 17th to the 19th century, a Grand Tour of Europe was the finishing touch to every privileged young man’s education. It allowed them to discover the continent and its art, culture and history, but it also served to build up an international network.
The English travel writer and novelist Charlotte Eaton visited Rome in 1817, where she found ‘hundreds of artists [..] who carry on the manufactory of mosaics on a small scale. Snuffboxes, rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, &c. are made in immense quantities, and since the English flocked in such numbers to Rome, all the streets leading to the Piazza di Spagna are lined with the shops of these musaicisti.’
Indeed, the English flocked to Rome. Since the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 a long period of peace started, allowing the aristocratic Grand Tour to flourish. Interruptions were the French Revolution in 1789 and Napoleon’s Italian campaign in 1796. Charlotte Eaton was in Brussels during Napoleon’s final defeat in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, after which she was able to travel onwards to Rome.
Peace was restored and traveling transformed from Grand Tourism to a modern form of tourism, giving a further impetus to the Roman micro-mosaic industry. Micro-mosaic plaques were not only sold in Rome, but were also sent to jewelers in, for example, London and Paris, who would set them in jewels.
Mosaics are visible in monuments and churches all over Rome. From the Fabbrica di S. Pietro, the building studio of the St. Peter Basilica, the Vatican Mosaic Studio was set up in 1727. Miniature mosaics were produced already in the 17th century, but in the 18th century craftsmen who combined working in the Studio with freelance activities produced miniature mosaics on a larger scale. In 1798 the occupation of Rome by the French brought the mosaicists working on religious buildings to a state of near-destitution, soon forcing them to focus on miniature mosaics of secular objects.
Around 1775 an innovation allowed for the production of micro-mosaic plaques to be used in jewellery. The Vatican workshop found a system of spinning small glass rods in a vast gamma of different shades of colours, more than 28.000 of them are known. These rods were cut in tiny pieces, ‘tesserae’, which were put together in plaques on a glass or stone background; a good micro-mosaic can have 3.000 to 5.000 tesserae per square inch. Isn’t that marvellous?
Marvel over our micro-mosaics and read more about our exquisite necklace:
- Necklace from the late 18th century
- Neo-Etruscan necklace