Explore the art of micromosaics, a technique of creating detailed, miniature mosaics. Learn about the history, techniques and modern applications of this intricate art form.
What are micromosaics?
Micromosaic Snuff Box. 19th Century. M.S. Rau. Learn more about antique snuff boxes.
In the world of fine arts, micromosaics have ancient roots, and upon their mention, you might imagine the floors of ancient Roman villas and churches of the Byzantine Empire. Throughout its history, this unique art form has traveled from the Byzantine Empire, throughout Europe and across oceans. Read on to learn about the fascinating history of one of the world’s most intricate art forms, including early masterpieces to pocket-sized souvenirs.
Characteristics of micromosaics
Micromosaic Brooch and Earring Jewelry Suite. M.S. Rau.
Size: Micromosaics are typically small, with individual pieces of glass measuring only a few millimeters in size. The most intricate micromosaics can feature up to 5,000 tesserae per square inch.
Materials: Micromosaics are usually made from tiny pieces of colored glass, which are arranged to form a larger image or pattern. The glass pieces are often backed with gold or silver foil to enhance their color and reflectivity.
Technique: The glass pieces used in micromosaics are typically cut into small irregular shapes and then arranged into a larger pattern or image with tweezers. The glass is then set into a cement-like material to hold it in place.
Subject matter: Micromosaics often depict natural subjects, including flowers, birds or insects, as well as historical or mythological scenes.
Durability: Micromosaics are generally very durable, but still must be handled carefully. They should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from extreme temperatures and humidity.
Value: Micromosaics are highly valued by collectors for their ornate beauty and historical significance.
History of micromosaics
Detail of micromosaic portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Created 1750. Source.
Though cultures across the globe have each developed their own unique methods of creating mosaics, there are techniques that are consistent throughout the craft. To make mosaics, artisans use small pieces of glass, stone or other materials, known as tesserae, to create full designs as embellishments for floors, walls, ceilings and valuable objects. One could trace the inception of this method to the 3rd millennium BCE, when citizens in Mesopotamia, the present-day Middle East, used stones and pebbles to make substantial floors.
It was not long before these designs transitioned to centering ornamentation. Stone inlay began appearing in elaborate patterns and colors on walls, decorative objects, ceilings and more. Sparing no expense, the powerful rulers who commissioned these works of art were rewarded with a dazzling array of color and shapes as these mosaics featured materials ranging from common beach pebbles to polished marble of great rarity. Shells, brick, pottery, glass, smalto (a type of glass paste), turquoise, ivory and jade are among the variety of materials utilized in mosaics.
Mosaics, more durable than the average painting, have long been favored as a decoration for some of the world's most magnificent structures, including the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Golestan Palace in Tehran, and La Maison Picassiette in Chartres, France, among others. Their grandeur eventually gave rise to a market for smaller, easily transportable works of art known as micromosaics. These treasures were often purchased by travelers as souvenirs, allowing them to bring a piece of the majestic buildings they had visited back home with them.
Micromosaics, made with the same methods as the larger pieces of artwork that inspired them, require the utmost concentration, attention to detail and the precision of an artisan. Taking the form of jewelry, snuff boxes, plaques and furniture, micromosaics have become a coveted piece of global history and artistic innovation.
The Colosseum Micromosaic by Luigi Gallandt. Circa 1850-1875. M.S. Rau.
Close up of the Colosseum Micromosaic by Luigi Gallandt. Circa 1850-1875. M.S. Rau.
Temple of Vespasian and Titus Roman Micromosaic. Late 19th century. M.S. Rau.
At its peak in the early 2nd century, the Roman Empire controlled a staggering 21 percent of the world's population. To sustain this vast empire, the emperors continuously sought new ways to win the public's favor. One approach was to construct grand public bathhouses, which were costly to build. Between 212-218 CE, Emperor Septimius Severus initiated the construction of the Baths of Caracalla which eventually accommodated up to 8,000 visitors per day. These colossal baths were accessible to almost every wage-earning citizen, serving as a popular recreational venue for all of Rome's inhabitants until the 5th century when they fell into ruin.
Reconstruction drawing of the Baths of Caracalla by Following Hadrian. 2020. Source.
The bathhouses' grandeur was stunning, with elaborate mosaics covering the fountains, gym areas and multiple baths from floor to ceiling. Though time-consuming and expensive to produce, the mosaic glass produced an ethereal effect when it reflected the sunlight hitting the pools, and created a mesmerizing shimmer. Over 120 sculptures adorned the halls, adding to the breathtaking beauty of the interiors. Although the bathhouses have since both crumbled and been recently restored, the remnants of their mosaics and sculptures are now preserved in the Vatican Museum and the National Museum in Naples.
In 1563, the Council of Trent approved the use of sacred images for religious instruction and inspiration in the Catholic Church. Consequently, plans were quickly made to create monumental mosaics for the walls and domes of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Reni and Poussin had created artwork that lined the cathedral walls, the masterpieces were already deteriorating in Rome's humid and swampy climate. Over the next century, these masterpieces were each covered with corresponding tile pieces to preserve their impact for future generations. This technique ensured that the artwork would withstand the test of time and continue to inspire and educate viewers for centuries to come.
Apse Mosaic of the Transfiguration scene from St. Catherine monastery in Sinai. Photographed 2017. Source.
When Emperor Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital to Byzantium, located in modern-day Istanbul, in 330 CE, he began building Christian churches to illustrate his faith and the religious conversion of his empire. Gone were the days of lifelike marble and austere religious symbolism. Much like the early Romans, the Byzantine empire was inspired by Ancient Greek usage of pebbles in roads, but also made important innovations within the craft. Byzantine religious art departed from Classical Greek and Roman art by prioritizing symbolism over realism. Byzantine mosaicists aimed to create idealized and sometimes exaggerated depictions of a person's inner spiritual state with the goal of eliciting a profound sense of awe from the viewer.
The Eastern Roman Empire (red) and its vassals (pink) in 555 CE during the reign of Justinian I. Source.
In addition to exaggerated figures, Byzantine artists used revolutionary geometric patterns that built upon classical motifs and in other parts of the Mediterranean, artists primarily favored classical motifs. Islamic artists placed a greater emphasis on patterns that evoked a sense of harmony and order over figurative artwork, and their mosaics became known for their intricate geometric patterns and arabesque designs, which often incorporate calligraphy and vegetal motifs. As Islamic mosaics spread throughout the world, new styles and techniques emerged. In Spain, for example, mosaics were heavily influenced by the Moors and the use of bright and vibrant colors became prominent. In Persia, mosaics were used to decorate the interiors of royal palaces, and the use of calligraphy and vegetal motifs became more intricate.
Palazzo Reale Palermo: Norman-Arab-Byzantine mosaics. 2020. Source.
The Grand Tour & Micromosaics:
Agate and Micromosaic Box. 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
During the 16th to 19th centuries, travel was accessible only to a privileged few, as a symbol of wealth shared only by those who were fortunate enough to afford the luxury. During this time, young upper-class European men and women would embark on a Grand Tour of Europe after having finished their academic studies. These adolescents would spend time traveling throughout the major historic cities of Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, visiting the great masterpieces of art and architecture they had studied in school.
During the Grand Tour, many would gather unique souvenirs along the way. Much like souvenir postcards and magnets today, these souvenirs sought to capture the beauty of each destination. Unlike a simple postcard, though, these Grand Tour souvenirs were far more luxurious. It was not uncommon for a young traveler to gather rare pieces of marble or granite that were unique to each specific region that they had visited. They would then bring these specimens to a local artisan to craft a “souvenir table” for them.
French Micromosaic Bracelet. 19th century. M.S. Rau.
Some other examples of souvenirs that would have been attractive to travelers during their Grand Tour were artworks, furniture or jewelry utilizing the ancient technique of micromosaic. This bracelet, for example, is a colorful work of art with masterfully crafted images of Rome’s ancient ruins. Depicting a friendly Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, the brooch below was designed after a micromosaic plaque by Antonio Aguatti that now resides in the Victoria & Albert collection. This image was a popular one among micromosaic artists of the 19th century. For Victorians, the image of the dog represented love and fidelity, making brooches like this appropriate gifts for romantic partners.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Micromosaic Brooch. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.
Famous micromosaics you should know:
Doves of Pliny: In the 2nd century BCE, Sosus of Pergamon, the only mosaic artist whose name was documented in literature, created a micromosaic of doves drinking from a bowl for Hadrian’s villa. Sosus’ motif has continued to inspire artists throughout the millennia.
The Dream of Karpa Koï bracelet: Roman mosaic and jewelry artist Maurizio Fioravanti creates fewer than ten jewelry pieces a year, with items starting at a minimum of $50,000. This bracelet renders a famous Chinese myth with the micromoasic jewelry techniques mastered by Italian artisans centuries before Fioravanti’s birth.
Mosaic of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper:
A monumental commission by Napoleon I, this historic micromosaic was created by Italian mosaicist Giacomo Raffaelli. It is a brilliant tribute to Leonardo's famed masterpiece.
Detail of the Da Vinci's The Last Supper by Giacomo Raffaelli. Source.
Interested in learning more about this form of decorative art? If you’re an enthusiast when it comes to collecting art, explore our wonderful collection of micromosaics and discover art, furniture, jewelry and more!
Interested in more Italian inlay techniques? Check out the fascinating history of pietre dure!
- Byzantine Art: Characteristics, History. www.visual-arts-cork.com. November 2016.
- Department of Islamic Art. “Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vege/hd_vege.htm (October 2001)
Dowson, Thomas. "Going Underground at the Baths of Caracalla - Archaeology Travel." Archaeology Travel. (November 2012).
- Gabriel, Jeanette Hanisee, and Angelo Gabriel. Micromosaics: Private Collections. Brian McCarthy, 2016.