Mosaic Classes in Ravenna - Italy

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A Story in Mosaic
The Guardian

Vibrant mosaics are among the treasures of Ravenna
Chicago Tribune

We did not know that a columnist from Los Angeles Times was taking one of our classes! A few weeks later, the popular newspaper published the article:

Building Art Piece by Piece
Antiquity comes alive in a five-day mosaics class in Ravenna

(Los Angeles Times)

RAVENNA, Italy--At 8 o'clock on a Monday morning, an ungodly hour for someone on vacation in Italy, I shuffled down two flights of stairs to my hotel lobby.
The desk clerk pointed to the woman waiting for me. Luciana Notturni managed to be both warm and brisk as she greeted me in Italian and led me to her car. I squeezed in with her three other American students, and we were off.

We were here for a five-day workshop at the Mosaic Art School that Luciana has run for 30 years.
I'd taken a five-hour class once in Los Angeles, and it was enough to launch me on a small business of making mosaic decorator items. 

Now I wanted technical information to advance my skills. The bonus was having a week in this atmospheric but off-the-tourist-track old city.

Ravenna is on Italy's east coast, across the Adriatic Sea from the lands of the Byzantine Empire, where the art of mosaic reached its finest form around the 6th century. 

Ravenna was an important Byzantine possession at the time, and the art flourished there as well. Today the city's singular attraction is its collection of mosaic masterpieces, considered the best repository of the Byzantine style outside historic Constantinople.

Surprisingly, Luciana didn't take us to see any of these treasures until our third day. Maybe she didn't want to discourage us novices.

There were seven of us in the class: Keith Aleo, 30, a percussionist from Florida, wanted a mosaic-covered fireplace for his home; when he got a $10,000 estimate, he figured the money was better spent traveling to Italy and learning to do it himself; Judith Paul, 50, and Mary Piez, 44, were friends from Tennessee, where Judith has an art studio (and had done some mosaics); Mary, who managed two horse farms, was along for a lark. From Germany came Roswita and Ulrich Birkholz--she, a drama teacher; he, an artist--and Elvira Bomar, a young homemaker. All, fortunately, were English-speaking. 

Manuela Farneti, author of a book on mosaic technique, was the English translator for the class. 

Even with my experience, I shared the class' general feeling of being overwhelmed by the difficulty of our first lesson.

To put it in the simplest terms: Mosaic is the art of arranging colored pieces of glass or other material into forms that make a picture or design.

In Ravenna, the art is monumental, covering ceilings, walls, almost every surface of several Byzantine-era churches. We would each make two small mosaic panels: the first a copy of a detail from one of the masterpieces; the second something of our own design.

But first we had to make the materials. We had to cut pancakes of colored art glass, called smalti, into small pieces, tesserae. This is done by balancing a piece on a "hardie," a chisel-like cutting edge embedded in a big block of wood, and striking it with a curved, steel-headed hammer.

Those of us with some mosaic experience were used to nippers, a type of metal pincers, not this crazy hammer and hardie, which looked difficult to use without amputating fingers.

Manuela promised we would get the knack of cutting smalti. "All students manage to do it after a while," she said. "You have to learn the rules, the grammar of this particular language. In modern mosaics, you can do whatever you want, but it's important to know what rules you are breaking to know what effect you will achieve."

After Manuela ran through an overview of the "rules" and the principles behind them, Luciana brought out patterns for us to choose, most of them details from mosaics in Ravenna's churches: flowers from St. Apollinare in Classe, pigeons from San Vitale, sashes from the virgins' robes in St.Apollinare Nuovo.

Our first task was to trace the design, tessera by tessera, onto a piece of paper, flip it over, and then trace it again. It was mind-numbing, outlining each tiny piece of glass.
"This is probably the most boring part of the class," Manuela admitted.

At 12:30 p.m., we were excused for the very civilized, traditional Italian 2 1/2-hour lunch break. The Germans were out the door in a blink. We four Americans ambled down to Ravenna's historic center, the Piazza del Popolo, and chose the Bella Venezia restaurant for a leisurely lunch.

The food--ravioli, tagliatelle, risotto--was excellent, as was the Trebbiano, a local white wine.

In the afternoon class Luciana demonstrated how to cut marble, which we would practice on because it is easier to cut than smalti. She was one with the hammer and hardie, cutting the rock in swift, precise strokes, turning over the cubes in her hand as if rolling dice.

Later, we shifted gears. Luciana spread white lime on boards on which we would build our designs. We set our tracings--"cartoons"--on the lime, face down. "Magia," Luciana declared as the ink transferred onto the lime base. Magic.

Tuesday, we arrived to find pre-cut smalti and marble set out in little dishes, in the colors we would need for our designs. I was copying a sash, and I would work with a green like the skin of an avocado, a rust brown, a dark blue, a mustard yellow; the squares of white granite for the background looked like sugar cubes.
We began cutting. And we cut. And cut. And cut. "Can you imagine doing this for 30 years?" Keith asked.

I couldn't imagine doing it until lunch. But we kept cutting, and soon we were placing the smalti in the lime, like pushing stones into icing. Our work was beginning to take shape when lunchtime was announced.
It was warm for June, but our hotel was cool inside, so the four of us decided to picnic in Keith's room. We picked up some necessities at a grocery, and Keith and I contributed wine we had on hand. It was fun and delicious--and agreeably thrifty.

On Wednesday, we finished our first mosaics and put them out in the sun to set. "Bella, bella!" Manuela cooed when she saw our work all lined up. "Complimento!" "It's a miracle," Judith said.
We were proud and eager to start on the cartoons for our own designs.

Thursday, Luciana poured cement mixed with marble powder into 8-inch squares for our contemporary mosaics. We'd have three hours to work before the cement set. Being an Angeleno, I wanted to make a palm tree. Cutting smalti into intricate slivers for the fronds and triangles for the bark, I realized my mistake. This was going to take forever to finish.

When Luciana saw me bogged down, she showed me a shortcut, or I would have run out of time. 

Once our works of art were finished, we went to see contemporary mosaic art in Ravenna's Parco della Pace, a large children's park south of the city center. Most of the work was large-scale, on free-standing walls or slabs in the ground. Some of the pieces were made with smalti, some with river rocks, some with marble, and one had a tennis ball stuck in it, a hazard of being set in a playground.

Friday, our last morning, we met Manuela at the Basilica of St. Vitale, the first stop in the guided tour included in the workshop.

Like most of Ravenna's monuments from the Byzantine 6th and 7th centuries, St. Vitale is a plain-wrap building; its angular, unadorned brick facade gives no clue of the glittering mosaic treasures within. 

Manuela said the sumptuous interior was a metaphor for a rich spiritual life. Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered with mosaics to stunning effect. The interior shimmers in the play of light on the countless small squares.

Gold is liberally used, a characteristic of Byzantine mosaics. The designs are intricate: peacocks and prophets, doves and fruit, lions and saints.

Facing each other are portraits of Justinian, the Byzantine emperor when the church was completed in 548, and his wife Theodora. They are more splendid, more perfect, more regal than they ever could have been in life.

Some of us had visited St. Vitale before, but now we knew what we were looking at: that the buttons on the garments are mother-of-pearl; that minutely different shades of smalti make up the solid background; that there is a fortune in gold on the walls--and that all this beauty was the work of slaves.

My favorite mosaic masterpiece is in the 5th century mausoleum of Galla Placidia, behind St. Vitale. Here is a starry night sky of indigo, breathtaking in the intensity of its color. 

With a light-pointer aimed at the ceiling, Manuela shared a restoration secret: "If it doesn't shine, the original piece is missing and the color you see has been painted on."

Replacement smalti have been used in some restorations, such as that of the 5th century Neonian Baptistery, our next stop. 

Manuela pointed out the restored swatches in the medallion depicting Christ's baptism. The faces of the apostles are beautiful, serene. By contrast, she said, Jesus' replacement visage, done in the 1800s, is crude.

One of our final destinations was the elaborate St. Apollinare Nuovo. (All of Ravenna's monuments and museums are within a 10-minute walk of one another, except for St. Apollinare in Classe, a few miles south of the city.)

Judith and I were thrilled to see the long band of mosaics on one wall showing a procession of 22 virgin martyrs bringing gifts to the Madonna and Baby Jesus. 

We'd chosen details from their robes to copy for our first mosaics. I found mine, third from the end.

In the afternoon, we collected our mosaics from Luciana's and settled our accounts. Was it worthwhile? "I didn't expect it to be so good," Elvira said.

Keith put it simply. "This is the real deal. If you want it real, this is the place."

That evening we were Luciana's guests at a celebratory dinner in the countryside. Along the way I thought of how I'd come to love Ravenna. 

Rome, the first stop on my two-week Italian visit, was charming and sophisticated, Florence was hostile but beautiful, Tuscany was gorgeous beyond belief. 

But my time in Ravenna had allowed me to feel something of the little city's rhythms, discover another culture, laugh in a new language and find a link to antiquity--not just a spiritual link, but one that materially connected me to the people who made the art I stood in awe of 13 centuries later.

* * *
Tile Style in Ravenna
Getting there: Flights from L.A. to Florence and Venice, the nearest cities (e.g. Bologna, Rimini), require one plane change. Round trips begin at $500 on Alitalia, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France.

Classes: Luciana Notturni charges €750 for a five-day course at her Studio Arte del Mosaico, Via Francesco Negri 14, 48100 Ravenna, Italy
telephone 011-39-3496-014566, fax 011-39-0544-67061

Where to stay: The studio referred me to Hotel Argentario--clean, adequate and centrally located--which charges workshop students $62 for a double, $45 for a single per night. 
Tel. 011-39-0544-35555, fax 011-39-0544-35147 (ask for Monica Muccinelli).

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357

Diana Lundin Lives in Van Nuys

Questions & comments, email to: info@
Mosaic Art School - Via Negri 14 Ravenna, ITALY - Phone (+39) 0544 670.610