A Large Roman Micromosaic

What you see: A large Roman micromosaic tabletop, dating to the last quarter of the 19th century. St. Peter’s Square is shown in the center, surrounded by scenes of Pantheon, the Arch of Titus, the Tomb of Caecillia Metella, the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, Temple of Vesta, the Castel Sant’Angelo, and the Capitoline Hill. Christie’s estimates it at $50,000 to $80,000.

 

The expert: Casey Rogers, specialist of 19th Century European furniture and decorative art at Christie’s.

 

Do we know what workshop made this tabletop? In the absence of a signature, no, but there were several workshops associated with the Vatican Mosaic Studio, as well as independent mosaic studios, who had established studios near Rome’s Spanish Steps. Names which come to mind are the studios of Luigi Gallandt or Cesare Roccheggiani. They were very well-known to create mosaics of this caliber.

 

Would this have been a Grand Tour souvenir? I believe so, and it’s a very lavish one at that, given its scale and intricacy. It’s nearly 40 inches in diameter. It would have been a very special piece to bring home from one’s travels and would have certainly a conversation piece.

 

Do the landmarks depicted on the tabletop show how the Grand Tour has changed over time? Are there sites depicted here that would not have been on the Grand Tour list in previous centuries? The question is very relevant to another question you asked–is it a commission, or is it on spec? Certainly some of the larger mosaic tabletops are likely to be tailor-made for a tourist who could choose sites to visit on the Grand Tour. In terms of how it has changed over time, I can’t say. That would require more research. But I think one could tailor it–“I’d love to see scenes depicted in the souvenir I take home.”

 

Is there anything notable about how the sites are portrayed, and the order in which they are portrayed? Not specifically. It links back to the point I was just making, that you could certainly chose the types of sites that were depicted. Quite playful images could be done, tailor-made to an experience on the Grand Tour. When we speak about the imagery on the tabletop, St. Peter’s Square tends to be the focal point. We often find St. Peter’s Square in the central roundel.

 

And I take it it’s fair to assume that these sites would be far more crowded in the late 19th century than they are depicted on this tabletop? [Laughs] Certainly, and they’re not as we know them today, in modern times. It [the lack of crowds in the images of the Roman landmarks] also speaks to the mosaic itself, and the difficulty of making it. We find some mosaics that are more heavily populated. It’s a testament to the mosaicists’ meticulous skill when there’s more people in the scene. The number of tourists shown would have been a mark of the expense and the skill of the work.

 

Is this a one-off, or have you seen other tables with tops that look like this? We certainly have sold and seen tables with very similar compositions to this. No two are alike. We have also seen a number of smaller scale.  Presently, this size was the largest known to be available.

 

Do the mosaicists rely on a template? There’s a template to it, but every mosaic’s size and scene is unique because of the craftsmanship. Each has its own nuances that sets it apart from the last, but the template is there.

 

Would it have been made on speculation or would it have been a commission? In this case, it’s very tough to say. The records aren’t there. I can say the mosaicists were very attuned to the tastes of their clients who came to Rome and to the sites on the Grand Tour. There were examples that could be acquired quickly, and others that were special commissions.

 

What can we know by looking how difficult the tabletop would have been to make? Micromosaics are a marvel of technique. What’s so incredible about the work is its painterly quality. As you stand back, you may mistake the surface as a painting, but as you delve more into the nuance and intricacy of the piece we can discern each glass piece (tessera) and understand that each was laid individually as one would do a paint-by-number.

 

The glass would be custom-colored? Absolutely, and hand-cut and hand-laid in the design created by the studio.

 

Do we know how many tesserae were used to make this tabletop? Thousands upon thousands, each individually hand cut and placed according to a specific design or vista.

 

How long might it have taken to make something like this? It is difficult to say work-to-work, but depending on the magnitude of a tabletop or panel, the work could have been executed over months and up to a year. In terms of technique, the mosaic workshops – such as those at the Vatican Mosaic Studio – originally used cubic tesserae, known as smalti, made from ground glass and baked in an oven like enamel. By the 1760s this art had been so perfected that it was possible to produce rods or threads of colored glass, called smalti filati, thin enough to be cut into the minute tesserae used on this table top. These tiny individual tesserae, in an almost limitless palette of as many as 28,000 colors, allowed truly painterly compositions.

 

Is there anything we can say about the borders and rings–the geometric border sandwiched by malachite, and the scalloped border between the center panel and the outer panels? Are these the sorts of designs that appear on tabletops such as these, or would they have had symbolic meanings? The neoclassical flourishes are nods to the antique and neoclassical trends that grew out of the discoveries of the sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 18th century. They launched a revival of ancient styles. Another [reason to] make the decorations [is] to convey the mosaicist’s skill level and convey the luxury of expensive materials like malachite [the green stone that comprise the two outer rings of the tabletop].

 

Would it have come with a matching chair? I would say not. You’re probably bringing the tabletop itself home. It may be mounted to a very subdued ebonized base. It comes down to collectors and their aesthetics. We find a wide variety of table bases.

 

And the base would not have been made by the same studio? No. I think the studio could make them available.

 

Would this tabletop have been viewed as a piece of art or a piece of furniture? My hope is it functioned as a piece of art given the difficulties of how it was made. It continued to be treated as such by collectors and the market in general. In contemporary interiors, [you’d get] a glass top for the table if you chose to use the table to protect the mosaic itself. I absolutely think it was made as a work of art, a souvenir to take home to remember one’s experiences by. That’s why you see so many in great condition. They’ve been preserved as works of art.

 

What do we know about the provenance of this piece? It’s from a private family collection in the south. The family passed it from generation to generation. I don’t believe their relatives necessarily acquired it on the Grand Tour in the mid-19th century, but we know them to have had it in their possession by the early 20th century.

 

What condition is this tabletop in? This one has had a break or two to it. It’s been extremely well restored by a very well-versed conservator. It is not in perfect condition, but it’s in good condition considering it’s over 170 years old.

 

Is it heavy? Yes, very. [Laughs] It’s got weight to it. It’s several hundred pounds. It’s set into black marble surrounding a wood base. It’s very hefty. In terms of moving it safely, you’ll want professional art movers.

 

What is it like in person? What I love about micromosaics is they’re extremely photogenic. The catalogs in print and online give a good indication of the execution level of the mosaic. What you can’t get in the photo is being able to walk up to the glass and inspect the fine detail. In the Parthenon, you can see little flourishes that convey the carving in the friezes. Taking the time to inspect it is a real joy.

 

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s the seemingly impossible craftsmanship and the magnitude of the work of creating it. I can view it several times over and I think I know every nuance, but I pick up something new when I come back to it 20 minutes later.

 

How to bid: The large Roman micromosaic tabletop is lot 101 in The Collector: English & European 18th & 19th Century Furniture, Ceramics, Silver & Works of Art, taking place at Christie’s New York on April 9, 2019.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

 

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