When the British-born American real estate developer Arthur Gilbert visited his home town of London in 1971, he came across a most extraordinary object: a small bonbonniere decorated with a picture of the Roman god Bacchus.

Gilbert was impressed by what he thought was a particularly fine enamel portrait. On closer inspection, he was astonished to find that the portrait was actually not enamel, but made up of thousands of tiny pieces of glass.

What he had found was what he subsequently coined as a micromosaic (or micro-mosaic, micro mosaic), a beautiful, precious image created using tiny mosaic fragments, known as tesserae. Gilbert was so enamoured with these micromosaics that he devoted much of the rest of his life to collecting them, before donating them to the Victoria and Albert Museum shortly before his death in 2001.

What is a micromosaic?

We normally associate mosaics with the art of Ancient Rome. Here, they were large pictures made up of small, individual pieces of stone, glass, or clay pottery which would be used to cover the entire floor and wall of a villa.

The term ‘micromosaic’, however, specifically refers to a technique developed at the end of the 18th Century for producing these mosaics in miniature.

Micromosaic-making was born in a period when interest in Ancient Roman art was at an all-time high: the Neoclassical Age.

Micromosaics exist either as plaques, or they are set into jewellery, precious gold and silver boxes and even tabletops.

They are the result of painstaking craftsmanship, made up of thousands of tiny individual squares (called tesserae) to make a larger picture. In the very best micromosaics, these tesserae are so small that they can’t be seen with the human eye: the image therefore looks like a painting.

The very best micromosaics can fit in over 5,000 tesserae per square inch!

Given their complexity, the production of micromosaics was, and is, an extremely time consuming process that only the most skilled of artisans are able to complete. It is for this reason that they are so rare and highly sought after.

Detail from an antique Italian micromosaic plaque

Detail from an Italian micromosaic plaque, c. 1810. If you look closely, you can make out the individual tesserae which make up the whole picture.

How are micromosaics made?

The process of making micromosaics is an extremely laborious and painstaking one, undertaken only by highly trained and skilled craftsmen.

First, glass chips of different colours are placed into a furnace and melted: this melted glass is known in Italian as smalto. The smalto is then pulled out of the furnace in long, thin threads which then cool and are shaved down to make the tiny tesserae.

These tesserae can come in a range of colours, and, because they are glass, these colours never fade over time. A micromosaic today, therefore, looks exactly the same as it did two hundred years ago when it was first made.

The tesserae are then arranged, one by one, with tweezers onto a copper, gold, or marble tray lined with a slow drying adhesive. 

Ultimately the quality of the resulting micromosaic is determined by the minuteness of the tesserae used (the smaller, the better) and the skill of the artsian in arranging the tesserae to produce a pleasing composition.

What is the origin of micromosaics?

The term micromosaic, as we have seen, was coined only relatively recently by Arthur Gilbert, and refers to a form of mosaic using only very small pieces.

The origin of these types of mosaics lies in the late 18th Century in Italy, but the history of mosaic art as a whole stretches back thousands of years. In reality the exact boundary between traditional Roman mosaics and micromosaics is quite blurred.

Ancient Greek and Roman mosaics

Mosaic-making reached an apogee during the period of civilization of Ancient Rome, from roughly the 3rd Century BC to the 5th Century AD. Here Roman artisans would decorate the floors and walls of private homes as well as public buildings.

These used much larger tesserae than the micromosaics made in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and were made from stones and ceramics, rather than glass.

Roman mosaic on display at the British Museum, London

An example of an Ancient Roman stone mosaic, currently on display at the British Museum. © Tony Hisgett via Wikimeida Commons

As with much Roman art, many of these large mosaics were inspired by, or copies of, Ancient Greek mosaics.

Greek mosaicists were highly revered in Classical antiquity and afterwards. The Greek mosaicist Sosus of Pergamom (active in the 2nd Century BC) was held up in ancient literature as being the greatest mosaic artist to have ever lived.

Unfortunately, very few Greek mosaics have survived into the present day, and so many of the examples we know about come from the abundant Roman copies.

Medieval mosaics

The art of mosaic making continued long after the decline of the Western Roman Empire in around 500 AD, and was taken to new heights in the surviving Eastern Roman Empire – later known as the Byzantine Empire – between the 6th and 15th Centuries AD.

It is in the Byzantine period that we first see mosaics using tesserae as small as some later fine ‘micromosaics’. Byzantine mosaicists also pioneered the use of tesserae made from gold leaf.

Perhaps the most famous example of a Byzantine mosaic is the 12th Century image of Christ – rendered in astonishing detail – which adorns one wall of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Hagia Sophia

Detail from the famous 11th Century Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator - or Christ Almighty - from the Hagia Sophia church in modern-day Istanbul. © Dianelos Georgoudis via Wikimedia Commons

Micromosaics and the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th Centuries

If Ancient Greece and Rome was the first, and the Byzantine Empire the second, the 18th to 19th Century period was the third great age of mosaic-making. And in many ways, these mosaicists went further and better than any of their predecessors.

The mosaicists of this third great age were largely inspired by examples of Ancient Roman mosaics which they had seen, many of which had very recently been unearthed in archaeological discoveries.

This was, after all, the age of Neoclassicism, a period of sudden and great fascination with the civilisations of Classical Antiquity.

Micromosaics in this period most often depicted views of Rome – namely the Colosseum and St Peter’s Basilica – and subjects from Ancient Roman art, including mythology.

Detail from an antique micromosaic plaque depicting the Colosseum in Rome

Detail from an antique micromosaic plaque depicting the Colosseum in Rome, c. 1800.

The micromosaic industry in the 18th and 19th Centuries was sustained, first and foremost, by the widespread cultural phenomenon known as the Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour was a coming-of-age journey around Europe undertaken mostly, but not exclusively, by the sons of elite families. During the Tour, travellers would stop off at important Classical sites in Europe to view Roman ruins and soak up the culture. 

It was only natural, then, that some should want to bring back or send home souvenirs which would remind them of the sights they had seen, and the Classical art which had inspired them.

Micromosaics were the perfect souvenir: they showed images of the main tourist sites of Europe, they were a reminder of the art of Ancient Rome, and they were stunning, highly collectable pieces.

Indeed, many Grand Tourists bought micromosaic plaques on their travels, only to send them home to France or England and have them mounted onto jewellery (brooches and pendants especially), snuff boxes and table-tops by craftsmen there.

Sometimes Grand Tourists sent small micromosaic plaques home, like a modern-day postcard.

The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was renowned for her affection for the micromosaics she had seen on the continent. Her favourite piece of jewellery was a micromosaic brooch, which you can see in her portrait below.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's micromosaic pendant, seen in her 1858 portrait

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1858 portrait by Michele Gordigiani. Notice the micromosaic brooch, set onto a gold backing, around her neck.

Who made micromosaics?

Despite their incredible skill, many mosaicists’ names were never recorded: unlike paintings, the artist very rarely, if ever, signed their work. However, there were a number of known mosaic artists, renowned in their field.

One of the earliest known adopters of micromosaic-making was the Italian Giacomo Rafaelli (1753-1836). He was best known for his stunning mosaic version of Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Da Vinci's The Last Supper mosaic by Rafaelli

Rafaelli's mosaic of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper© Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

Perhaps the most fashionable and best known mosaicist among the Grand Tourists, however, was Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794-1865). He was a jeweller by craft, but was one of the first craftsmen to incorporate micromosaics into his work. His shop in Rome was a firm favourite of fashionable Grand Tourists throughout the 19th Century.

Other important micromosaicists in the 19th Century included Michelangelo Barberi (1787-1867), whose work was so impressive that he was asked by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I to found a micromosaic workshop in St Petersburg.

Clemente Ciuli (active early 19th Century), was another important artist, responsible for the micromosaic which caught Arthur Gilbert’s eye, mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

Domenico Moglia, Antonio Aguatti, Liborio Salandri, and Filippo Puglieschi were all also important names associated with the micromosaic industry in the early 19th Century.

Where were micromosaics made?

As may be obvious from the names of the artists above, most micromosaicists in the 18th and 19th Centuries operated out of Italy, and Rome especially.

As was the case 2,000 years previously, Rome was the world’s leading centre of mosaic production in the Grand Tour period.

Micromosaics and the Vatican

One important Roman patron of mosaic production was the Catholic Church, and in particular the Pope residing in Rome’s Vatican City.

The Vatican Mosaic Studio opened officially in 1727, and was sponsored directly by Pope Benedict XIII. The studio was employed to recreate many of the paintings in St Peter’s Basilica which were falling into disrepair.

Around 30 important paintings, frescoes, and altarpiece decorations were made into mosaics over the course of the 18th Century, and the Studio continued to produce new micromosaics into the 19th Century.

Micromosaics and Venice

Inspired by the success of the Roman mosaicists, the glassmakers on the island of Murano in Venice started to develop their own techniques for making micromosaics in the mid-19th Century. As a result, Venice became a second centre for the production of micromosaics during this period.

Murano had developed a reputation over many centuries as the finest maker of glass in Europe. The Venetian micromosaics produced were, however, less successful than the Roman versions.

What are the common themes depicted in micromosaic?

As mentioned above, micromosaics depicted a wide range of subjects, but most were used most often to portray architectural and landscape scenes of modern and ancient Rome. These typically include the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican, the Roman Forum, the Castel Sant'Angelo and the Arch of Constantine. 

Flowers, birds, and animals also feature in micromosaic works and several Italian Old Master paintings were recreated in micromosaic.

Detail from an Italian table top inlaid with micromosaic plaques

An Italian black marble table top inlaid with various micromosaic plaques showing views of Rome, with a depiction of the Capitoline Doves in the centre

Additionally, many early 19th Century Italian micromosaics replicated in miniature surviving examples of Ancient micromosaics.

One of the most popular images to feature on micromosaic plaques was known as the ‘Doves of Pliny’, or the ‘Capitoline Doves’.

This was a miniature replica of an Ancient Roman mosaic which had been discovered on the floor of the villa of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 AD), itself thought to be a replica of a mosaic made by Sosus of Pergamom.

Micromosaic depicting the Doves of Pliny

Detail from the famous Doves of Pliny, or Capitoline Doves micromosaic image, on a 19th Century micromosaic plaque.

As the popularity of micromosaics grew over the course of the 19th Century, collectors would increasingly directly commission new micromosaic compositions, with their own preferred subject matter. A notable example is the main image of this blog, which shows an Orientalist scene in micromosaic, depicting a sunset scene of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  

Where can I see micromosaics today?

Some of the finest micromosaic works ever produced are kept as part of two important public collections: the Gilbert Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Hermitage Collection in St. Petersburg, Ruissia.

Elsewhere, many micromosaics are in private hands, as they are highly sought-after by collectors.

Micromosaics are still made in Rome for tourists, though the quality is not comparable to the 19th Century examples, when micromosaics were at their most fashionable.

Antique micromosaic pill boxes, plaques and jewellery, on the other hand, remain some of the finest antique pieces money can buy.