Mosaic art in Spilimbergo
Before the mosaic come the crushed stones of the pebbly riverbed that the water arranges in drawings filling them with light.
These are the words of poet and writer Novella Cantarutti. And they could well be the opening words of the tale recounting the wonderful adventure of the Spilimbergo School of Mosaic Art. Privileged place of action: Venice. The modern history of Friulian terrazzo workers (specialised in this special flooring technique) and mosaic artists started during the Renaissance period in the 16th century. These workers and artists mainly came from Spilimbergo and nearby towns (such as Sequals and Solimbergo), which were surrounded by the vast gravel deposits of the Meduna, Cellina, Cosa, and Tagliamento rivers.
The history of our terrazzo workers and mosaic artists is inextricably intertwined with these pebbly rivers and Venice. A humble story that is part of the fascinating history of Venice.
Terrazzo workers in Venice
The Confraternity of Terrazzo Workers was established on 9 February 1582 by the Council of Ten, one of the major governing bodies of the Republic of Venice. There is no doubt that some of its members came from Friuli and Spilimbergo. A Venetian document of the time states that the Friulians are the true masters of the special art of terrazzo working, as attested by the typical surnames of the Sequals area: Crovato, Mander Cristofoli, Avon, Pellarin, Mora, Pasquali, etc.
The document also added that these unique artists have their school in S. Paterniano under the name of Saint Florian Martyr. Saint Florian is widely venerated in Friuli as he is the patron saint of firefighters. That’s why he is depicted pouring water over fire. And this was certainly important for terrazzo workers. In fact, Saint Florian was also chosen as the patron saint of terrazzo workers, as water is an essential element of this art. And that’s where the proverb Aga al téras e vin ai terassêrs (water to the terrazzo floor and wine to the terrazzo workers) comes from.
Mosaic art conquers the world
Between the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, mosaic artists began to travel to Central Europe and the Americas. In the streets of Sequals and under the porticos of Spilimbergo, Paris, Vienna, Prague, St Petersburg, Detroit were mentioned as nearby destinations. In those years, great artists and entrepreneurs skilfully combined art and profits. Notable examples include Pietro Pellarin in the United States, the Odoricos in France, the Mazziols in the United Kingdom, the Carneras in Denmark, Ermenegildo Cristofoli in St Petersburg, Andrea Avon in Moscow, Francesco Mora in Nîmes, and Gian Domenico Facchina in Paris. The latter was also famous for inventing and perfecting the revolutionary reverse mosaic technique, which he patented on 23 March 1858 (patent No. 36416) at the National Industrial Property Institute in Paris. Today, his extraordinary works decorate the Cathedral of Lourdes, the Town Hall of Rio de Janeiro, the Romanian Parliament in Bucharest, the Imperial Palace in Japan, and many other prestigious sites.
Right after the First World War, in consideration of the widespread and prestigious mosaic art tradition, it was decided to open a school in Sequals to teach the methods and pass on the experience gained in the centuries of the diaspora.
The Società Anonima Cooperativa Mosaicisti del Friuli (the cooperative of Friulian mosaic artists) was established on 18 September 1920. Shortly afterwards, it became the Cooperativa Anonima Laboratorio e Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli (the Friuli cooperative, workshop, and school for mosaic artists).
Despite the enthusiasm of its promoters and a very promising start, the school soon had to face financial problems.
That’s when the Humanitarian Society of Milan stepped in. The Society had been established in 1892 through the testamentary disposition of the wealthy philanthropist Prospero Moisè Loria, who had wanted to create a school of mosaic art for talented young artists.
The municipal administration of Spilimbergo did not let the opportunity slip away. The mayor, Ezio Cantaruzzi, committed to getting the school going with 10,000 Lira, the premises, the support, and of course a generous dose of enthusiasm. The agreement with the Humanitarian Society of Milan was entered into on 3 January 1922. On 22 January, the school’s first director, Antonio Sussi from Venice, gave the inaugural lecture to the first 38 pupils at the former Bevilacqua barracks in Viale Barbacane.
Students flocked from all around the area, especially where terrace working and mosaic art had been carried out for centuries. The school was named after Irene of Spilimbergo, the countess and painter who had been Titian’s student.
In 1932, the school moved to its new (and current) location in via Corridoni.
Fame and success
The Spilimbergo School soon acquired its well-deserved reputation, also thanks to the works commissioned by the Government for the Mussolini Forum (today’s Foro Italico) in Rome with over 6000 sq.m of floor and wall mosaics. The institution reached its peak in the ‘50s when the means of transport were lacking, and the country was slowly recovering from the war. During those years, hundreds of youngsters flocked to Spilimbergo riding their bicycles with their hammers proudly tucked in their belts behind their backs.
The institute’s prestige and reputation kept growing over the years, thanks to extraordinary creations by skilled workers and students in the many workshops in the area connected to the school. Today, many works that came out from the School decorate public and private buildings across the globe. These works stand out for their colours and finesse.
Currently, the School depends from the Directorate of Education and Professional Training of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region and is run by a consortium established in 1954. Its students don’t just come from the surroundings. Many come from other countries to learn mosaic art here.
Translation of an extract of the original Spilimbergo. La guida della città dei suoi dintorni (Spilimbergo. The guide to the town and its surroundings) by Pietro De Rosa
Want to read more? Looking for further information or the pictures of some of the works? Would you like to take a course in mosaic art? Then visit the website of Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli.