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What is mosaic and what is not? Art consultant & mosaic scholar Daniele Torcellini asks The Question

On 21, Feb 2012 | 11 Comments | In Home Spotlight Articles, Ideas | By Nancie

What is “mosaic?”  What is not “mosaic?”  Is mosaic relevant in today’s art world?  Are these questions even worth asking?  Ravenna-based docent, art consultant, writer and expert in the history, restoration and use of color Daniele Torcellini tackles these questions in this scholarly and fascinating article.   Torcellini begins by comparing the classical definitions of painting and mosaic, makes a startling comparison between the historical acceptance of photography as fine art and the state of contemporary mosaics and concludes – well, we’ll let you discover his final thoughts yourself.  MAN is indebted to Mr. Torcellini for this thoughtful and provocative paper.

Note:  Translator Julie Richey has stayed true to Torcellini’s original transcript.  For purposes of this paper, the word “technique” in regards to mosaic refers to the use of mosaic design concepts (e.g. the use of color, andamento, reflectivity and texture).

Comments:  Comments will be taken for two weeks following the publication of this post and will be moderated by the editor.

Mosaic? Post-Mosaic? Neo-Mosaic? Non-Mosaic?

The objective of this discourse is to propose a reflection dedicated to the mosaic technique from various definitions posed by encyclopedic resources and in relation to an artistic context, growing in diffusion and quality, relating to this technique.

The Italian encyclopedia Treccani calls mosaic, “decorative technique which, through the use of fragments (ordinarily small cubes, called mosaic tesserae) of natural stone, terracotta or glass paste, white, black or colored, applied to a solid surface with a cement or mastic, reproduces a determined design.” The same dictionary defines painting [technique]: “the art of painting [action], portraying something, or expressing other intuitions of fantasy, by means of lines, colors, masses, values and tones on a surface. The processes which permit the affixation of colorants or pigments to a surface (support) according to the will and the project of the artist, have had over the centuries, variations and preferences,” defining the act of painting as “representing artistically or with artistic intention a real or imaginary object using colors.”

Luca Barberini Bone Flowers

Luca Barberini Bone Flowers 2001 Detail

This definition doesn’t differ much from that of the Encyclopedia Britannica, even though here mosaic explicitly belongs to a much larger field of art. About mosaic, it says “in art, decoration of a surface with designs made up of closely set, usually variously coloured, small pieces of material such as stone, mineral, glass, tile or shell” and for painting, “the expression of ideas and emotions, with the creation of certain aesthetic qualities, in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language – its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures – are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface.”

Julian Modica Surface

Julian Modica Surface 2008 70x70 cm

Certain reflections can also be made from these definitions. Mosaic seems like a “decorative technique,” a “decoration of surface,” that reproduces a pre-existing design. Therefore a technique not appropriate to express that which painting is allowed to express: “the intuition of fantasy,” “according to the will and the project of the artist,” and “the expression of ideas and emotions.” In the world of mosaic, these expressive possibilities seem to belong to the design being reproduced.

From this point on the discussion may retrace the steps of a historical discussion analogous to the technique of photography and its rapport with painting. A dialectic in which the photograph, for a long time, was considered a mechanical discipline limited to the reproduction of that which is posed in front of the lens, because of the optical and chemical properties of the photo camera. A technique unable to express the will of the artist, i.e. the photographer, who is apparently and simplistically deprived of every artistic freedom. In analyzing the definitions, something analogous seems to be attributed to the work of the mosaicist: a mechanical, decorative reproduction of a pre-existing design, made with the juxtaposition of little separate elements, according to a procedure strictly decoded rather than on the basis of the expression of an artistic intention.

Samantha Holmes

Samantha Holmes Untitled, 2011

As it happened with photography that has seen, over the passage of time, recognition of its expressive values in addition to its reproductive ones, we could then admit that someday mosaic too can be considered something else as opposed to an exclusively decorative technique. In this case, the definition that the Encyclopedia Treccani gives to painting [action] could be used in a generic but appropriate way to describe mosaic. Isn’t it also possible, utilizing the mosaic technique, to “represent artistically or with artistic intention an object, real or imaginary, utilizing color?”

But the definition of painting [technique] could be even more adequate: with the technique of mosaic isn’t it possible to portray something or express an intuition or fantasy, “by means of line, colors, masses, values and tones on a surface?” If one responds affirmatively to the previous question, mosaic would appear to be a pictorial discipline.

Takako Hirai

Takako Hirai Pensiero, 2011 33x33 cm Detail

Now the next question we can pose is the following: does it make sense to talk about the artistic level of a technique? Personally, I think it doesn’t. It is not the technique itself that can be defined more or less artistic, more or less decorative, but the thing that is realized by means of the technique to be an artistic, decorative or design object. An object that expresses the visual culture of a given period.

This question seems to be accompanied or preceded by another one: does it make sense to talk about the modernity of a technique? Photography is a technique of image production more modern than painting, but only and exclusively in reference to the fact that the latter has origins much older than the former. In this sense, digital technologies are even more modern. Perhaps, from this point of view, they are the only truly contemporary techniques. But a visual culture of a defined period develops through the use of a multiplicity of techniques, more or less ancient, recovering at times forgotten ones, developing new ones, abandoning and reevaluating others.

Mosaic, from this point of view, certainly can’t be called modern, just as painting or sculpture, and no less architecture. Yet the fact remains that it’s possible to create contemporary works using these techniques. Therefore, in a way most analogous to the question of the artistry of a technique, the issue of the “contemporariness” of mosaic could be resolved. It is not about contemporary mosaics, but contemporary works realized in mosaic.

Contemporary mosaic doesn’t exist, but contemporary artists that utilize mosaic as their preferred technique or expressive language do. And for a work of art to have value, regardless of the technique chosen to accomplish it, it is necessary that the artist has something to say and knows how to say it. In the world of mosaic, it often happens that we come across those who have something to say but don’t know how to say it, and those who know how to say something but have nothing to say.

Therefore, perhaps it’s better to ask ourselves, as Linda Kniffitz, curator of the International Center for Documentation of Mosaic in Ravenna, brilliantly did when referring to the thoughts of Nelson Goodman: “when is it mosaic?” instead of questions like, “what is mosaic?” or “is mosaic art?” “Is it contemporary?” and “can mosaic be an artistic expression of our times?”

Andrej Koruza  Structured #1

Andrej Koruza Structured #1 2011 Detail

To be honest, I think it’s futile to force a definition of mosaic, and I consider misleading, or at least constricting, the definitions taken into consideration.

At any rate, if we want to restrict the area of possibilities, I believe that today, amongst the most interesting artistic expressions tied to the techniques of mosaics, there are those in which the mosaic is analytic. In other words, those in which the use of this technique is also an analysis of the very same technique. Here one sees the best results and, to respond to the question posed by Linda Kniffitz, this could be a definition: a work is contemporary mosaic when it analyzes mosaic, when it deconstructs and then reconstructs the forms and the rules of composition, when its aesthetic value is based upon them [forms and rules], when it pushes their [forms’ and rules’] limits and the possibilities to the maximum. The analytic mosaic creates works in which the methods of mosaic realization are investigated, going beyond the mosaic itself.

CaCO3  Essere quadrato

CaCO3 Essere quadrato 2011 Detail

In this way one defines the possibility of creating works-that-are-mosaic even if one doesn’t use the technique of mosaic. It’s also possible to investigate mosaic through materials that aren’t typical of mosaic or by means of other techniques. I believe it is possible to analyze mosaic through an image in jpeg, an assemblage of rubbish or whatever else. In this case one could talk of structurally mosaic works.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to make works-that-are-not-mosaic utilizing the mosaic technique. This is the case with sculptural works covered in mosaic or translations of paintings, cartoons or drawings. In this case one could speak of decorative mosaic-like works.

In one case and the other, it’s possible to conduct artistic, esthetic and conceptual research. In one case and the other it’s possible to express “the intuition of fantasy,” “according to the will and the project of the artist,” “the expression of emotions”, creating mosaic or anything else.

Whether the pieces that are created are works of art or not, will be for critics or future generations to decide, provided the traditional definition of art is still valid.

Sergio Policicchio

Sergio Policicchio Corpi Celesti 2011

Daniele Torcellini,  February 2012

Translation courtesy of Julie Richey,


Daniele Torcellini (born in Fano, Italy in 1978) is a docent of Contemporary Methodologies and Techniques at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna and is a Ph.D. student in Contemporary Art History from the University of Siena, where he is conducting research on the history and technology of reproduction of colors in works of art.

Since 2006, Torcellini has been a collaborator with the International Centre for Documentation on Mosaic at the City of Ravenna’s Museum of Art. His principle themes of research are those of visual perception of colors, particularly regarding the history, conservation and reproduction of the art form. He has presented his research findings at seminars and conferences and has published numerous opinions and articles in national and international locations. Among the publications is the book The Perception of Colors in the Practice of Restoration.

Recent Articles

Derivations, in “O(Ax) = dO(Am) Impossible Equations” exhibition catalog, MAR (City of Ravenna Museum of Art) November 4 – 20, 2011 edited by the Marte Cultural Association

Medium or Message? Limited Episodes of the Reproduction of Colors in Works of Art in “Colors and Colorimetry; Multidisciplinary contributions” Proceedings of the Sixth National Conference of Color (Rome, Sept. 15 – 16 2011)

Sparkles, Colours and other light effects. The problem of the photographic reproduction of mosaic, in “The Proceedings: Interaction of Colour & Light in the Arts and Sciences, 7-10 June, 2011 Zurich, Switzerland”. Midterm Meeting of the International Colour Association.

Professional Associations

Torcellini is a member of the Italian “Group of Colors” (, of AIC (International Colour Association ( and of CREATE, Colour Research for European Advanced Technology Employment ( He is a founding member and president of the Marte Cultural Association and is a contributing editor for the French mosaic magazine, Mosaique.

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  1. Yara Fragoso

    Excellent way of seeing the mosaic as a contemporary art. Thanks for sharing this concept that enlarges our knowledge of the real definition of contemporary mosaic art.

    • Nancie

      Thank you, Yaro, for your comment. I agree, in his article, Daniele does much to “up the conversation” on mosaic to the benefit of all of us.

  2. Kelley Knickerbocker

    Deliciously thought-provoking. Thanks for midwifing this type of discourse into our consciousness, Nancie.

  3. Once again, Daniele has gotten straight to the heart of the matter of mosaic. My favorite line is ” it is not about contemporary mosaic, but contemporary works realized in mosaic”. This is a gem to be read over again.
    Thank you Daniele and Julie!

  4. It is great to read things like this. It is rare to find good mosaic thinking. Well done!

    • Nancie

      Marcelo – That’s one of the reasons why MAN exists – to provide a venue for “good mosaic thinking.” Thank you for your comment.

      • Good work. I have recently given some lectures on mosaics in Brazil and we have touched on similar issues of this article… I will keep visiting this site ;-)

  5. I am so happy I read this incredicle article! In my humble opinion, comparing mosaic to other art forms in terms of materials or techniques does no justice to mosaic art. My vision is that mosaic is seen independently for its qualities and expressive power. Any comparison to painting should focus on the outcome, aesthetics, utility and impact that mosaic brings about both to artist and audience. As I mention in my blog, you can walk on a mosaic (floor) but not on a painting. Now, how do we erase any misbeliefs that a mosaic floor is inferior to a painting? This is what I mean when I say to make comparisons as far as the outcome is concerned. I love the new MAN !

  6. Nancie

    Thanks so much for your comments, Helen. Mr. Torcellini was given complete license to write about whatever he pleased for this relaunch of MAN. I was very excited when he told me what his topic would be and thrilled with Julie’s translation of his enormously thoughtful and passionate writing.

  7. Bravo Nancy- For this wonderful article on the new launch of MAN. Thank you
    Bravo to Daniele for giving an eloquent and intellectual discourse on what mosaic means and what this medium is capable of capturing.
    Bravo to Julie for her wonderful translation.

    This speaks to the issue that many of us struggle with- when is it a mosaic or is it a mosaic. What are we trying to express, can we do so within the medium? It also points out the very limited and narrowly worded ‘definition’ of mosaic. No wonder we as artists are crawling out of the crevass that we have been cast into! How cloying. I believe this article helps to define some of the issues that we as artists who have chosen the language of mosaic as our means of communication. This article will hopefully lead to more intellectual discourse on what will inevitably become a method that is more than just decorative.

    Thanks photography for pushing the boundaries and I for one am greatful to be on the cusp of seeing the great and ancient art become something more valid than just a means of replication.

  8. Complimenti a voi – Daniele e Julie! Great article Daniele and a very considered and careful translation, Julie. Well done to both of you. I share your sentiments about the futility of self-limiting definition and an openness to truly contemporary artistic mosaic that extends beyond the more conservative, ‘known’ parameters that are largely due simply to the strength of historical precedent – in ‘mosaic’.

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