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A sunny spring day in Ravenna. A studio filled with paintings and mosaics. A student and a master deep in conversation. We are pleased to bring you this excerpt from an article published in the current edition of Mosaique magazine.
Born in Ravenna in 1928, Cicognani attended the Art Institute of Ravenna’s painting program and in 1948 joined the Mosaic Group that was responsible for the restoration of the city’s basilicas. Subsequently, Cicognani collaborated with many of Italy’s greatest artists (among them Gino Severini) in translating their paintings into mosaic. A great believer in the power of education, Cicognani taught at the Institute of Mosaic Art from 1961 to 1984 and served as the Superintendent of the School for Restoration of Mosaic.
Cicogni is currently exhibiting his mosaics – brilliant works combining his life-long artistic exploration of painting, fresco and mosaic – in Chartres. Details can be found at the end of this article. Enjoy – Nancie
A Conversation with Sergio Cicognani by Enzo Tinarelli Translation by Sophie Drouin
This is a conversation I am having with Sergio Cicognani – artist, mosaicist and my teacher at the Art Institute of Ravenna. The man who welcomes me into his studio (he was born in 1927) displays spirit, freshness and lucidity that would make a young man pale with envy! We sit down in his house-workshop under the rays of an early spring-time sun and start conversing. From this frank and friendly dialogue, I have tried to isolate some of his reasonings, reflections and analysis of mosaic and what he sees as its links to painting, architecture, art and education.
His love of painting leads Cicognani to study at the Fine Arts Academy of Ravenna, “but with just that you could not make enough to live on” he says. After the war, suddenly there was a great need to restore the Byzantine mosaics in the various basilicas of the town, so Cicognani’s entry into the Group of Mosaicists at the Academy was at the same time both natural and the start of a passion.
On his scaffolding, Cicognani was in direct contact with the stuff of mosaic itself; technique, cutting and copying have been the basis of all his knowledge. “When we came to a few fragments of Byzantine mosaic that had to be redone, I came to realize that the first challenge was to cut the tesserae just like the Byzantines – which was tremendously difficult but essential to the success of the results.”
Cicognani worked with the Group of Mosaicists for a number of years, taught at the Art Institute for Mosaics and collaborated on projects with many famous post-war artists – Sironi, Severini, Kokkoschka, Saetti, Mathieu, Guttuso, Gentilini, Mattioli and Zancanaro among them – all of whom turned to the Ravenna mosaic masters to work on their artistic and monumental projects. Cicognani had the best relationships with Kokoschka, Saetti and Gutman, ties that enriched his own views on mosaic.
In the process of the interpretation and translation of the cartoon (original art work) Cicognani gave added depth to the work that was the ultimate goal of the translation. These collaborative projects enabled Cicognani to intimately understand these works of art and it also led to some lasting friendships and respect. During the hours he could steal during weekends, Cicognani went to his workshop to express himself through his own creations – verifying findings from his studies and lectures.
“Between one shape which is interesting and worth something and one that is worthless, there is but a hair. A mystery.”
We then start talking about the concepts of personal creative artistic processes and the challenges of mosaic, “I have never known any artist who was not continuously seeking perfection in what exists within oneself, what I would call the real me! It is part of the ineffable. Having knowledge is part of the job and it is necessary!”
He thinks it is important to educate people in art and the opportunities made possible by knowledge but that to do so requires critical reviews, knowledge of technique and a solid pedagogical base. This authenticity is a recurrent theme and links his works with fresco painting and mosaic in tesserae. It this alliance of materials assembled in lime (1) at the same time both pleasing to the artist and using an expressive substance which “does not lie.” Fresco-like gestures and touches allow the placing of tesserae on the supple surface to merge into a single whole entity, an epidermis. The artist reveals his views on composition “Between one shape that is interesting and worth something and one that is worthless there is but a hair. A mystery.”
Cicognani gets inspiration from his materials and from the lime, the wall, the thin set; he likes the fresh coolness of surfaces and the absolute unity of the materials used. He finds the essence of his artistic expression in this union, in the dialogue between the cartoon painted on the substrate and the vibrating tesserae, in their unifying rhythm within the space of gesture and tesserae. Added to this colour is the visible discontinuity given by the disposition of tesserae, which becomes exultant – “Fragmentation brings vibration and sparkle but underneath is the painting!”
“The whole cultural and artistic statement made by the colours is seen through the eyes, but even more with the spirit! Nuances in a mosaic are thought more than they are seen; colour subtleties are achieved through gradations of tesserae that play on reflection more than by actually mixing the colours as one would with paint.”
How can you spot a mosaicist? “He paints with tesserae in his hand!”
Cicognani has studied painting in depth – particularly Cézanne, Picasso and Morandi – as well as ancient mosaics and the combination of these experiences were quite fruitful for him. His personal study through his own experience and deep pursuit of refinements in mosaic and painting has had a deep influence on how he interpreted an artist’s cartoon. According to Cicognani, the author of the cartoon must be present during the creation of the mosaic because the artist himself is the only one who should make certain interpretive choices that arise during the mosaic fabrication. Otherwise the mosaicist will make a poetic choice that might not correspond to the spirit of the cartoon or the painter.
Exhibition at the Saint-Eman Chapel in Chartres
Cicognani shows me around twenty works made during the last two years for the exhibition in Chartres. The pieces, created in a combination of fresco paint and mosaic, look fragile but are quite sturdy; they are framed I wood, which is part of the structure of each piece and beyond which he sometimes continues the composition of the piece because to him the frame represents a wall. The substrate is made of layers of jute mesh prepared with lime, sand and a primer to simulate the arricio of a wall mosaic. On this base he puts his adhiesive which gets painted like a fresco before receiving the tesserae.
The compositions are well put together, with clear sweeps and colours. Thre can be canvas showing here, varied geometry there, figurative memories, still lifes, all brought to life with terra cotta, marble, smalti, gold and the fresco paint Cicognani calls “the marriage”.
The combination of techniques is mutually beneficial with this clear and fresh adhesive of ancient origins which is spread so purely upon the surface it looks like it was shaped by hand. This sublime and unifying bond becomes, in Cicognani’s work, like a marriage bed – uniting complimentary diversities, a sort of seduction (2) for the tesserae. Cicognani affirms: “Maybe I have limited myself by over-thinking some things a little during my career, but I still did what I loved.” He smiles, a true Romagnol (3) with satisfaction and authenticity.
While he continues working, I notice that despite his advanced age he still has quite a thick head of hair, with a great wisp of hair moving on his forehead. He looks like a great conductor, moving this hair around like a baton, conducting a score with innumerable notes, a symphony of tesserae that will sound for an entire life. In these symbols and gestures born from the material, with the authentic layering of textures, one gets lost observing the shadowy interstices; then the work comes into focus again, surprising us with the luminosity and techniques that are at once ancient and timeless or, rather, suspended in time.
Once upon a time . . . mosaic today.
- Lime (CaCO3) a wall mud used in fresco and mosaic since antiquity.
- alettamento: laying tesserae into the mortar or wall mud, a metaphoric Italian term for “bedding”
- Romagnol is a dialect spoken in some parts of the province of Emilia Romagna and can refer as well to the people who speak it or are from that region.
- Cicognani at the Chapelle Saint-Eman, Chartres through September 15th. Details here
- ORDER MOSAÏQUE Magazine here Also in this edition: Lynne Chinn, Paolo Racagni, Sonia King, Ricardo Licata, Gérard Brand, Verdiano Marzi, Rachel Bremner and more. 99 pages, full color, fully translated into English.