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Can it be a month since we left Italy? Why yes, it has been a month and more. And yet, the memories are still so fresh, so alive, so inspiring.
This is the first of two articles about our mosaic-driven sojourn in Italy during the first two weeks of October. We began in Venice and then joined Julie Richey’s Mosaic Masterpieces Tour to Clauiano, Acquileia, Grado, Udine, Splimbergo and finally Ravenna for the international mosaic festival RavennaMosaico 2013. In this article we’ll cover Venice to Spilimbergo; a second article will cover Udine, Ravenna and RavennaMosaico.
It was our experiences during the 2011 Masterpieces tour that prompted the complete overhaul of Mosaic Art NOW to what it is today. Mosaic – both ancient and modern – has so much to offer and contemporary explorers of the medium are creating beautiful, relevant art that deserves a museum-quality presence on the internet. And that’s what we set out to build. (Nudge: Click on any photo on the website for a much larger image)
This year, we arrived in Italy on October 2nd with high expectations and were not disappointed. Come along for the journey where we’ll visit with luminaries like Giulio Menossi, Paolo Racagni, Giulio Candussio, and Ilia Ilyev and discover new talented artists doing amazing things. Prepare to be inspired! First stop, Venice.
The 2013 Venice Biennale
We had only one morning for the city-wide international art fair that is the Venice Biennale and so concentrated our time in the Giardini between the divine Encyclopedic Palace – Massimiliano Gioni’s marvelously curated collection of works devoted to the concept of “collecting” the knowledge of the world in one place – and pavilions we knew had mosaic works we wanted to see. Highlights included:
Jack Whitten 9-11-2001 2006
Abstract painter Jack Whitten‘s (b. 1939) mosaic response to witnessing the terrorist attacks in New York City from his studio was both moving and disquieting. The artist made his own tesserae incorporating paint, crushed bone, blood, glass, ash and more into clear acrylic. The primary image is that of a pyramid which could reference a the iconic Egyptian funereal monuments or perhaps the icon found on the a one dollar bill. Two large areas of chaos reign in the lower one third of the work where one finds tire tracks, foot prints, scraps of newspaper, chicken bones – “traces of the lives that were lost that day” – and below them, at the base of the work, a small strip of tesserae made with human blood. It is an image we won’t soon forget.
MariaLuisa Tadei at the Venetian Pavilion
We left The Encyclopedic Palace having just barely covered a small portion of the treasures within to hustle on over to two pavilions we knew we had to see. The first was the Venetian Pavilion and the multi-work installation by Maria Luisa Tadei that we had covered earlier on MAN. The artist’s homage to Venice’s storied past as one end of the Silk Road included the spectacular walk-in sculpture Il Castello Del Sole, the mosaic San Angelo, and two exquisite small embroideries whose designs were incorporated into fabric specially woven for the exterior Il Castello as well as the ceiling and floor of the work.
Mohammed Banawy at the Egyptian Pavilion
Literally right next door to the Venetian Pavilion was the second “must see” on our list – Mohamad Banawy and Khaled Zaki’s Treasuries of Knowledge at the Egyptian Pavilion. Also covered previously on MAN, there were four works in this installation, two mosaics by Banawy and two sculptures by Zaki. According to Zaki, who was also the curator for the exhibit, Treasuries of Knowledge is an attempt to visualize Man’s quest for knowledge at the intersection of Nature’s infinite wisdom and what Man learns for himself as he walks – and alters – the face of Earth.
What we hadn’t seen in previous photos of The River was that the work included thin lines of clear filament hung in front of the mosaic. Seen live, they added a dimension and sense of water as they captured the light. Speaking of light, we loved this quote that greeted you as you entered the Pavilion. Again, for more on this exhibit, do check out our previous post “Mosaics of the 2013 Venice Biennale: Mohamed Banawy & Khaled Zaki at the Egyptian Pavilon.”
Onward to Udine!
There was, of course much, much more that we loved at the Biennale and in Venice (what’s not to love?), but we’ll save those bits for future articles on MAN. Fast forward to Saturday, October 5th and the Venice Central Train Station where it’s time to join the rest of our merry band of 13 for the start of the Mosaic Masterpieces 2013 tour. We’re going to make tracks to our home base in the Friuli region for the next four days – Udine
When Richey was planning this tour, she worked closely with master mosaicist and Udine native son Giulio Menossi who acted as our tour’s mentor; he and his wife Rosa met us when we arrived at the train station and accompanied us everywhere. By the time we moved on to Ravenna, we had come to think of Menossi as The Pied Piper of Udine.
They came from Australia, The UK, and all points in the US, these mosaic makers, mosaic lovers and lovers of mosaic makers. Here we all are at our first feast (facetiously billed on our itinerary as a “light lunch”) at Trattoria alla Bontá in Udine. Time to introduce our Cast of Characters . . .
This four course repast set the gastronomic pace for the entire trip – Eat Long and Eat Well. This meal took two plus hours from the Prosciutto and Parmesan Crisp Start to the Apple Streudel/Fresh Pineapple with optional Gran Marnier or Grappa Finish. Mangia!
Magic in Clauiano
No sooner had we unpacked our bags at our B&B when we hit the road once again, this time in our cozy private bus for a short ride to spend the evening in “one of the most beautiful villages in Italy” – Clauiano
Last year, this lovely crossroads in the Friulian countryside fell in love with mosaic. Sparked by an idea from Menossi, fueled by the members of the mosaic web site Contemporary Mosaic Art (CMA) and stoked with the energy and enthusiasm of a group of three local young people (Clauiano Mosaics & More Association), the first International Mosaics In Clauiano exhibit was hatched, launched and deemed a huge success.
Richey began planning our visit to this year’s exhibit several months ago with Maida Zerman, President of Clauiano Mosaics & More and Menossi. The plan was that our group – which included three artists with work in the exhibit – would tour the gallery, Richey and I would make a presentation on mosaics in America to a small local audience, and the Mayor would bestow upon your Editor the honorary title of Gran Cavalieri della’Ordine de San Martino for MAN’s contribution to promoting contemporary mosaic. After that, we would all go someplace together and for a casual dinner.
All of which sounded like a plan for a lovely evening and a great way to kick off the tour. But, as would happen again and again on this journey, synchronicity and karma went to work and things just went beyond our wildest dreams.
First, there was a delay in getting things going. No problem, Vice Mayor Remo Livoni walked us over to Foffani Winery where Elizabetta Missoni Foffani gave us a tour that included two stele designed by renowned artist and former director of Spilimbergo Giulio Candussio that yes, served as the inspiration for fabrics in the tasting room made by, of course, that Missoni.
Still not ready for us at the gallery? Well then, we’ll just have to pop into the local bodega, Borgo Claudius, for a little wine and salumi tasting. All that night, there was not a door in Clauiano that wasn’t opened for us instantly. The hospitality and thoughtfulness was, well, overwhelming. This video prepared by Clauiano Mosaics & More will give you an idea of what we’re talking about.
Every single member of our tour group – whether they had a mosaic in the exhibit or not or even made mosaics for that matter – received a gift catalogue, orchids and a handshake from the Mayor, Roberto Fedele (who does look like Robert Wagner in the 60s, doesn’t he?). And that dinner? It was a five course repast of local fare prepared on the hearth of an open fireplace in the middle of our dining room. The hospitality of the tiny village of Clauiano, and in particular the efforts of Maida Zerman, Marcello Nobile and Matteo Pizzutti, was astonishing and humbling for us all. Some photos.
Like we said before – magic. Our evening in Clauiano is an experience that none of us will ever forget. By the time we got on the bus for our moonlit drive back to Udine, we were all in love with Friuli.
Once called “The Second Rome”, Aquileia is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “the most complete example of an early Roman city in the Mediterranean world.” We were there primarily to explore the mosaics of the city’s basilica which, like many religious sites in Italy, went through a number of iterations that chronicle the progression of the Christian faith in Europe. Giulio Menossi has been studying the mosaics of the basilica since childhood and we were lucky to have him as our guide.
The basilica is best known for the 4th century mosaics found inn the main part of the building – the largest mosaic floor in Europe – which were revealed in a reconstruction effort in 1909. Imagine chipping away at a clay floor and discovering this . . .
Here is the tale of the prophet Jonah, a sea scene with twelve fishermen representing the apostles, portraits of donors and local dignitaries, scenes from the Gospels, beasties and beauties and exquisite geometric patterns holding it all together.
Far more interesting to us were the mosaics to be found in what is called The Crypt of the Excavations which lies below the main basilica – the 3rd century Gnostic Mosaics.
Giulio Menossi has been studying these fascinating mosaics for years and his appreciation and passion for them was evident as he made observations and passed them on to Richey to translate for us. (Side note: Richey’s fluency in Italian, art history education and mosaic expertise were invaluable as we met with artists along the tour.)
The Gnostics believed that man’s soul was on a journey through the cosmos from the darkness of the Earth to the light of God; that answers to spiritual questions were to be found within, not without. These mosaics represent that journey through a series of levels each of which had a specific time frame (the first level was believed to take 150 years and 8 months) and a specific guide which was often represented by an animal affiliated with a sign of the Zodiac.
(these) mosaics, done largely in the 3rd century, represent the ascent of the soul, through the realm of the planets and constellations, to God, who is represented as a ram. (The ram, at the head of the zodiac, is the Gnostic generative force.) Libra is not the scales, but rather a battle between good (the rooster) and evil (the tortoise); the constellation Cancer is represented as a shrimp on a tree. The basis for the representation in Aquileia is the Pistis Sophia, a 2nd-century Gnostic tract written in Alexandria. – Fodor’s
The Gnostics divided the animal kingdom between Good and Bad based on how their bodies touched the earth. Animals with hooves were Good; those with paws were Bad.
It is a great shame that when it was decided to add a campanile to the basilica complex, its base was plunked down right on top of the Gynostic Cycle and much of the content has been lost.
Menossi told us that the meaning of these mosaics has only very recently been fully realized. By chance, a local historian familiar with the mosaics, Renato Jacumin, met a Gnostic scholar named Luigi Moraldi. Moraldi has just translated the Pistis Sophia, a 2nd century Gnostic text, into Italian. In Moraldi’s translation, Jacumin was astonished to discover precise written descriptions of the mosaics he had been studying for years. During our tour, Menossi carried a much-treasured copy of Jacumin’s book on the mosaics The Doors of Salvation which, sadly, is no longer in print.
La Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli – The Mosaic School of Friuli – often called Spilimbergo – is one of the Meccas of contemporary mosaic. Since it opened its doors in 1922, Spilimbergo has set the world standard for mosaic training and innovation. We were thrilled at the opportunity to walk the halls of a place that has trained some of today’s most innovative and thoughtful mosaic artists.
This photo is a wonderful representation of Spilimbergo’s past and present. On the floor are examples of the traditional mosaic style that characterizes the school’s beginnings with the barrier-blasting mosaic style introduced in the 1990’s by Giulio Candussio and the contemporary artists he brought into the school to have their works translated into mosaic.
Spilimbergo teacher and friend of MAN Carolina Zanelli (in the pink scarf above) was our tour guide while on break from a class and took us into several classrooms.
The three year course of study at Spilimbergo is rigorous and strict. The goal is to teach the student all of the rules and possibilities of mosaic so that when he/she graduates, they are best able to offer various interpretations of the designs/cartoons that someone else has produced that they have been hired to fabricate. Only at the end of the third year is the student allowed to design their own mosaic and even then, all students work within the guidelines of a very specific project – the head of Christ, for instance.
So, we walked the halls, dazzled by mosaics ranging from reproductions of the pebble mosaics of Greece to works using every possible material in extraordinary and inspiring ways. A few photos . . .
We were all on sensory overload by the time we left the school and like the students below lounging on “the quad”, we were ready for lunch.
Al Bachero is a favorite with students and faculty of the school and we were happy to run into Miriam Bastisch, a fellow mosaic blogger who has just started studying at Spilimbergo this year. Also “in the house” was the wonderful mosaic group Mosaizm – all graduates of Spilimbergo who were also on their way to the festival in Ravenna.
Remember that synchronicity and karma we talked about earlier? Well, it kicked into high gear at Al Bachero. Carolina Zanelli introduced us to Giulio Candussio who just happened to be having lunch with Mosaizm. It was an incredible moment for us; we have been great fans of Candussio’s art and have utmost respect for what he accomplished at Spilimbergo during his term as its Director.
There also is a very American connection with Candussio. In response to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, Candussio designed an 118 x 13 foot mosaic entitled Iridescent Lightning which was fabricated by the students of Spilimbergo and installed at the rebuilt PATH station at Ground Zero in 2003. The mosaic is meant to portray “the energy and continuity of life.”
Candussio was very gracious and quickly invited our whole group to visit him in his studio later that day. That two and a half hours was to be one of the highlights of the tour. The artist talked about his career, his decision to go back to revisit and complete projects that he had begun as a young man, and where he sees mosaic going in the future. At one point, he took us through a book of pen and ink sketches that he uses to develop an idea from concept to design to making; it was an opportunity to walk into the mind of a great artist – a very great privilege.
So ends our first article about our 2013 mystical, magical, mosaical tour in Italy. Subsequent articles will cover studio visits in Udine and then on to Ravenna for the festival. We do hope you are enjoying the trip! Many thanks to James Turner (JT) and Allan Punton (AP) for contributing photos to this article.