Saturday, March 13, 2010

The first known mosaics were Sumerian, although there is some evidence that mosaic was used in abstract ways before that. Sumer was one of the first recorded human civilizations, beginning before 800 BCE, so it's safe to say mosaics have been around a long time. As soon as people began to make pottery, they had broken pottery, and humans have always had the drive to create art. Sumerians would push broken pottery point-first into wet clay or mortar to create their designs. Later this century, they and the Turks would develop techniques for using colored pebbles to create designs in paved roads.

Across the globe and a few centuries later, the Greeks would take pebble mosaic to the next level with their intricately patterned pavements of geometric designs and people and animals. The Greeks continued to evolve the art form from pebbles to tiles, broken glass and pottery, and by 200 BCE, began to manufacture their own tesserare for the sole purpose of mosaic art. This allowed true creativity and variety to emerge, and some of the most beautiful mosaics existing today are from this Greek era. Some beautiful examples are found at Thessaloniki, Greece, and there are stunning examples by Greek artists preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. One of the most famous mosaics comes from this era, and is at the Piazza Armerina, Sicily. It's a beautifully detailed mosaic showing a scene of bikini-clad girls playing sports, and is proof that some things never go out of style.

The Roman Empire expanded all over the globe, and mosaic went with it, spreading as far as England's shores. The last capital of the Roman Empire was Ravenna, Italy, and it's known as the “City of Mosaics”. It became the center for Roman mosaic art. Many buildings and churches in the city are adorned with complex and beautiful Christian mosaics. In the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire conquered most of the area, including Ravenna, and so mosaics began to have a Byzantine style. Included in this mostly religious style are the introduction of smalti mosaics, and a trend to decorate the ceilings and walls instead of the floors as the Romans had done. This was a practical necessity, as smalti tiles are glass, and glass is not suitable for floor mosaics. The Byzantine style spread all over the world, and can be found in many parts of Europe and even influenced the art of the middle East, and was popular even through the middle ages.

Another style that came about in the 14th century in Persia was the use of geometric mosaic, after the Byzantine mosaic went out of style.. It can be seen in Islamic mosques of the time, and continued in some form throughout history, although most of Europe abandoned large-scale mosaics for less labor-intensive frescoes during the Dark Middle Ages.

Mosaic had a revival in the popular art-deco movement of the 1920's. Today, mosaic is an art form all to itself, as varied and beautiful as any other medium. It fits into any d├ęcor, can be installed to create permanent accents in homes, and is widely available and accessible to everyone.