Profound characteristics distinguish micromosaics from other mosaics.  The components or tesserae that constitute a micromosaic are microscopically small!  However, scale as a characteristic serves only to distinguish the mosaic from mosaic in miniature.   The not-so-obvious and perhaps most important characteristic of the micromosaic is that the tesserae are elongated, something almost exclusive to the technique of micromosaic Historically speaking, it is generally acceptable to claim that only the Sumerian cone mosaics of circa 3000 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia share this technical point.  In these mosaics, tapered cylindrical tesserae (cones) were stuck into mud (pointed end submerged) that had been plastered on columns and walls. The elongated tesserae used in micromosaics are made of glass threads (smalti filati in Italian). The threads are approximately three millimeters long and a bit thicker than a human hair.  The threads are placed vertically into the substrate of the micromosaic with only the ends remaining visible ( analogous to  placing candles in a cake) .  Each glass thread has a specific cross-sectional shape, the shape you would see if looking at the cut end. The cross section of a thread can be any shape needed to achieve the effect desired by the mosaicist: rectangular, triangular, circular, oval, or other shapes such as leaves or wavy animal hair. The finest micromosaics have from 3,000 to 5,000 microtesserae (extremely small tesserae) per square inch!

Roman micromosaics have a smooth surface, which has been carefully ground and polished.  Another form of micromosaics, Victorian (also called Venecian micromosaics) have an uneven surface.  These mosaics differ from the more labor intensive micromosaics in that their surfaces were not grouted, and the visible ends of the tesserae were not polished. These Venecian micromosaics were more economical to produce.  They often contained complex tesserae (two or more colors combined within the thread).  One complex tessera could eliminate the need to place many single colored tesserae in order to achieve the same color configuration.

Micromosaic was at the peak of its production in Rome in the nineteenth century but died out as the more decorative miniature glass mosaics of the Victorian era became popular the second half of the century. Considered a fine art in Europe , micromosaic evolved as a means to reproduce masterpiece paintings so as to preserve them in a form that would not deteriorate in the unusual climatic conditions of large basilicas.  Indeed, the micromosaic came to be known as the “la vera pittura per eternita” or “painting for eternity.”  The Vatican Workshop was the original source where the majority of micromosaic masterpieces were produced.  Later, much of the  micromosaic production migrated to private workshops throughout Italy .  Micromosaics were also used in jewelry, on small boxes, on tabletops, and as small portraits.  Skilled craftsmen and ingenious technicians developed the materials that made the micromosaic possible.  And those innovators maintained their formulas and techniques  as tightly kept secrets.

The micromosaic is a truly intimate object d’art.  The fine art of the micromosaicist draws you in to experience their world on a breathtaking microscopic scale. 

There are two major micromosaic collections in the world today.   The Hermitage Collection in Leningrad , and the Gilbert Collection at the Gilbert Collection Museum in London , England .

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last updated December 1, 2003