Practicing the Art of Mosaic in Ravenna

I’ll admit when I first thought about attending a week-long mosaic intensive while vacationing in Italy, I had reservations.
I couldn’t help but think that instead of blissfully sleeping until waking each day, wandering to the plaza for a mid-morning espresso, going for a run through the tranquil countryside, and enjoying a typically decadent, two-hour Italian lunch, I’d be in school. From 9 to 5, every day. For a week. School. 

I turned this idea over for quite a while.

In the end, my desire to learn more about the art of mosaic, to get my hands dirty, and to interact with locals on a different level won out and I took the leap.

The Mosaic Art School of Ravenna was established in 1969 and has a reputation as being one of the world’s best institutes for training, research, and preservation of mosaics.  The class claimed that in five days participants would “achieve the skills critical to designing and crafting mosaics in the ancient style, and cutting smalti glass, marble, and stone with the classic tools, such as hammer and hardie.”

And, the fireball – let’s call her spirited – director Luciana Notturni and her team of artists and teaching assistants delivered on that claim and more.

Luciano instructing a student
Luciana instructing a student

During those five exhilarating and exhausting days we learned about the history of mosaics in Ravenna and around the world, got to know each other by sharing stories of our homes, families, and lives the way only strangers suddenly finding themselves in the same boat can.  All the while, we were working with our hands to create masterpieces (Okay, okay; maybe just the equivalent of kids’ art on the fridge, but it did feel significant at the time.)

My companions were a quiet but lovely, empty-nester couple from Malta, a colorful, woman (a returning student) from Brazil, and a wise-cracking guy from Australia named Tony who became my new best friend and partner-in-crime for the week.

Our first assignment was to select a classic mosaic pattern from one of the hundreds of installations around Ravenna and replicate it, tile-for-tile, with the same techniques used since the time of the Byzantines and Romans.  The task was to follow the exact pattern, structure, and cuts as the original.  When you see these pieces and realize how intricate they are, you begin to understand the complexity of this challenge.  Its purpose, we were told, was to give us an appreciation for the techniques of the masters as well as provide us with the practice we needed in cutting.  We quickly learned that “cutting” is an art in itself especially when you are working with a hammer and hardieLooks dangerous, right? (Think sharp-tipped metal blade encased in a piece of wood. Then think about holding a small piece of glass or stone on the blade’s tip while striking it with a hammer.)  Let’s just say I’m happy to still have all of my fingers intact.

For those of you who have any experience with mosaics, you’re probably now asking, “Why didn’t you use nippers?”  The same question popped in my mind, at first.  Then you learn that when you are sculpting this volume of tiles, 1. Using nippers hurts your hands, sometimes permanently, 2.  Nippers only allow you to use a certain size of tile to create tesserae, and 3.  Modern methods, Luciana will tell you passionately, do not compare to the beauty of creating by the classic technique.

Hardie & Hammer MethodUsing the hammer and chisel method allows you to turn almost anything into tesserae and opens up your whole world (not to mention frees up your wallet).  You can use rocks, stones, plates, cups, glass, whatever you want, not just costly manufactured tiles which is mainly the material where nippers work best.

Without previously discussing it, Tony and I both selected the same classic work for our first assignment:  a striking image of a beautiful bird.  Over two days, with our novice hands, we created what we affectionately began to call “the chickens.”  The Romans might have covered their eyes in shame at our resulting work, but the process of attempting to create a bird and arriving at a chicken served its purpose.  We began to understand the craft of cutting and sculpting each individual tessera, at least in theory.A chicken in the making

In our second assignment we were free to do whatever we wanted.  We could use a photograph or painting for inspiration, draw our own form, or just free flow.  One lady in our group decided to create a self-portrait as a gift for her son in honor of his upcoming nuptials (to each his own).

After quickly ruling out my own self-portrait, I was drawn in by the idea of creating an abstract ocean scene.  Announcing ahead of time that I intended for it to be “abstract” was probably genius. I’m not sure anyone who sees the finished work sees the ocean but hey, it’s mine and I’ll admit I do feel a sense of peace, like gazing at the ocean, when I look at it.Feel the ocean vibe?

While we sat for hours each day creating our works, we talked, laughed, and collectively marveled at the creativity and skill of Luciana’s graduate students and artists who are there creating original works for the school’s clients as well as participating in preservation projects around the world.

The hours flew by and every day at 5 p.m., I’d leave the studio in my running clothes for a 10 km jog to the beach to meet my husband, who had filled his days with more “typical” vacation activities (as long as you consider cycling 60-70 miles a day typical.)  During each run, I’d think about what we learned that day, come up with a plan of action for the next, and relish in the knowledge that nothing about this experience was typical and that’s what made it so grand.

And, it’s worth mentioning that Tony and I did find time during the week for a few decadent pasta and vino lunches.  It may be school, but it is still Italy, after all.

Mosaic class masters
Mosaic class masters


Mosaic Art School – Educator, artist, and director Luciana Notturni knows her stuff. She’s considered one of the few masters in the world in the restoration of old masterpieces and she’s a delight to be around.  In addition to the class described above, the school also offers workshops in creating floor pieces, 3-D works, and jewelry.

The lovely Ravenna
The lovely Ravenna

Ravenna – Home to a unique concentration of mosaics, this eastern city near the Adriatic boasts a staggering eight sights on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  Ravenna is also considered an international center for contemporary mosaic, attracting many artists for long and short-term residencies and persuading more than a few to call this charming city home.

I find it funny that most travel guides explicitly say that this city, less than a two hour train ride from Venice, Florence and Bologna, is great for a day trip but doesn’t warrant an overnight stop.  I couldn’t disagree more.  This is the kind of city where an overnight stop can connect you more to Italian culture, local people, and day-to-day life than most others, especially once the day-tripping tourists exit in the afternoon.  You get to know people in Ravenna, begin to feel its rhythms and appreciate its epic past while being drawn to its dynamic, modern energy and graciousness.

Biking – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there are more bikes than cars in Ravenna.  In this ultra-pedestrian friendly city, everyone is on two wheels with just-back-from-market fruits and veggies spilling out of their baskets.

104Basilica di San Vitale – Seeing the outside of this magnificent 6th century Byzantine church, you have no idea what awaits inside. The complexity and harmony of the stunning wall, ceiling, and floor mosaics is almost too much to comprehend in one visit.  If you take the mosaic class a visit will be included as part of your course, but it also warrants a trip on your own (after the course is finished when you have a greater appreciation for what you are seeing.)

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – This was my favorite site for viewing mosaic art.  Its carpet-like lushness and intricate scenes almost made me weep.  It’s a must.IMG_2131

Dante’s Tomb – This one might fall under the category of “you’re here so you might as well,” but I do admit to feeling a certain calm and peacefulness inside.  If you believe in that kind of thing, you might say there was a special energy here.

Ravenna Festival – A prestigious annual event featuring classical music and opera performances in venues around the city.  From late June to late July, the city welcomes musicians and orchestras from all over the world.

Punta Marina – Located approximately 10 km from the city center, it’s a quick bus or bike ride to this lovely stretch of beach on the Adriatic.  There are campsites, cabins, and resorts stretching for miles in both directions and plenty of cute restaurants and bars along the way.

Time of Travel:  June 2013




Piadina – The piadina, basically a flat bread sandwich, is a regional specialty here.  There are as many varieties as there are piadina centric stands, popups, and restaurants around town.  Vegetarians beware, lard is a central ingredient in most.

Antica Trattoria al Gallo – On our last night in Ravenna in search of a restaurant still open at 9 p.m., we stumbled into the most magical place right outside the city center.  Its interior walls were adorned floor to ceiling with antique paintings and mirrors, the main dinner room was equally stuffed with large candelabras, antique tables, and eccentric statues. IMG_2149But, it was the stunning and eccentric back courtyard that stole the show.  It features immense modern mosaics created by the owner’s wife.  The meal was extraordinary and the service warm and engaging.  We loved this place and can’t imagine why it doesn’t appear in more recommended restaurant lists for the area.

Moog – With a city as serene as Ravenna, you don’t necessarily expect edgy nightlife, but if you search, it’s there.  This great little bar is packed every night with beautiful young locals and features live music from national as well as international artists.  As a matter of fact, the first night we were there as I was downing a local beer and looking at the band posters plastered all over the walls, I saw a poster for a hometown band, The Dead Fingers from Birmingham AL, who had just played Moog the night before.  Amazing, right?


B&B Numero25 – We enjoyed our stay in this cozy yet comfortable private room with a terrace within a IMG_2162larger
home.   The highlight was getting to know the proprietors, the brother and sister team of Giovanni and Silvia, over breakfast in the mornings and drinks out at night.  Silvia is a design professional and it shows in the artwork and décor of the house.

Works by Luciana and her students:





3 thoughts on “Practicing the Art of Mosaic in Ravenna

  1. The conventional tessera mosaic is still largely in use, mainly because of the efficient production methods of modern mosaic firms, yet the distinction between this kind of mosaic and other, mosaic-like techniques is slowly being dissolved.


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