Mosaic man

The Italian city of Ravenna is famous for its mosaics but one young artist is taking the ancient artform and giving it a modern touch!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy

Luca Barberini places the small piece of marble into place carefully but with the ease of an experienced artist. He reaches for another as he chats with me, the motions as natural as breathing.

Centuries have passed since the first mosaic makers of Ravenna but the tradition lives on – right now, through Luca. Although the original artists might be a bit shocked at exactly what he’s doing.

“It’s possible to work with an ancient technique, an ancient language, for contemporary art,” he explains.

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini
ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

Here in Ravenna, a small Italian city in the Emilia Romagna region, the mosaic artworks are more than just a tourist attraction. They are at the heart of the history and identity of the community.

The oldest works, which were installed more than 1500 years ago, adorn the interiors of Ravenna’s churches and historic buildings.

“We have maybe the best monuments in the world where you can find the ancient mosaics,” Luca rightfully boasts.

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

It’s not these artworks that Luca is most proud of, though. He is part of the new generation that is using the same techniques with a modern style – fusing tradition with current taste.

“The ancients used the mosaics like a book,” he explains. “So if you go in a church you can see a figure – for example Christ – and you can learn the story like a cartoon.”

“So for the modern they don’t want to use the figurative things so it’s more like…” he pauses to try to think of an example I might understand, “…Pollock, Jackson Pollock.”

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

Modern mosaic art

Luca works out of his own studio in Ravenna called Koko Mosaico. At the moment he’s in the middle of one of the more abstract contemporary pieces he was just referring to.

Look closely and it seems like he’s randomly placing different sized and coloured pieces. Step back and a crowd of people appears from his work, each figure with their own characteristics.

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

He’s using marble for some pieces, glass for others. The glass is made especially for mosaic art in an ancient oven in Venice.

It’s the same way they made the glass two thousand years ago. Some things in this industry need never change, it seems.

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

For Luca, other than the style of his art, it is essentially the same process. He does only one thing differently.

Rather than cutting all his pieces of marble and glass before he starts to make the mosaic, he does it as he goes. It goes against everything the methodical ancients believed in… but boys will be boys!

“It’s casual,” is how Luca puts it.

“I want to work in that way without rules, spontaneously.”

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

Ravenna mosaic art

The art of Ravenna is in the blood of its children. Luca started studying at the art institute of mosaics when he was fourteen and was there for five years. Interestingly, though, he says it was only about five years ago – when he was 25 – that he was able to really express himself creatively.

“I understand just five or six years ago how I explain my personal art in a language – the language is mosaics.”

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

The style of art is world-famous. To the point where the tourists who come to Ravenna come mainly for the art, where Hollywood celebrities have asked Luca to make artworks for them, and a mosque in Oman has commissioned him and his team to make a 600 square metre mosaic for its design.

ravenna mosaics, mosaic art, koko mosaico, luca barberini

I wonder what the artists of Ravenna in the fifth century would make of all of this?

Would they be more surprised that their descendants are decorating a mosque in the Middle East or finding inspiration for their work in Jackson Pollock?

Maybe they wouldn’t mind at all. Maybe they would just be proud that the tradition of Ravenna, the legend of the mosaics, lives on.

If you’re visiting Ravenna yourself, I would highly recommend you learn a bit more about the mosaics. You can do that with a guided art tour.


And, of course, you can visit Luca’s studio yourself.


You will find lots of good Ravenna accommodation in the streets between the train station and the main historic sights in the historic centre.


There aren’t really any hostels in Ravenna, but you’ll get a great price at B&B Sole.


For a comfortable and affordable room right near the train station, I would suggest Hotel Ravenna.


With wonderful style in a historic building, I think you’ll love the atmosphere at Le Case Di San Vitale.


And you’ll find excellent modern luxury at the Palazzo Bezzi Hotel in the city centre.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Emilia Romagna tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

14 thoughts on “Mosaic man”

  1. That is really cool. I’ve been to Bologna a number of times and a few other places in the area as well, but not yet Ravenna. I have heard about the beautiful art there though. Thanks for sharing that art with us. I quite like the crowd of people.

    Not anywhere near the same scale, but Freiburg old town has mosaics too. All modern and much bigger pieces,but outside a lot of the businesses are meter wide mosaics of what the business does.

  2. This guy’s work is pretty incredible! I’m not much of an artist– can’t draw, paint or sculpt very well– but I’ve always enjoyed working with Italian mosaic tile and have created some nice picture frames and jewelry boxes. His stuff definitely takes the artform to the next level.

  3. Wonderful interview with one of my favorite contemporary mosaic artists. His work is always an engaging combination of classical techniques, artistic vision and a delightfully whimsical, human sense of humor. He was named Best in Show and was one of only eight artists selected from a field of several hundred for Mosaic Art NOW’s Exhibition in Print 2010. Your article shows why! Here is a link to more on Luca

    • Thanks for all that extra info, Nancie. You’re right about the sense of humour in his work. You don’t normally think of mosaics being ‘whimsical’ but he’s managed to bring a sense of fun to a lot of the work.

  4. I love tile mosaic art. There used to be a shop in downtown Columbus that offered an open class/ art workspace once a week. I was a regular, and lots of my friends and family were forced to display the artwork I gave them as gifts 🙂

    • What lovely patient friends and family you must have! :p
      It is a beautiful art form, though. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated it properly before but I have a newfound admiration for the mosaic!

  5. beautiful post! I know for some time luca barberini: he is brilliant as a man and as an artist! This article captures well his essence, his smile which means positivity, energy, life and artistic creativity.
    good life for both! luca maggio


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