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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Emilia Romagna tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.