In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mosaics in Italy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Studies
  • Technique and Conservation
  • Iconography and Theological Concepts of the Image
  • Narrative and Program
  • Ritual and Sacred Space
  • Gender
  • Materiality and the Spectator, Vision and the Senses
  • Albenga
  • Florence and Central Italy
  • Milan
  • Naples
  • Parenzo (Poreč, Historically Part of Italy, Now Croatia)

Medieval Studies Mosaics in Italy
Thomas E. A. Dale, Daniel C. Cochran
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0206


Mosaic, a medium comprising natural stone and/or glass and pasta vitrea (glass paste) tesserae or cubes set into mortar, is among the most durable and prestigious art forms of medieval Italy. According to Pliny the art of setting mosaic pavements reached Italy “in the time of Sulla” (c. 85 BCE), but the use of mosaic to adorn walls, arches, and vaults—the primary focus of this article—was still a “recent invention” at the time Pliny was writing (77–79 CE). Used most commonly for garden niches (e.g., Pompeii), mural and vault mosaics became much more common in the early 4th century, serving as the medium of choice for narrative and iconic imagery on walls and vaulting of Christian churches, often highlighting the sacred space of the sanctuary apse. The earliest Christian mosaics are found on the vaults of funerary spaces in Rome and in the pavements of the double cathedral complex at Aquileia, northeast of Venice, made in the first decades of the 4th century. Initially associated with imperial patronage, mosaic came to be the preferred medium for papal and episcopal commissions in Rome and Ravenna, and later for royal, ducal, and civic commissions in Florence, Venice, and Norman Sicily. Mosaic continued to enjoy great prestige as a medium in Florence, Rome, and Venice until the 15th century, but the development of illusionistic effects in fresco led to the gradual eclipse of the medium. This article begins with a series of thematic sections, including foundational studies, technical studies, and surveys, and a selection of distinct interpretive approaches, and then turns to the principal sites of mosaic decoration in Italy arranged by city and region. Mosaic pavements are treated in a separate section at the end.

General Overviews

Mural mosaics tend to be studied either as individual monuments or as a medium found within a single city or region, but they also figure prominently in surveys of early Christian and medieval art. Considerations of style have stressed the modifications of the prevailing Greco-Roman illusionism (“Hellenism”) toward greater abstraction by late antique and medieval mosaicists and period “revivals” of a classicizing style. Kitzinger 1977 attributes the transformation of the “Hellenic” standard in the late antique/early Christian period primarily to the “sub-antique” or “oriental styles” of the eastern Mediterranean; while Kitzinger 1977, Krautheimer 1980 (cited under Rome), and Lowden 1997 connect periodic revivals to imperial and papal ideologies based in Rome itself. Iconographic studies—Grabar 1969 and that of Deckers in Spier 2007 (cited under Iconography and Theological Concepts of the Image)—focus more on aspects of continuity with Roman religious and imperial art forms. Another historiographic focus, exemplified in Demus 1970 and Kitzinger 1960 (cited under Monreale Cathedral), is the role of Byzantium, first as a direct source of materials and craftsmen immediately before and after the Byzantine conquest of the peninsula in the 540s, again in the 11th century via Monte Cassino—where Byzantine craftsmen were imported to rebuild the abbey under Desiderius—and, finally, in a series of “waves” of “influence” during the Comnenian dynasty of the 12th century, manifested in the mosaics of Norman Sicily and of Venice and the upper Adriatic region. Demus 1993 also suggests that the hierarchical disposition of images in space, developed in Middle Byzantine mosaic decoration, was adapted to local architectural contexts and ideological needs in Italian churches in Venice and Norman Sicily. A more recent study, Tronzo 1997 (cited under Cappella Palatina, Palermo) has questioned the idea of stylistic “influence,” preferring to see intentional processes of appropriation and modification. Considerable attention has also been given to the history of technique and restoration of mosaics in order to understand changes over time and provide more accurate dating criteria, and this is reflected in introductory overviews of mosaic art in Bertelli 1989 and Poeschke 2010. Later 20th-century iconographic studies have shifted emphasis from tracing sources to discerning programmatic narratives in relation to biblical exegesis and theology, institutional politics and ritual functions, and gender. Mathews 1993 offers a significant critique of the focus on imperial origins of Christian iconography, shifting attention to Christian adaptation of Roman religious iconography. The author applies this theory to the apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana in Rome and to the processions of crown-bearing apostles and saints in the mosaics of the Ravenna baptisteries and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. A recent collection of essays, Jefferson and Jensen 2015, investigates the implications of Mathews’s critique, articulating with more nuance the various ways early Christian art adopted, adapted, and subverted Roman imperial, religious, and secular imagery. Since the 1990s, scholarship has shifted emphasis again to focus on phenomenological aspects, materiality, and the senses.

  • Bertelli, Carlo, ed. Mosaics. Translated by Paul Foulkes and Sara Harris. New York: Gallery Books, 1989.

    A well-illustrated survey of the mosaic art from the 8th century BCE to the 20th century, including significant essays on early Christian and medieval mosaics in Italy by Xavier Barral I Altet and Per Jonas Nordhagen.

  • Demus, Otto. Byzantine Art and the West. Wrightsman Lectures. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

    A series of lectures focusing on the influence of Byzantine art and culture on western Europe before the Renaissance, placing particular emphasis on painting and mosaics in Italy as reflections of “waves” of stylistic and iconographic influence.

  • Demus, Otto. Byzantine Mosaic Decoration: Aspects of Monumental Art in Byzantium. Rpt. New Rochelle, NY: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1993.

    First published in 1948, this monograph conceptualizes the form and content of mosaic decoration within Middle Byzantine churches as a “classical system,” proposing a specific hierarchy of images within architectural space that is adapted to western European settings, including San Marco in Venice, Monreale Cathedral, Cefalù Cathedral, and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo.

  • Grabar, André. Early Christian Art: From the Rise of Christianity to the Death of Theodosius. Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York: Odyssey, 1969.

    A still valuable survey of early Christian art offering a general overview of the subject followed by two sections that address the development of Christian art before and after Constantine. Grabar’s emphasis on the influence of Roman imperial art, especially in mosaics of Rome and Ravenna, has been challenged in recent years (e.g., Mathews 1993).

  • Jefferson, M. Lee, and Robin M. Jensen, eds. The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015.

    A new collection of nine essays that extend and at times critique the exploration of the imperial influence on early Christian art in Mathews 1993. Lee Jefferson’s study of the apsidal mosaics of Santa Costanza in Rome argues that the traditio legis motif subverts rather than supports imperial authority, while Jennifer Awes Freeman’s essay arrives at a similar conclusion by connecting images of the Good Shepherd with apsidal mosaics of Christ enthroned.

  • Kitzinger, Ernst. Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art, 3rd–7th Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

    A masterful history of stylistic change in Mediterranean art of Late Antiquity, which devotes considerable attention to the wall mosaics of Ravenna and Rome and historical motivations for shifts from classicism to relative abstraction.

  • Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

    A lively, thoroughly illustrated, introductory survey text including extensive consideration of early Christian and medieval mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, Norman Sicily, and Venice, ideal as an introductory undergraduate text.

  • Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    An excellent synthesis, appropriate for advanced undergraduates; Mathews critiques the “emperor mystique,” which he associates with scholarship that assumes Christian art adopted imperial iconography after the reign of Constantine.

  • Poeschke, Joachim. Italian Mosaics, 300–1300. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Abbeville, 2010.

    Poeshke provides a comprehensive overview of early Christian and medieval mosaics in Italy. The volume is organized by individual sites, and each is described in detail, situated in its historical context, and illuminated with beautiful colored photographs. While a useful introduction, the commentary on each site omits scholarly debates over interpretation.

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