With guest blogger Theresa Potenza
One of the most popular tours I lead within the Vatican is to an area off limits to the general public, where only Vatican City employees and church clergy are allowed.
Visitors must pass through security several times; first being checked by Italian police, then getting saluted by the illustrious Swiss Guards in their colorful stripped uniforms. Finally the Vatican City police hand over entrance badges which allow us inside the Vatican mosaic studio and gallery space.
Security is on high alert here since the studio workshop has a new next door neighbor: Pope Francis.
|Vatican mosaic artist at work
Just after the Pope was elected he made the unprecedented decision not to live in the Vatican palaces, but rather in a hospice building designed for the Cardinals’ accommodations during the papal election. It is an unassuming building compared to the rest of the Vatican complex, as is the exterior of the mosaic workshop.
The interior of the workshop instead is a wonderland where a handful of privileged craftsmen painstakingly work to create mosaic masterpieces. They spend their time chiseling color compounds and delicately applying colored marble and glass tiles onto a canvas with a putty base.
|Reproducing a famous Vatican mosaic
Next to their workspace a gallery displays the masterpieces that are for sale. There are mosaic reproductions of Impressionist paintings like Vincent Van Gough’s Sunflowers as well as religious themed Renaissance paintings such as Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. Prices for mosaic panels can cost from $6,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of the panel and the size of the mosaic tiles used.
The Vatican’s mosaic artists have been well known for centuries, making masterpieces for the Pope to bestow as gifts to foreign heads of State. The studio walls are hung with photos of popes throughout modern history presenting diplomatic gifts. We see Pope John Paul II with Fidel Castro and Pope Benedict XVI with President Obama and the First Lady and meet the artist who made the landscape scene with Christ the Redeemer that Pope Francis recently presented to the President of Brazil during World Youth Day.
Less than a dozen artists work in this studio that was founded in the 18th Century. The artists are more accurately called “painters in mosaic” and their main task is to preserve and restore the 10,000 square meters of mosaics that decorate the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. They also craft mosaic portraits that make up the Chronological Series of Popes located inside the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
After watching the artists burn, smolder, chisel, and polish tiles (tessere )from the vast array of 26,000 different colored tiles, one of the craftsmen, wearing a long white tunic, escorts us through a back door to visit the Basilica. Here inside St. Peter’s we are able to admire their creations on site, for the 11 huge interior domes and all the 45 altar pieces are works created by Vatican’s mosaicists over the centuries.