Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Visit to the Vatican Mosaic Workshop

Theresa (far left)  and group in the Vatican Mosaic Workshop
                         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.

 Theresa Potenza is an art historian and tour guide in Rome. For more information  see her website: 

More stories about the Vatican  here and here 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Admiring the work of all these talented people is a real pleasure.

  3. This is an awesome tour to view exquisite art.
    Very lovely to behold the skill, talent and patience required by these gifted artists. I am very grateful to have visited this workshop - memories for a lifetime!

  4. is there such a thing as the closely guarded recipe of the pope's mosaic putty?