My 2017 Salviati Journey

This year I have spent some time researching 19th century mosaics made by Salviati of Venice. I have visited churches all over the North West of England and Wales to view mosaics. In 2018 I hope to visit churches in other parts of the country.

This is an article I wrote recently:

Antonio Salviati and the 19th Century Revival of Venetian Mosaics

“Thus, although many years of my life were devoted to far different pursuits, I could not resist the temptation to endeavour to be of use to my native land…. by bringing about in Venice itself the revival of the Mosaic art.” Salviati, 1865

By the mid-19th century, following years of occupation, Venice was in a state of serious decay, her historic buildings crumbling. The 12th and 13th century mosaics in San Marco were literally falling from the walls and fragments were being deliberately detached and sold to wealthy tourists as souvenirs.

Antonio Salviati (1816 – 1890), a lawyer from Vicenza, became fascinated by Venice and decided to move there in 1851. The Venetians were determined to rebuild their economy by reviving those industries that had been sources of great wealth and pride in the past, particularly mosaic-making and glass-blowing. Having travelled to Rome to visit the Vatican’s thriving mosaic workshop, Salviati left the legal profession at the age of 43 and devoted himself to launching a business concerned with all aspects of mosaic manufacture. A furnace was established on the island of Murano to produce the smalti (enamel tesserae used in mosaic) and a workshop/showroom was set up in the Palazzo Barbarigo on the Grand Canal. Salviati traced the descendants of the old master glassmakers and engaged Lorenzo Radi to develop the production of smalti. Radi, descended from a long line of Venetian glassmakers, was able to produce smalti in a vast range of colours, of excellent quality and at a relatively low cost.

Historically, mosaics were produced in situ with the smalti being set into wet cement one piece at a time - it was a time-consuming and expensive process. Salviati developed a form of prefabrication whereby the mosaic was made in Venice before being shipped to the site and installed. A full-size cartoon of the design would be drawn by an artist (or one of Salviati’s in-house designers) The cartoon would be transferred onto heavy paper which was then cut into numbered sections, measuring approximately two feet square. These sections would be worked on simultaneously by Salviati’s mosaicists, speeding up the process considerably and thereby reducing the cost. The tesserae were reverse-glued to the paper and covered with a thin layer of cement to stabilise them. Once delivered to the site, each section was cemented in place and, once the cement had hardened, the paper was carefully removed, revealing the finished mosaic.

The price of each mosaic was not determined by its size but the quality of its tesserae. Mosaics that were intended for close viewing were made of smaller, more intricately shaped and set tesserae which increased the cost. These mosaics employed a larger range of tones to describe their subject, also increasing the cost. The most expensive mosaics were those that included figures and/or architectural elements, and those containing a high quantity of the most expensive smalti – red, purple, gold and silver.

Salviati was extremely successful in reviving the Venetian mosaic industry. There are examples all over the world and a particular concentration in the United Kingdom. Because they were economical to produce, these mosaics can be found in parish churches as well as cathedrals and other major public buildings. There are Salviati mosaics in Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster and the Albert Memorial.

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