“How many tiles do you think they used?” My client was looking up at the golden dome of St Mark’s church in Venice. The mosaics were glittering at their best, shining with all their faceted surface covering over 8,500 square meters. I looked at him, some sacred music was accompanying those words that left me jaw dropping. For different reasons we were both silent and after a few seconds I replied: “I don’t know, but I can tell you what it’s like to make mosaics tiles!” 🙂
I forgot when I first visited the mosaics factory founded by Angelo Orsoni in Cannaregio in 1888.
But I distinctly remember the color library that welcomed me as a rainbow temple. Thousands of glass plates leaning on shelves, nuances in contrast, nuances in similar shades, one next to the other. For the ones loving precision, 2,800 colors. Matt as well as shiny glass plates. All to be cut in small tiles to be shipped all over the world or just next door, for the restorers of the ancient St Mark’s church, once the private chapel of the Venetian Doge, the State Basilica.
Isn’t it fascinating? This factory employing 17 people is the only one that has preserved the ability to make the tiles to restore St Mark’s church mosaics. All by hand. Including the gold ones.
How do you make them?
First, the gold leaf. Gold has to be beaten till it gets in a leaf. As thin as 0,15 micron. You need 20 grams to cover a six square meter surface. Nowadays.
Second, you make what one calls “cartellina”, the folder: you create a bubble in very thin glass and you break it into square glass foils.
Third, you apply the gold leaf over the “cartellina” either using steam or egg white or a borax solution.
Fourth, you pour glass over the gold leaf so to create a sandwich, around 10 mm thick.
And then you eventually cut the sandwich into small tiles. Some 5 mm per side.
You can then play with the carats and with the color of the “cartellina” so to get a wide palette with all the hues you need. At the moment the Orsoni factories uses 10 different metal foils (with different gold carats) and 15 different colors for the “cartellina”.
Ms Liana has worked for Orsoni for very long and she tells that after the company passed to the Bisazza Trend Group in 2003 nothing has really changed, but for the visibility that has definitely risen. Their company has also decided to open a school to learn how to make mosaics. There come to this Venetian place of colorful wonders people from Australia, Northern Europe, America to attend their workshops. The school is next to the furnace and next to the laboratory where the ladies make the tiles and has a view over a beautiful garden, quite a joy in Venice. It’s very important the students are in contact with the real factory, Liana points out.
She shows me then the portrait of Angelo Orsoni. He moved the company to where it still is in 1903. Cannaregio at that time was a district where the charcoal for the furnaces could be easily transported to, so many factories were producing the mosaics tiles here. The industry, after almost a century of scarce activity, had been revived by Lorenzo Radi from Murano and the lawyer Antonio Salviati. But it was thanks to Angelo Orsoni that major innovations where introduced. One year after founding his company he prepared a wonderful brand object to bring to the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, next to the newly inaugurated Eiffel Tower: his panel with 1,467 colors, gold and silver thrilled the audience. While everyone searched for modernity, Angelo offered his tiles echoing the byzantine love for gold and colors which Venetians share in their genes.
Coming from Constantinople, the Greek byzantine masters started in the 11th century that amazing work that would eventually continue over eight centuries for us to admire. The Golden Basilica in Venice, a shrine for the holy relics of the Evangelist St Mark, was described by Wladimiro Dorigo as a mirror of the incontinence of gold of the Venetian mercantile empire. But when admiring the mosaics, it’s hard to tell where the border between wealth and heaven runs. As we know that behind all this golden light there lies the imperfection of tiles of colors, made one by one, by hand.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy