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A Conversation with Rugo Stone Mosaic Artist Matteo Randi

Interview by Erin Fierst

Matteo, Rugo Stone is one of the few active and expert mosaic studios. Can you speak to why that’s so important?

Our studio is one of a kind – I don’t know any other company in the United States who can offer all the services we do. In Italy, where I’m from, it’s very unusual to find a shop where people are working together in all these different ways. There, you’d have a sculpture shop, a mosaic shop, and a marble factory, all working independently. So our studio is keeping these traditional arts alive, which is important to us. And for our clients, having all these disciplines in one house provides a seamless experience for large-scale or complex projects. 

In our humble way, I believe that our company and our clients are keeping history fresh and relevant for new audiences, and writing new chapters for the future, too.

Can you tell me about the kind of mosaics that Rugo Stone produces?

We produce every kind of mosaic, with most of our projects related to liturgical art. It’s a field where the light and the beauty of the mosaic enhances the architecture and stonework.

For the mosaics themselves, the choice of materials is dictated by the final location of the mosaic. Stone mosaics are often used to decorate the floor, while glass tiles are used for wall art.

What’s unique about the design and creation of new fine art mosaics? 

Each individual piece is cut by hand, and your chosen mosaic artist uses their vision to reveal the concept, and the color and nature of the glass or stone, within a given environment. 

And what’s special about the conservation of fine art mosaics? 

I was lucky to be born in the right place at the right time to study mosaic in all its aspects, from classical to contemporary. That also includes mosaic conservation. Conservation is a discipline, not a creative art form. This work demands that we understand the technology of the materials. We need to know the chemistry–the nature of the stone or how the glass was made. 

How did you first learn how to create and conserve mosaic art?

I grew up in Ravenna, Italy, where the history of art and mosaic are always present and part of life. When I was nine years old, a teacher in elementary school showed us how to make a mosaic. I got interested and I never stopped. I’m still curious and fascinated, and I’m still learning. I studied in different schools for mosaic for eleven years, and I was lucky to have great teachers who shared with me what other people had shared with them, and also what they learned by themselves. After thirty centuries of tradition, this art form still has a lot to say.

What makes a good mosaic artist?

You have to be humble. You have to have respect for the materials, the tradition, and the discipline. And you need to have creativity. Because everybody makes mistakes, you need to know how to adjust to those mistakes, to convey whatever message that the mosaic is trying to communicate. The mosaic has its own voice and its own poetry. The artist wants to let the mosaic speak.

How has the art of mosaic changed over the course of history?

For the Roman and the Greeks, mosaics had a practical purpose–it was practical to have a solid floor to work on, instead of dirt. For the Byzantines, it was the media. In ancient Byzantine times, in the churches of Ravenna, the mosaics on the walls and domes told the story. It’s like TV today–a presentation of what people believed. 

It’s also important to understand how and why they were made, and why they chose some materials versus others.

For example, I used to teach, and we always discussed the gold background that most Byzantine mosaics have. In the fourth to the sixth century, all light was provided from candles or from oil lamps. Imagine sitting inside a church with a dome or a wall in gold. Then, the mosaic is there,  amplifying the light. The candlelight gets reflected and refracted in a million different ways, like a warm wave that animates the image. Viewed this way, it gives you goosebumps.

Are there specific mosaics in your hometown that mean something special to you?

If I have to choose one, I will say the Basilica of San Vitale, followed by the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. Every time I go back to Italy, I visit them.

What does a person need to understand to really appreciate fine art mosaic?

in front of a mosaic, like in front of any artwork–a sculpture, a painting, music, poetry–you have to try to experience what you’re seeing with all your senses. It’s a visual form, but mosaic creates a beautiful rhythm that’s like music. And the whole experience tells you more than just what you see in the image. 

Which Rugo Stone mosaic project has been the most rewarding for you?

One of the most prestigious and rewarding mosaic projects we accomplished was for the conservation of the reredos altar in Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City. It was designed by architect Frederic Clark Withers and erected from 1876 to 1877 in memory of William Backhouse Astor. 

This project included the conservation of five historic glass end gold mosaics panels from the Venetian School, though to have been designed by Antonio Salviati. One of them was very unique, with hand-carved cameos included in the mosaic composition. 

The project also included the creation of three new mosaic panels, to complete the reredos where the altar was set. To match colors, style, and texture to preexisting mosaics, it took significant research, engineering, conservation, testing of materials, and some innovation to replicate ancient glass manufactured in 1860, which is no longer produced.

Last question. What is it like installing a mural mosaic on a large ceiling?

The installation of a wall or ceiling mosaic is one of the most complex skill sets in the masonry trades. Large-scale mosaics are usually created in-studio on paper using the indirect technique, with the mosaic panels divided into sections and reassembled on the field.

The preparation of the surface to receive the mosaic is another very important consideration.  The preparation of the substrate is critical, especially in curved domes, where the surface must be placed at the proper depth and curvature for the mosaic to be installed as designed. The surface must also be sound, hard, and resistant to rehydration.

The selection of different types and colors of mortar (one bonds to the wall and another bonds to the back of the mosaic tesserae) is based on the way they work together and in the environment, keeping in mind that the color of the mortar will show between the tesserae of our mosaic. Our studio  is able to formulate different mortar mixes based on temperature, humidity, and working time. 

The selection of different types and colors of mortar (one bonds to the wall and another bonds to the back of the mosaic tesserae) is based on the way they work together and in the environment, keeping in mind that the color of the mortar will show between the tesserae of our mosaic. Our studio  is able to formulate different mortar mixes based on temperature, humidity, and working time. 

The final setting of the mosaic sections on a wall requires a combination of physical exertion and mental concentration as you continuously monitor what’s been done, the part you’re setting, and the next section coming. During the installation, we’re taking in every small detail and the whole picture–the seams between sections, the setting stage of the mortar, and the overall proportions. A good mosaic setter reads mosaic fluently, constantly making tiny adjustments to blend with the rest of the texture.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Erin Fierst

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