Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The Vatican manufactory




From the opposite side of the Piazza, the Vatican is not unlikely to suggest the idea of a huge carpet manufactory, built by some rich but disaffected parishioner, to damage the effect of the façade of the adjoining basilica, by the unseemly protrusion of its own contrasting utilitarianism. To be sure, when you approach the staircases and become aware that the parti-coloured object which caught your eye a little way off is a live “Svizzero” on duty, with a real shining halberd, and having near him perhaps one of the unique tamburini of the corps, the suspicion about the carpets or the looms begins to be dispelled. Yet it may so happen that the visitor has the particular object of seeing what is being made in the old palace, rather than, for the nonce, those far-famed treasures of ancient art, which have found their way ready-made into its galleries. He may become painfully aware, as he passes up-stairs along the corridors, once glowing with matchless arabesques upon their roofs, that many an artist and workman is required to bring out their faded glories, or make “a clean job” of sundry places where the plaster has fallen off, and denuded entirely those skeleton laths which nobody particularly wants to see. But when he reaches what is by the irreversible text of “Murray” pronounced a “manufactory,” he will find beehive activity exerted in producing some of the most lasting, and withal most delicate and beautiful, works possible. We allude to the Mosaics, which, although they are brought to their perfection under “professors” and in a “studio,” are still included under the generic term of Musive Work, and belong to a class of structural decorations which have ranged from the vast cupola of St. Peter’s down to the “Cave Canem” of Pompeii, and the non-structural brooches and ornaments which form such attractive objects in the shop windows of the Via Condotti. Whatever may be said of the Popes in the position they have assumed ecclesiastically, spiritually or politically, it is unreasonable to refuse them the fullest credit for having consistently done their very best to foster the pursuit of excellence in the art now so successfully practised in the “studio.” A love for Mosaics has been traditional with them since the days of early Christianity, when it was often handed down as something exemplary in the lives of many of the Bishops of Rome, that they set up or restored that kind of “image.”

Furietti has shown, by a long list of results, that although the old Empress of the World was not the inventress of the process of imitating and immortalising pictures, yet that she continued under more or less favourable circumstances to work at the sort of thing longer than any other city.

Antiquarians generally begin with the description in the Book of Esther of the “pavement of red and blue and white and black marble,” as affording evidence of an advanced state of that sort of inlaid work in Persia, whence they suppose he taste to have spread into Assyria and Greece. Mosaics a century older than the Christian era were known to writers two hundred years afterwards as still existing in a temple near Rome, at what is now called Palestrina, but was the classical Præneste. If the famous Barberini Mosaic from that place really represents, as is said, the visit of the Emperor Hadrian to Egypt, it shows that temples received a large share of what became almost a “rage” under the patronage of the Cæsars. It was some time before the style of ornament rose in the world from floors to spaces nearer the eye or above it, and Furietti is obliged to contend stoutly against the opinion of some writers that while “pavement” work was properly called “lithostrotum,” or “asaroton,” pictures or representations on walls and coved ceilings alone deserved the name of “Musive,” a word which looks like a clumsy adaptation of a Greek derivation by the Latins, as a welcome exchange for the other longer ones. However this may be, the art of adorning the “camaræ” or other curved spaces with a variegated tesselation of marble or glass, which had been adopted in the imperial times of the old Rome of the Tiber, was carried out to greater perfection and magnificence at the new Rome of the Hellespont. Greeks were required in the Middle Ages to execute those unrivalled works of their kind which may still be admired at Ravenna, Venice, and Milan. It was perhaps chiefly owing to her political and social miseries and complications, that Italy lost ground in the rivalry; but she did not give up the race, and now may be said to have it almost to herself. So long as choice pieces of rich and rare marbles formed the chief materials for mosaics, she stood at great disadvantage, owing to the necessity of procuring them, if at all, from distant countries; and it is almost bewildering to read of the various quarries here and there in the world which could alone be depended upon to afford the right tint in their products. Now the case is altered, for marbles are seldom used for the finer kinds of work, and everything is done by means of enamels, and of these the repertory at the Vatican is computed to contain no less than 17,000, the value of which is set roundly at 100,000 crowns. It appears that really good enamels have hardly been known for more than about a hundred years, during which their use has been much interrupted by political catastrophes, and, in fact, if present circumstances bear their legitimate fruits, we may only have now to begin our admiration of the exquisite solid pictures which may come from the “manufactory,” or, we beg its pardon, the “studio.” The present Pope has more than followed the example of his predecessors in extending to it his patronage, and he has taken advantage of the needed restoration of the vast basilica of S. Paolo fuori le Mure, to have substitutes for the mosaic portraits of the Popes, which were destroyed there at the fire, made forthwith in the Vatican. His brief to that effect was dated in 1847, and already a number of very striking pictures, if not rigid likenesses, are deposited on the shelves, and others are in hand.

It was a happy thought of Pope Sixtus V. to identify with his residence a school for this valuable and ancient art, and his object has been carried out with laudable perseverance under considerable difficulties, for the establishment has sometimes needed to be removed bodily out of doors, or to be shifted from place to place amongst the 4000 and odd rooms of the immense palace of the “Servus Servorum.” It has been in the “Foundry,” it has been in the chamber of the Inquisition, but it is now, we will hope, quite settled in a noble room, well lighted and fitted with every convenience. Judging from the ease and rapidity with which the little pieces of enamel are inserted and cemented, it might be supposed that mosaic work was not so very protracted after all, and perhaps it is so chiefly in special pieces. Those who wish to notice carefully the process, will find themselves courteously welcomed to do so, by the different grades of “professor” in the art that may chance to be at work, and, before they leave, it is very likely they will be shown a finished specimen of Raphael’s Mad. della Seggiola, or some other popular favourite, and hardly know the enamel from the canvas copy. The small mosaics in the shops, of which some are so pretty, and of which all the good ones are so expensive, seem only to have become common articles of manufacture within recent times. They must have been always suggesting themselves, at least since the discovery of that sweet piece of old “vermiculated” work at Hadrian’s villa, that is now called “Pliny’s doves,” and, strange to say, is darkly shelved in the Museum of the Capitol, while its Pergamean history and its real beauty deserve for it a glass-case in the best room of the Vatican.