Renzo Scarpelli is one of only a few mosaic artists specializing in “commesso fiorento” or Florentine mosaic. He started learning how to make the semiprecious stone mosaics at the tender age of 13, at one of Florence’s oldest workshops.
The first recorded piece of commesso fiorento was in the late 14th century, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it gained popularity through the Medici family. First, the second grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco I, commissioned Italian mannerist painters to make commesso, or “pittura di pietra,” paintings in stone. Then in 1588, Ferdinand I, the third grand duke of Tuscany, opened the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (hard stone workshop), which was purely for commesso work.
In the 17th century, most of the mosaic produced at the workshop was for the Medici funeral chapel at the church of San Lorenzo. Florentine artists were employed in courts across Europe as commesso gained popularity in the 18th century.
The Opificio delle Pietre Dure still exists in Florence, although since the mid-19th century, its work has turned to art conservation. The workshop made commesso into the 1920s.
Making Stone Mosaics
The making of the stone mosaics requires skill and painstaking patience. Making hardstone mosaic back in the Medici workshops consisted of many skilled artists and artisans working together. Careful consideration was required at each stage, for each artisan or artist needed to consider his own role with an eye on the overall composition.
Drawings were composed by the artist, and then specialized “stone seekers” began searching specific locations for the right raw materials. Another expert color-matched the stones to the sketch, a job still known as “macchiatura,” or coloring. A stonecutter would then select the correct hues to allow for a harmonious hardstone picture.
In Scarpelli’s workshop, similar steps take place. He searches the same locations for the semiprecious stones, cuts from the same rocks, and slices the stones into tiny veneers just as the Renaissance artisans would have done, with a bow saw made from wire and a bent branch of chestnut or cherry wood.
Each sliver of rock reflects the colors of the landscapes they are cut from. For example, from the Florentine hills, granite is collected from the town of Impruneta, and quartz from Chianti. Gray and green stones are collected from the valleys of the Arno River. Other semiprecious stones used include chalcedony, jasper, and petrified wood. Some of the stones are imported into the workshop because their rich tones are not seen in the local Tuscan landscape, such as the intense blue of lapis lazuli or the deep green of malachite.
A few steps in the commesso process have been enhanced with technology, such as using diamond-coated tools, using silicon carbide in the wire-cutting process, and using glue for fixing the slate backing to the overall composition.
Although time and technology advances, what remains the same is the time it takes to learn this old art, as well as Scarpelli’s dedication to upholding this tradition. As one of only a few left in this trade, he is determined to teach the centuries-old art of commesso fiorento to younger generations, whom he believes are the future of this very Florentine tradition.
Renzo Scarpelli is not the only Scarpelli preserving this tradition; many of his family members have a soft spot for Florentine hardstone mosaic. Scarpelli’s son Leonardo has been painting with stones for over 10 years. Scarpelli’s eldest daughter, Catia, runs the business. And, Scarpelli’s wife, Gabriella, makes jewelry from stones and also helps with sales. The Scarpellis can be found in their commesso fiorento workshop on the site of a 13th-century stable in the heart of Florence.