Cosmati Mosaics: Recycled Art

In the 12th and the 13th century, an Italian family business elevated recycling to an art form. Named for Cosmas, the founding father of the enterprise, they are collectively known as the Cosmati. Using ancient art buried in the rubble of Rome, they created outstanding works of art. 




The size of the city of Rome was an indicator to its importance in the world at any given time. During its heydays, it had the size appropriate for the most important city in Europe and maybe the world. When Rome lost its status as a power center to Constantinople and Ravenna respectively, people and businesses moved out and things started to crumble. By the 12th century, rubble from the Roman metropolis was widely used as building material for the provincial little town Rome had become. 


The Cosmati family specialized in collecting rare materials such as marble in various colors, red and green porphyry, pink granite and any other colored stones. Cutting and polishing these finds, they set them in intricately designed patterned decorations and mosaics into columns, floors, altars, memorials, and permanently installed church furniture. 


Taking their inspiration from Byzantine art as well as from Islamic art, they developed abstract patterns to adorn flat and curved surfaces. The work of laying flat surfaces was much easier than in the more elaborate mosaic style favored by Byzantine artists on curved surfaces. True mastery of the art is therefore shown in the smaller artworks on columns and in cupolas rather than in the design of a floor or a flat wall. 


The earliest piece attributable to a member of the family dates to 1190 and may be found in a church near Fabieri in Italy. Individually attributable works of art for members of the Cosmati family continue from there on for a hundred years in and around Rome. The art form is mainly restricted to ecclesiastical buildings as its pricing was a matter for state budget rather than private sponsorship. The business floundered after the Pope was kidnapped by the French and made prisoner at Avignon in 1305. While the French held the papacy to ransom for a hundred years, Rome played Sleeping Beauty and the Cosmati family lost its livelihood. 


The name of Cosmati Art was first coined by Italian historian Della Valle in 1791. He found a document pertinent to the building of the cathedral in Orvieto which mentioned Giacomo di Cosmate Romano by name as the artisan doing the inlay work in the building. Assuming that all the known artwork of the same style was executed by members of the same family of artisans, he coined the term Cosmati art. 


Later historians found over 50 artists doing this kind of work; they were members of seven families of artisans in the trade. The term for the artwork was re-coined to Cosmatesque Art to cover all the artists, while Cosmati Art now only refers to works securely attributed to members of the Cosmati family. It has to be stated that it does not mean by far that ancestral Cosmas was really the inventor of the art form.


The use of different stones in floors over time led to uneven floors as harder stones would be virtually unaffected by wear and tear while softer ones would wear out and form tripping holes. The floors had to be repaired often since then and were often disfigured by the rank amateurs who did the repair work. Don’t judge the master artists on how their floors look after centuries of dragging feet. Judge them instead on the work they left behind on columns and walls.