I love being astonished by new things, and that happened on my latest trip to Venice. I visited Antichità al Ghetto, the antique store run by Maria Gabriella Emiliani and her parents. Maria Gabriella authored a chapter for Venice Rising about watching from her Venice apartment window as the 2019 floodwaters rose, and as the campo emptied out during the 2020 lockdown. It’s a reflective and touching story.
But today I want to tell you about my surprise when I visited her shop and finally met Maria Gabriella. I was initially attracted to the miracoli–hammered metal depictions of body parts that people hang in churches in gratitude for prayers answered or for importuning the saints for help. Then I had to look at all the menorahs and crosses, the paintings and etchings, mirrors, fans, jewelry, and books, until I spotted a miniature gondola that I pined for.
But the centerpiece and specialty of the store is its micro mosaics: tiny pieces of jewelry, boxes, mirrors and more that feature really tiny pictures created with really tiny glass tiles. These were all Italian-made, with closely guarded secret techniques.
Here’s what Maria Gabriella shared about these lovely pieces of art:
“Our micro mosaics are definitely Italian, either from Rome, where this technique was first invented, and from Venice where it was further developed alongside Rome.
I am not aware of antique micro mosaics made out of Italy; it was something typical from our country, since the themes depicted with those tiny glass tiles were often Roman ruins, Italian landscapes, classical or mythological figures and allegories, which all were much liked subjects by the foreigners undertaking the Grand Tour in Italy who were looking for fancy souvenirs.
We can trace the origins of this amazing art back to the 18th century; it then saw its glory in the 19th century (as said, the Grand Tour gave great impulse to the production of micro mosaics) and it slowly declined in the 20th century.
Micro mosaics decorated everyday use objects like boxes, paper weights, letter openers, tables and, most certainly, jewelry.”
“Now there’s a renewed interest in micro mosaics. Every day more and more people fall in love with this art and become passionate collectors. Those who are most invested even become micro mosaicists themselves. So many customers of ours, from all over the world, come to our store to buy our pieces and proudly show us their recent creations.”
“As for the technique:
First the pattern/design has to be traced, then the colors have to be chosen, and I guess creating the colors is one of the most difficult steps, because after all, it’s always glass we are talking about.
A “thread” or very thin rod of glass has to be blown. Keep in mind that the alternative name in Italian of this art is “smalti filati,” like “enamel strings.” When the thread/rod/string cools down and hardens, it gets cut into micro tiles (micro tessere) as tiny and regular as possible.
The micro tiles were then arranged on a slab where the desired design had been previously scratched. A special “secret” mastic, the exact formula is still unknown, was then spread out. The artisans were indeed jealous of their workshop’s secrets, that in many cases meant fame and wealth.
Some colors were harder to make than others, like red. Venetians were indeed experts in creating the perfect ruby red.”
Maria Gabriella and her parents have shared their micro mosaics at Venice Glass Week, bringing something quite different to the many types of glass on display there. At the bottom, I’ve included three of their images from the website or catalogue; the other images are ones I took.
You can find the shop on the calle of the Ghetto Vecchio, just between Gam Gam and the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
I had not heard of micro mosaics nor seen anything like this before. I hope you get the chance to visit Antichità al Ghetto, to meet Maria Gabriella, and to see the beautiful and often amazing things they have on display.