ORSONI SMALTI HISTORY
When Angelo Orsoni set out for Paris in 1889, little could he have guessed at the success his courageous, original idea was to bring him, but this man of forty or thereabouts, with his strong, resolute air, was taking a crucial gamble. Orsoni aimed to show the world that a place of honor could be assigned to an ancient and noble medium- mosaic- within the vast enclosures of the Great Exhibition in Paris, alongside the most avant-garde techniques.
His success was enormous. His multicolored panel, which had been created as a sample collection of his smalti and mosaic gold, immediately acquired artistic status and was considered a sign of its maker’s genius. Never before had the world seen such a vast range of colors and shades in this traditional mosaic material. The enthusiasm with which it was received represented Orsoni’s first goal in a life dedicated to mosaic.
Angelo Orsoni was born into a poverty-stricken Murano family in the mid-nineteenth century and spent his early years working in glass factories. Before long, the job became Orsoni’s great passion. He was discovered by the celebrated mosaicist, Giandomenico Facchina who, after receiving an important commission from France, opened a factory making mosaic tesserae in Venice, and offered Orsoni a job producing the smalti. When Facchina moved to France to pursue his career, young Angelo was reluctant to follow him, held back by his firm conviction that he could become a success in his own right in his native city. Facchina presented his valued assistant with the Venetian workshop and immediately became his best client. It was 1888. The following year, the Great Exhibition was held in Paris. This was the age of Art Nouveau, when mosaic had ceased to be regarded simply as a medium for religious works of art and was used for the first time in secular art and decoration. Mosaic production enjoyed a healthy revival, in large part because of Orsoni’s contributions. Orsoni’s name soon became linked to major projects such as those involving the Sacre’ Coeur Cathedral in Paris, the celebrated Paris Opera House, the Sanctuary of Lourdes and St. Pauls Cathedral in London, to name but a few.
When Angelo Orsoni died in 1921, his son Giovanni inherited a company that was by now established throughout Europe. Giovanni Orsoni did not betray his cultural, as well as technical, legacy. He was responsible for the wonderful mosaic decorations on the spires of Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, for those inside the Altare della Patria in Rome, and the astonishing Golden Room in Stockholm City Hall. Giovanni was assisted by his son Angelo, who took over the company on his father’s death in 1935. Years later, Angelo was joined by his sons Ruggero and Lucio. When their father died in 1969, Ruggero and Lucio carried on the family business as tirelessly as ever and continue today to devote their time and their incredible talents to the fine art of mosaics.
The creation of smalti starts with the same basic ingredients used to make other types of glass... sand, soda, and stabilizing compounds. These ingredients, along with the coloring agents, are heated in furnaces at extremely high temperatures to create a glass paste. The magic and artistry of Orsoni smalti lies in the masterful creation of color. This stage is known by master glassmakers as "tirare il colore" (drawing out the color) and it is without a doubt the most difficult and delicate stage of the entire operation. Thousands of different colors can be obtained from just a few dozen oxides and Orsoni uses secret family ‘recipes’ handed down through four generations to acquire the incredible tone and intensity of their smalti. When the color and firing have reached the desired point- and this may take days- the fused molten paste is removed from the melting pot using gestures and movements that have been repeated millions of times, as though in a sort of ritual. The long, heavy spoon is beaten rhythmically on the work surface, the glowing ball of glass is squeezed and flattened into oblong slabs, and then the slabs are slowly and methodically annealed (cooled). Once the precise annealing process has been completed, it is time for the preparation of the "tesserae" and every tessera created Orsoni is cut by hand! The large glass slabs are first sliced into rods with the aid of a diamond blade and then chipped down into small rectangles with the rhythmic strokes of old and rudimentary manually-operated cutting machines. Up until now we have talked about tesserae, but it is important to draw the distinction between small glass tile and "tesserae" in the true sense of the word. Glass tiles are cut in bands directly from the surface of the glass slab, creating relatively regular, smooth and even squares which, it must be admitted, are far less interesting than tesserae. Orsoni smalti, on the other hand, is rectangular in shape and is intriguing precisely because it is cut at an angle to the glass slab. It is the sheared, cut side of the glass which serves as the top surface of the tesserae. It is this cut that gives Orsoni smalti its reflective, shimmering brilliance that just cannot be matched. An entire chapter could be written about Orsoni’s mosaic gold: first and foremost, it is real 24-carat gold. It has to be the purest gold to withstand a firing and beating process that obtains the incredible results. With just one cubic centimeter of gold, more than six square meters of beaten gold may be produced in a layer so fine that it is scarcely perceptible to the human eye. The gold leaf is then sandwiched between a transparent glass base and a fine, hand-blown glass that protects the surface. The three elements, heated once again, are welded into a single slab that is free of cracks even in the most minute fragments. It is no surprise that Orsoni gold is the preferred material for the restoration of ancient mosaics.