The Artistic Genius of a Cosmati Floor.

The Artistic Genius of a Cosmati Floor.
10 June 2016 0 Comment

The Medieval masters of floor inlay design without peer were the Cosmati family.

There was time when once the building went up members of the famous Cosmati family were called in to apply their particular genius to the paving of the floor. You might be thinking ho-hum but you should consider the respect that these masters were given and the costs of engaging their services often outstripped the architects. Throughout Italy in some of the most important churches and Basilica’s of this ancient land you should look down occasionally and you might discover with amazement and no small amount of awe the floor you have been walking on is in fact one of the most important and beautiful parts of the building you have been admiring. That floor, if dated from the 11th through to the late 12th century will most likely be another stupendous example of the Cosmati handy work!

Seven masters from this Roman family over four miraculous generations worked as sculptors, even as architects but it was their work in decorative geometric mosaic floor designs that they excelled. To have such brilliance expressed in the same field over several generations is testimony to the attention to the details of their craft and how well the older masters passed on their techniques to an eager new generation of the family. The most famous Cosmati masters have been recorded for history by their outstanding work, beginning with:

Lorenzo (dated works 1190–1210 but probably active earlier),

Jacopo (dated works 1205 and 1210)

Cosimo (1210-1235)

Luca (1221-1240)

Jacopo (1213-1293)

Deodato (1225-1303)

Giovanni (1231 and 1235)

When you read about a Cosmatesque worked floor you know the author is referring to the complex techniques began by Lorenzo and passed down the line within his talented family. This was a technique of cut work, often using ‘recycled’ marble and granite from the Imperial Roman period, from which small triangles and rectangles were cut that formed the basis of complex geometric designs of inlay work that mesmerize and amaze us to this day. Bands, panels and shaped reserves of intricate mosaic alternate with contrasting bands, guilloches and simple shapes of plain white marble. Some of Italy’s oldest churches and particularly those in Rome display floors designed and installed by the Cosmati and many will have columns with inlaid fillets and bands of mosaic work while immoveable church furnishings like cathedras and ambones were similarly treated.

It’s generally acknowledged that these rare and special floors were esteemed not only for their beauty and the richness of the colours and materials (including the priceless purple porphyry marble from Egypt), but also for their esoteric spirituality. Long after the Cosmati had ceased to be their work demanded attention and in some of the churches most important buildings a sort of Cosmati style was employed as is the case in the Cosmati revival fifteenth-century floor in the Sistine Chapel.

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Rarer still in medieval Europe was to have one country engage foreigners to work in their most important religious and historical buildings. In the latter half of the 12th century a Cosmati ‘crew’ were brought to London and put to work in the great Westminster Abbey where two Cosmatesque master pavements were created and installed. One is the Great Pavement before the high altar, the other the paving and decor associated with the shrine of Edward the Confessor in the Sanctuary, both works executed about 1268 for the connoisseur-king Henry III. They are extremely unusual in England and have recently undergone the most exacting restoration, bringing to light in this often light dreary country the illuminated genius of the Cosmati – their floors will sing for centuries to come.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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