Discovering the Cosmatesche, the wonderful decorations of many Roman churches floors
Some of the most famous words you found reading books about Rome surely are "cosmatesche" and "cosmati".
It is not a particularly common term, especially for people not expert in religious architecture, or for people living out of Rome.
This article wantas to talk about these fascinating decorations people don't talk enough about.
The Cosmati: the origins of the term
Before talking about the decorations or the style that gives them their name, we have to talk about the "Cosmati" - the Roman artisans that created shops where they used to work the marble. We discovered the name of seven members from four different generations, between the 12th and 13th centuries, famous for their artistic and architectural works, among which the most famous are the mosaics and the decorations you can see in the churches, actually called "Cosmatesche".
This link between holy art and architecture and marble artisans started by Tebaldo Marmorario - about 1100-1150 - who was charged by the Pope's of the time to realise those decorations, as well as his descendants - Lorenzo di Tebaldo, Iacopo di Lorenzo, Cosima and the children.
The extraordinary capacity of making mosaics made this family famous; in almost all the Roman churches, you can see the works of art, probably realized during the age of Pope Pasquale II - between 1099 and 1118 - and 1250, as we can see by the epigraphs we can see on the "Cosmatesche".
Their prestige was important so much that Luca - Cosma's son - was considered one of the members of the 'schola addestratorum mappulariorum etcubiculariorum', exclusively created for this family by the Pope.
Now you understand the name "Cosmatesche" comes from the family itself; the signatures we talked about often mentioned "Cosma", "Cosmas" or "Cosmatus". Art scholars told this name can refer to Cosma di Iacopo di Lorenzo - from 1210 to 1231 -, or to another artist named Cosma di Pietro Mellini, surely from 1264 to 1279.
The first person that used this term with this meaning - to refer to the Roman churches floors decorations, who was the Risorgimento architect and writer Camillo Boito: he used it in an article - Architettura Cosmatesca -, to talk about their mosaics, in 1860.
The Cosmatesco style: the features
As you now know, the origins of the term, we can talk about the art itself.
The Cosmatesco style is a type of flower decoration - even if there are also other types of decorations not only on the floors, as you can see in the classic Chiostro Lateranense - characterised by a Byzantine aspect, even if we know it was born in the city of Rome.
This style was used to decorate the floors of the churches by rich and coloured marbles, in peculiar compositions; the origins of this style take place in the classic style, especially in the opus sectile and the opus tessellatum techniques.
The opus sectile is told by Pliny the Elder, in his 34th book of the Naturalis Historia: he said the origins of the style took place in Caria, an ancient region of Anatolia, and that the first use was in the Mausoleo di Alicarnasso, from the 4th century b.C. It was imported in Rome by Marco Vitruvio Mamurra - a knight from Formia, head of Julius Caesar engineers in Gaul. Despite what the ancient historian said, other people from his time disagreed with this new style comma because they expected to go back to a more rigid art, as the Republican Age art was. Anyway, everybody knows and used to know that this style was families everywhere, in private and public buildings, as it represented richness and elegance.
Pliny told about some examples characterised by geometrical shapes, hunt scenes, flower decorations, rich in many different colours, giving a bi-dimensional effect to the image. The opus tessellatum is less prestigious than the opus sectile, because it was more famous during the mediaeval period.
The two techniques were very similar - both of them created multicultural decorations made of small parts -, but the second one consisted in the combination of little fragments of coloured marbles, stones, glass, ceramic and other hard materials - named "tesselli" -, to create symmetrical, flower or figures drawings on a basis of gravel.
If you want to discover how the two techniques got similar and found the mix in the Cosmati's works by the time, you just have to visit some places characterized by the style: the Monastero di Santa Scolastica in Subiaco, the Roman basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, San Giovanni in Laterano and Santi Quattro Coronati.
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