In 1922 La Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli (the Spilimbergo school) was established in the small northern Italian town of Spilimbergo and is today the world’s leading contemporary school of mosaic. Nestled within the strategically important nexus of the Tagliamento River floodplains at the foot of the Dolomites and close to the northern Adriatic coastline in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the region has been variously Roman, Venetian and Austrian. With complex layers of cultural intersections, the founding traditions of mosaic have been established here for millennia. The remains of Aquileia, the former Roman political and commercial stronghold that was once one of the world’s largest cities with a population exceeding 100,000 in the 2nd century AD, is just 60 kilometres south of Spilimbergo and contains countless unparalleled mosaic palimpsests of architectural scale; many of them still under excavation. With this combination of geographic and cultural factors influencing the widespread established practice of mosaic, Spilimbergo was ideally situated for the mosaic school founded to help stem the flow of young Friulani emigrants escaping post World War I poverty.
Conceived as a place of artisanship, the Spilimbergo school has since its inception offered 3 and 4 year courses providing training in mosaic theory and practice, facilitated by a combination of government and philanthropic funding together with a steady stream of public and private commissions. Its history has been turbulent at times, but careful governance and a consistent and disciplined approach to mosaic pedagogy has enabled the Spilimbergo school to remain resilient and become a progressive world leader in the field. As early as 1933 the school was making architectural mosaic commissions for patrons as widespread as Canada and China and was entering mosaics across multiple art and architectural trade competitions, many of which it won. Numerous large commissions were secular works for churches across the region, and in 1933 Italy’s fascist government commissioned the school to make a spectacular mosaic installation for the Foro Italico in Rome, which consumed most of the school’s energies from 1933 to 1937. The designs for these mosaics were completed by artists Angelo Canevari, Giulio Rosso, Achille Capizzano and founding leader of the Futurist movement Gino Severini.
‘The technique of mosaic combined the two-dimensional nature of painting with the hardwearing nature of sculptural reliefs: the mosaics could withstand the passage of feet, weather, the damp of locations like pools and required little maintenance over the years.’
Created off-site in Spilimbergo using the still relatively new indirect method, the school completed more than ten thousand square metres of mosaics for the Foro Italico, that were shipped to Rome in hundreds of crates, ready for fixing. In 1937 the project climaxed with a massive installation commemorating Italy’s recent victory over Ethiopia and celebrating the rise of the Fascist State. Referencing a wide range of topics from military campaigns to social reform and celebrating the pursuit of athleticism, the sheer scale of these mosaics dwarfed even the most pompous propagandist declarations of political power rendered in mosaic under the Romans or the Byzantines.
The Foro Italico’s commissioning body Gioventù Italiana del Littorio failed to fully compensate the Spilimbergo School according to their original agreement, thereby leaving the school perilously in debt, however innovative technical and artistic developments had been made leading to a new level of self-critique.
‘The placing of tesserae in uniform, parallel lines had been abandoned in favour of a distribution highlighting the fusion of light and dark and creating a sense of movement on the surface with hand-squared enamel and marble and clear outlines. This operating method distinguished the production of Spilimbergo with the industrial work of other Italian workshops and conferred upon the mosaicist the role of interpreting the artistic work rather than simply executing it’.
The artistic success of the Foro Italico project was rapidly eclipsed by events leading to World War II, which was particularly catastrophic for Friuli. The region was once again of high strategic value and as the war raged with dramatic local losses, the Spilimbergo school’s educational program was largely abandoned. The school’s premises became occupied by German troops and later by partisans, resulting in the loss and destruction of most materials and equipment. However soon after the war the school was refurbished using government funds, with a focus on training wounded former soldiers to become mosaicists. At this time Friuli was still regarded as somewhat of a regional backwater and awareness of the Spilimbergo school was largely localised. With an approach to teaching the theory and practice of both mosaic and terrazzo proclaimed as ‘didactic and industrial’, it was not until the 1950s that the school began to be promoted as a place of interest, inviting and receiving visitors from outside. This shift in self-identity from being purely an industrial training ground to an art school of wider interest, was undoubtedly encouraged by the school’s participation in the Triennale di Milano (1951) and the 26th Venice Biennale (1952), which the school was invited to take part in using art work designed by the school’s Artistic Director Fred Pittino.
The mid 1950s saw the introduction of a planning law stipulating 2% for art in Friuli, expanding the breadth of architectural mosaic commissions to include multiple new buildings across the region. Coupled with this opportunity came the artistic influence of Mario Deluigi, a Treviso/Venetian artist who instilled a new way of working, promoting more advanced concepts around architectural considerations and most significantly that the makers of mosaic could be both designer and mosaicist; focussing on the inherent characteristics of their materials rather than being limited to the literal transposing of a design made for them. This approach, first recognised in the works executed for the Foro Italico was a significant departure from the modest artisanal status of the terrazzo worker, from whom the mosaisicist was now distinguished. Deluigi’s influence was a catalytic turning point, advising that using a more limited colour palette and implementing compositional techniques relating to colour field theories and colour construction, blurring the established paradigm; the mosaicist need no longer be simply an artisan or labourer, but could be an artist actively engaged in the act of making their own work.
The 1960s saw the school facing a new crisis with the rate of radically declining student numbers matching the growth of nearby industrial opportunities offering training and good salaries to young workers. As the school wrangled with these declining enrolments, persistent cash-flow problems, the limited employability of its graduates, and a waning appetite for architectural commissioned mosaics, enrolment was expanded in 1969 to include female students, foreigners and second-generation expatriate Friuliani. The Spilimbergo school limped into the 1970’s as a struggling specialist mosaic middle school dominated by a still conservative, artisanal culture. When 1975 saw the resignation of Headmaster Severo Giacomello who had joined the school as a student more than half a century earlier and with two other long-standing senior staff also leaving, it was clear that under a new pedagogical regime the school would either soon dramatically decline or thrive.
Whilst poised on this threshold of opportunity, in 1976 Friuli was devastated by a severe earthquake. Measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale and followed by multiple strong aftershocks, considerable damage was caused across the region, there were close to 1,000 fatalities and 157,000 Friulani were made homeless. Spilimbergo was hard hit and the school’s primary building was seriously damaged; the upper storey was unusable for several years. In 1977 the decision was made to revise the school’s activities to work more closely with entrepreneurs and architects, trade and industry sectors in order to focus on advancing vocational outcomes for graduates and to build commission opportunities. Whilst the new staff became established in a school effectively halved in size by the Terremoto del Friuli, a series of large local commissions sustained the business of the school. Then in 1980 a suite of radical decisions were made by the school’s governing Board in an attempt to refocus the school’s pedagogical role and to increase the commercial viability of the school. A revised organisational structure and increased external funding with large cash injections from various government bodies brought about much needed repairs, revitalisation and facilitated an enhanced marketing campaign. As the school’s national and international profile grew, so too did a spate of large international commissions; several major projects in the US were closely followed by works for Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan and Japan. Further major commissions in France, Austria, Germany, Britain and Greece followed and with this growing international profile, for the first time confidence in the viability and the broader relevance of the school was affirmed.
In the late 1980’s a comprehensive restoration of the mosaics at the Foro Italico was undertaken. The process was throroughly documented and together with archived material from the 1930’s, these comprised a major exhibition titled Pictor Imaginarius, also commemorating the 60th anniversary of the school. The event triggered a profound reflexive commentary on the nature of the school’s work and a renewed consciousness emerged concerning the roles of the pictor imaginarius, the painter/designer and the magister musivarius, the mosaicist assembling the mosaic.
‘Only when these two professionals created a dialogue was it possible to attain artistic results able to perpetuate their quality through the years. A modus operandi thus emerged that had been clear in the minds of the first directors, Sussi and Baldini, who made available the School’s master mosaicists and their knowledge of design and decoration. It was in the 1990s that this exchange between artists and students-future-mosaicists developed further in new times and a different way of understanding the making of mosaic was inaugurated.’
The breadth of commissions at this time, whilst indicative of much needed success, inadvertently relegated the school from being a place of research and learning, to a production house. Because some commissions were not always paid for in full, by the early 1990s the school was 600 million lire in debt. The deficit was largely due to non-payment in full of the school’s restoration of the Foro Italico, the situation ironically echoing the failure of Gioventù Italiana del Littorio to pay in full when the work was first commissioned in the 1930s. These financial and associated political pressures dictated that the Spilimbergo school be re-cast with three clear major objectives: to be a centre for the promotion of mosaic art and technique, to be a business-like production centre for mosaic and to become a centre of professional mosaic training. This latter, didactic role has since taken precedence over the former two foci; and the triangulated objectives continue to underpin and stabilise the school today.
Over the past 20 years, through balancing its pedagogical emphasis with careful business management the school has continued to strengthen. It now attracts students from, and disseminates graduates to all over the world, and is widely regarded as the unrivalled leader in contemporary mosaic education. Maintaining a highly disciplined approach to teaching and learning, theory and practice, restoration and innovation, its distinct Friulano culture permeates the school whilst the mosaics produced maintain particular technical and artistic qualities that are highly regarded internationally. However the school has continued to be met by unforeseeable challenges as it seeks to consolidate and further contemporise itself.
Ten years after it unfolded, the effects of the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (‘The Crisis’ as it is known in Friuli) is still deeply felt, and the Italian economy is once again in serious difficulty. Somewhat ironically, the resulting decline in local industrial manufacturing has seen the founding rationale for the school become relevant once again as young Friulani are tempted to move away in search of vocational education and employment; the Spilimbergo school helps play a role in retaining them. 50% of the current student intake is reserved for Friulani, with the remainder primarily from other Italian regions and international students from France, Germany and Japan. The current refugee diaspora has put extra pressure on the region, as it has much of Mediterranean Europe. Despite this influx of cultural diversity, Friuli is strongly regional. All of the teaching and other staff at the Spilimbergo school are Friulani, and their collective artistic experience is largely limited to the region and related challenges remain.
At the Spilimbergo school the pedagogical emphasis on technical expertise has too often overwhelmed the importance of conceptual development in mosaic and the broader theoretical context for mosaics as contemporary art works. Despite professed enthusiasm for fostering the mosaicist as both designer and maker, established artisanship traditions and deeply-held patriarchal attitudes within the Spilimbergo school have been slower to change. Regional, indeed at times parochial thinking has limited the scope of a potential contemporary art education conducted in tandem with the established mosaicist training. But a growing exploration of the contemporary artistic potentialities for mosaic including theoretical and practical explorations of material ephemerality and new media are now at the forefront of advanced mosaic pedagogy in Spilimbergo. The school is ambitious and strives to be increasingly international in its outlook and the results are evident in the art works produced. As graduates now leave with far more than just the artisanal skills that formed the educational focus in 1922, the future of mosaic as a contemporary language will only continue to grow.
 Colloquially referred to as ‘Friuli’.
 the Tagliamento and other stony snow-melt rivers providing an apparently inexhaustible supply of stone.
 Gemo, Giorgia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli: 90 anni di storia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli, Spilimbergo, p.39.
 Il Comitato Friulano per la mostra di Monza (1923), La Mostra Didattica Nazionale in Florence (1926) in addition to numerous northern Italian local art prizes.
 The Foro Italico is an immense sporting complex architecturally inspired by Roman Imperial forums. First called Foro Mussolini, It was commissioned by Mussolini with the intention of securing the 1940 Olympic Games. The winning bid was secured by Japan but the 1940 Games were cancelled due to the onset of World War II. https://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/680
 Gemo, Giorgia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli: 90 anni di storia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli, Spilimbergo, p.44 (English translation from the Italian, hence the sometimes stilted linguistic flow).
 The indirect method, w here the tesserae are fixed face-down onto paper using a water soluble glue, was developed by Italian mosaic restorer Giandomenico Facchina in the late 19th century during his work on the Paris Opera.
 ibid, p.59
 Spilimbergo is not really en route to anywhere notable, except perhaps the arguably more famous prosciutto-producing adjacent town of San Daniele.
 Gemo, Giorgia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli: 90 anni di storia, Scuola Mosaicisiti del Friuli, Spilimbergo, p.81.
 the earthquake of 1976
 ibid, p.153 Somewhat clumsy in its translation, the essential message concerns the elevation from artisan to artist, achieved through the unification of design and the act of making.
 95% of the school’s annual costs were paid by the regional authority at this time. Ibid, p.158.