Specimens of the Geometrical Mosaic of the Middle Ages. Left: Frontispiece. Right: Plate 9.

These specimens of mosaic work were copied by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt on his tour of Italy as a young man. He subsequently read papers on the subject to the Royal Society of Arts, and the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and collected his work into book form — making "the first of a series of publications on the applied arts" which helped to establish his name (Robinson 205). His lithographers were the firm of Day & Son.

Introducing the plates, he explains that the frontispiece designs were

selected from churches at Rome and in its immediate vicinity. The exterior, exhibiting the union of porphyry with glass tesselation, is copied from a portion of the pulpit on the Epistle side of the Basilica of "San Lorenzo fuori le Mura"; and the borders running along the top and bottom of the space within are taken from a very curious tomb now existing in the Church of Santa Maria in Aracœli, Rome — commemorating some member of the Savelli family. [23]

As for the later designs shown on the right above, which are also examples of glass tesselation, he explains that these illustrate the way that medieval mosaic workers "occasionally blended with their "lavori di smalto," or fictilia, cubes of the more precious stones, such as porphyry and serpentine. Fig. 1 is from the Cathedral at Monreale, near Palermo; Figs. 2 and 5 are from different articles of ancient church furniture in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura; Fig. 3 is from the Duomo at Palermo; and Fig. 4 is a pattern filling-in a spiral groove in one of the lovely twisted columns which decorate the fairy-like cloisters of San Giovanni Laterano. Fig. 5 possesses a peculiar interest to Englishmen, in being almost precisely similar to some of the circular ornaments, fragments of which still remain, incrusted on the tomb of Henry III, in Westminster Abbey. [24]

Seen here already is the broad range of Wyatt's skills: meticulous record-keeping, precise copying, an understanding of materials and processes, a keen eye for beauty (without which the rest is pedantry), and the ability to relate particular examples to others elsewhere. Note that he would become a close friend of Owen Jones, and that William Burges would become a pupil; also, that Specimens would be "a major influence on the abstract pattern-making in the decoration at South Kensington [i.e., the future Victoria and Albert Museum]" (Robinson 208).

Images downloaded, and text, by Jacqueline Banerjee. The images are in the public domain, but it would be good to credit the Victorian Web and the Hathi Trust if you reproduce them. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]


Robinson, John Martin. The Wyatts: An Architectural Dynasty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Specimens of the Geometrical Mosaic of the Middle Ages.... London: Proprietor at 17 Gate by Lincoln's Inn Fields, 1848. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 28 July 2019.

Created 28 July 2019