Reinventing life through mosaic

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Pictured above: Vente Caldo by Dino Maccini. Photo by Alessandro Bersani

Creativity is Italian mosaicist Dino Maccini’s way to communicate; his way to escape the norms of a uniform society. Dino talks to Anabella Wewer about how he has used mosaic to reinvent his life.

By Anabella Wewer

A self-described man of few words, Dino Maccini made a deliberate choice to work in mosaic as a medium to reinvent his life and, through it, communicate his thoughts and feelings.

At the age of 40, he had been working in the family business for over 25 years. Being the eldest son, he was expected to carry on when his parents retired. Instead, he sold the business, got divorced, bought a motorcycle and change the course of his career. 

Dino had always painted. He had taken a few lessons as a child and developed his technique in the little free time he had outside of his job in the funerary business. “To paint was to escape my life,” he explains. “Not a hobby, but a way in which my soul could survive.”

But surviving wasn’t enough. While on vacation in Istanbul, Dino was deeply impressed by the mosaics at Hagia Sophia. That experience set in motion a series of events that would change his path. Ravenna and its famous mosaics are just a two-and-a-half hour car ride from his native Piacenza, and although he had heard talk about the Byzantine-era monuments there, he had never been. During his first visit, Dino found a city with a reality he didn’t know existed: a city full of working mosaic studios. There he saw a possibility. 

“It wasn’t logical, yet I knew the right thing for me was to pursue my never forgotten dream to be an artist.”

Shortly after his first visit to Ravenna, Dino took a break from work and went to study for a month with Marco Santi at Gruppo Mosaicisti Ravenna, one of the oldest studios in the city. When he returned home, and to the stability of his job, his heart was already elsewhere. “It was perhaps an irrational decision,” he continues. “It wasn’t logical, yet I knew the right thing for me was to pursue my never forgotten dream to be an artist.”

Dino’s decision to sell the business would affect his entire family, all of whom worked together. Everyone had to reinvent themselves. It was a difficult period but, in the end, Dino set up his studio in what used to be the flower shop for the business. He stayed there for almost two years, practicing his new-found skills and developing his style, as well as setting up the foundations of his new life.

But why mosaic, having been a painter for so many years? “There are so many painters! With mosaic, I could imagine a business, a career and a path for my life.” 

Dino Maccini at work

In Italy, as in many other parts of the world, mosaics are used as durable memorials in cemeteries and are common decoration in architectural features. With intimate knowledge of the funerary business, Dino could see a path that would support the studio and his personal work. He invited his son Daniele to join him in the business and taught him all he knew. While developing his own personal artistic style, Dino designed commercial pieces for resale. Today the studio produces a steady series of mosaic flowers, hearts and crosses that are offered for sale in the funerary industry. Every so often, Dino develops new designs and variations to add to the catalog of offerings, while he continues to produce one-of-a-kind art pieces appropriate for ecclesiastic and commercial settings. 

A few years back, Dino collaborated with sculptor Giorgio Groppi to develop a series of bronze vessels that feature a mosaic component. One of those urns, featuring a “draped” mosaic cloth, was commissioned to be gifted to the late Pope Benedict XVI and is now part of the Vatican Collection.

Through the years, Dino and his team have created an ever-growing number of commissions ranging from large-scale interpretations of paintings by Botticelli, Raphael and others, to large renditions of galaxies and celestial bodies. “Mosaic is a job, not just a passion. Sometimes I need to accept work in which I don’t recognize myself,” he says. “Even so, I always try to interpret them my way, to put something in them that is mine.” 

Riflessi Crepuscolari by Dino Maccini

These large works, by necessity, require many hands, and Dino calls on collaborators he has worked with for years to help bring them to life, confident in their skills and abilities. 

The heart of the studio, though, is Dino’s personal work. Unbound by conventional substrates and often utilizing an economy of tesserae, his work challenges our perceptions of what mosaic can be. “This is an ancient technique, entirely manual in all of its steps. Antique, but interpreted in a contemporary way. The techniques I use are the classical ones from the Roman Byzantine mosaics in all of the facets of execution of my mosaics, but the particular disposition of the tesserae, the way I cut materials, and use the interstices, contribute to make the works personal, recognizable and contemporary.” 

Subtle color gradations, intricate color mixing and harmonious movement define Dino’s work, but it is the perception of lightness and weightlessness of his mosaics that immediately grab the viewers’ attention. Sculptural works that appear to blow in the wind or insinuate that which is not there are the result of unconventional thinking, research and experimentation. Vento Caldo (Warm Wind) is a wall mosaic in which we “see” the movement of the wind as it plays with drapery. In the case of L’Assenza (The Absence) and Una Forma dil Vouto (A Form of Emptiness), we only see a dress, or cloth, as it would drape over the body of a female form that isn’t there.

Les Yeux Fermes by Dino Maccini

Draped cloth in mosaic has been done before, but Dino’s vision of the transparency of that cloth, and making visible the verso, or reverse side, are new interpretations of the technique. “The desire to make the mosaic light and soft prompted me to look for solutions that would allow me to achieve my goal,” Dino continues. 

Affectionally called “the dresses”, the sculptures are made over a substrate using fiberglass and epoxy over conventional mannequins he borrowed from a clothing shop. They’re built over multiple days. The andamento and color work emphasize the shapes and folds of the forms, making the mosaic feel realistically like fabric suspended in air. “The protagonist is someone who is not there,” says Dino of these works, which have often been the centerpieces of recent exhibitions.

Dino’s recent wall mosaics also defy the senses, with the tesserae seemingly floating on air. Discernibly looking at materials used in other disciplines or industries for their usability in his mosaics, Dino uses sheet metal, sound-proofing foam, close-cell foam, stone veneer, and aluminum and foam composites, among others, to minimize the thickness of his substrates while retaining strength and durability. Together with found materials, such as old wood, he has created a series of mosaics, like Un Nuovo Vento (A New Wind), which appear to float in the breeze unsupported.

Un Nuovo Vento by Dino Maccini

Busy in the studio with large commissions, Dino started thinking about how to make significant mosaics faster, with fewer tesserae. He uses various combinations of materials to create substrates in which the tesserae float over the background, and uses color gradations to represent light streaming over the works. The tesserae seem to dance in their space, lending the work vibrancy and movement. “I follow the rules of andamento and mosaic techniques, but I feel free and very spontaneous while working. I’m not looking for perfection. I create thoughtlessly in a flow that feels natural,” he says.

A few motifs tend to reappear in Dino’s works. He is fascinated with space, the unknown and infinity; these themes inform his work. “In my opinion, even in works not related to the cosmos, such as sacred scenes, a face, a look — there is always something unknown, unattainable, infinite,” he says. “Infinity outside, infinite within.” Lines and circles re-emerge in abstract works, guiding the eye, or the spirit, into the unknown, the spiritual. 

Tutto Scorre by Dino Maccini

Increasingly, the commissioned works for sacred or architectural spaces are less representational and more abstract, relying on abstract themes to achieve the feeling or mood required for the space. “When I work on a mosaic for a specific place, I first need to study the environment and its uses, and understand the client’s taste and preferences. Generally, my clients give me a lot of freedom to interpret the themes. They already know my style; that’s why they sought me to create the work.” A recent commission for the entryway into a crematorium at a funeral home is entirely abstract, yet the use of color and line make it clear that it is a sacred space, a portal into infinity, into the unknown. The chosen design features elements that guide the eye but, according to the viewers’ beliefs, also the soul, or the spirit, into the next dimension, the next step. 

Asked whether he is ever out of ideas or inspiration, Dino shares that he has many sketches and ideas ready to go, just not enough time to make them all. Like many of us, he too has periods where he doesn’t have the energy to be in the studio, so he locks the door and goes for a motorcycle ride. “Riding my motorcycle recharges me,” he says. Sometimes those motorcycle trips are around the countryside by his hometown, but sometimes they take him to far off places like China and Patagonia. In a familiar refrain, he returns to the studio recharged, and full of new ideas and inspiration.

All photos of mosaic work by Alessandro Bersani.

Instagram: @dino_maccini