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'Finding Beauty in a Broken World' by Terry Tempest Williams (excerpt)

This article is more than 14 years old.

Ravenna is the town in Italy where the west arm of Rome and the east arm of Constantinople clasped hands and agreed on a new capital of the Roman Empire in 402 AD. It was a pragmatic decision made by a shift in power, the decline of Rome and the rise of Byzantium. A spiritual history of evolving pagan and Christian perspectives can be read in a dazzling narrative of cut stones and glass.

Eloquence is spoken through the labor of hands, anonymous hands of forgotten centuries. With eyes looking up, artisans rolled gold tesserae between their fingers in thought, as they searched for the precise placement in domes and apses where light could converse with glass. Jeweled ceilings become lavish tales. I want to understand these stories told through fragments. I am an apprentice in a mosaic workshop. Her name is Luciana. She is my teacher. Her work is unsigned, anonymous. Like the mosaicists before her who created the ancient mosaics that adorn the sacred interiors of this quiet town, she conducts the workshop in the traditional manner outlined centuries ago.

The tools required: a hammer and a hardie. The hardie is similar to a chisel and is embedded in a tree stump for stability. A piece of marble, glass, or stone, desiring to be cut, is held between the forefinger and thumb of the left hand, placed perpendicular on the hardie. The hammer that bears two cutting edges, gracefully curved, is raised in the right hand. With a quick blow, a tessera is born, the essential cube in the creation of a mosaic.

Her name is Luciana. She is a mosaicist in the town of Ravenna. She has no belief in invention or innovation. "It has all been done before," she says. "There are rules."

1. The play of light is the first rule of mosaic.
2. The surface of mosaics is irregular, even angled, to increase the dance of light on the tesserae.
3. Tesserae are irregular, rough, individualized, unique.
4. If you are creating a horizontal line, place tesserae vertically.
5. If you are creating a vertical line, place tesserae horizontally.
6. The line in mosaic is supreme; the flow of the line is what matters so the eye is never disturbed or interrupted.
7. The background is very important in emphasizing the mosaic pattern. There must always be at least one line of tesserae that outlines the pattern. Sometimes there will be as many as three lines defining the pattern as part of the background.
8. There is a perfection in imperfection. The interstices or gaps between the tesserae speak their own language in mosaics.
9. Many colors are used to create one color from afar. Different hues of the same color were always used in ancient mosaics.
10. The distance from which the mosaic is viewed is important to the design, color, and execution of the mosaic.
11. The play of light is the first and last rule of mosaic.

Luciana will tell you that once you learn the rules of ancient mosaics, only then can you break them. She places a gold piece of glass between her finger and thumb on the hardie and holds the hammer at the base of its wooden handle. Ting-she strikes the gold smalti into the exact shape she desires.

"You can learn this technique in fifteen minutes," she says. "It will take you a lifetime to master it."

. . .

I used to believe that truth was found only below the surface of things. Underground. I was a disciple of depth. What was hidden was what I desired.

But something changed.

It's the dismemberment of a territory-

I am interested now in what my eyes can see, what my fingers can touch, what my hand can know by moving slowly across flesh, or fur, or feathers, or stone.

I trust what I see.
The surface of things is what we see.

I trust what I touch.
The surface of things is what we touch.

There, the last blue tesserae is in place-I tweak it a bit to the right with my tweezers, wipe off the excess lime with the tip of my finger, and leave a larger gap between the two cubes, replicating what was done in the original. Finished. The mosaic is complete. I move the hardie aside, get up from my stool, and take a detached look at my small floral detail from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. I feel as if I am looking line by line at a crudely constructed paragraph pulled from an exquisite narrative of sacred Byzantine text. I have translated the text poorly. It bears all the mistakes of an earnest amateur; nevertheless, I accept its primitive beauty.

We carry our mosaics outside. Even as apprentices, we take pleasure in small accomplishments. The light strikes our mosaics. They shimmer and shine. I am especially delighted with the golden glare coming from the stems of the lilies, accentuated by the tiny pieces of rough sandstone, a dramatic pause in the line of shine.

Luciana gathers us together and shows us how to proceed with the next step. We watch her stir a foul-smelling concoction which we learn is rabbit glue. This is the preferred adhesive, used in the past as well. She shows us the plastic bag of amber crystals that are brought to a simmering point in the double boiler.

"Be aware if you do this outside," she cautions. "Dogs and cats will come running with their noses looking for rabbits." It is a stench of sizzling, liquid death that brings tears to the eyes, not out of grief but revulsion.

"Get over it," she says. "Breathe through your mouth."

Luciana stirs the glue one more time with a brush and then paints the face of the mosaic she has been working on with the glue. The rabbit binder seeps into all the crevices that will hold the tesserae in place.

Next, she brings out a roll of hospital gauze and cuts a piece perfectly sized for the mosaic in front of her. Luciana then places the gauze over the glue and brushes it with another layer of rabbit glue. All of this is to ensure that the tesserae is firmly in its desired position. When the glue is completely dry, the mosaic is literally "ripped" from the wet lime base, which was only meant as a temporary binder.

Each of us brushes the rabbit glue onto our mosaics, covers its face with gauze, and adds another brush of glue, making certain the cloth covering is smooth and secure. We then leave our mosaics to dry under the Italian sun.

Inside the studio, we watch Mateo change the binder from lime to cement, which we will do to our own mosaics after the glue has dried. Mateo pulls the mosaic from the wooden board with his spatula, then cuts off the excess gauze with a knife.

Mateo pours a thin layer of cement into the bottom of a boxed frame chosen to accommodate the size of the mosaic. He smooths the cement with his trowel. On the reverse side of the mosaic, he pours another layer of cement, which gathers in all the interstices. We gasp, believing the mosaic is ruined. Mateo smiles as he is used to this reaction from novices, and proceeds to place the mosaic in the bed of wet cement. He arranges the mosaic quickly and thoughtfully so it is perfectly centered. He then fills the rest of the boxed frame with grout, which is largely a mixture of sand that surrounds the edges of the design, serving as a neutral background for the mosaic.

After the cement dries, the gauze covering is removed, and we clean the mosaic by pouring pitchers of hot water over its face and vigorously scrubbing off all the glue with a small hand brush like those used for cleaning floors. As I wash down my lilies, I am amazed at how durable and strong the tesserae are. Each cube comes alive as if a silenced voice is now speaking.

We bring our mosaics back to our individual work spaces and begin the laborious process of cleaning each tesserae like a dentist cleans teeth. In fact, we use dental tools. In between each tesserae, instead of removing the build-up of tartar and plaque, we scrape and scrape and chisel away any lime mortar and excess cement.

Our dreams of perfection are interrupted by Luciana's gruff voice, "Enough; now it is time to see the beauty, the imperfect beauty."

I came to this workshop in Ravenna because of a word, "mosaic," unaware of the landscape I was entering. I came to the mosaic workshop in Ravenna to learn a new language with my hands.

People talk about medium. What is your medium? My medium as a writer has been dirt, clay, sand -what I could touch, hold, stand on, and stand for - Earth. My medium has been Earth. Earth in correspondence with my mind.

Here in the village of Ravenna, a continent away from where I live, I am indeed learning a new language, but it is very different from the one I imagined.

I now look to my hands.

"Mosaic is a way to organize your life." Luciana gives us her last instructions. "Making mosaics is a way of thinking about the world."

Luciana's final words: "Mosaics are created out of community."

. . . .

"I want to tell you a story," says Louis as we sit on Mama Chakula's porch, where we met almost two years ago.

"There is a woman who was married to a pastor. It was a happy family. Some people say they were a family of six; others say they were eleven. The woman was away, and when she returned, she saw how the Interahamwe were butchering her children on the ground along with her husband.

"After the war, the man who murdered her family came back from the Congo, and when Gacaca called him to explain what he had been accused of, he said, ‘I accept everything I have been charged with, and from the depth of my heart, I apologize.'

"The woman said, ‘I saw everything happen. I know you killed my family. I loved my children and my husband. I am alone. I have nothing, but I now choose to forgive you and take you into my home. You will live with me, and I will do whatever it takes to make you feel like my own son.'

"Can you be in the same shoes with this woman?" Louis asks.

Louis then says, "Rwanda is struggling with peace one person at a time. This is as hard as growing wheat on rock. We are finding our way toward unity and reconciliation on a walkway full of thorns, and we are walking barefoot."

He stands up and walks over to the balcony that overlooks Gisenyi into the Congo where he was born.

"We are trying to forgive, but to forgive is to forget, and we cannot forget. Perhaps there is another word. I am searching for that word."


Excerpted from Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams. Copyright © by Terry Tempest Williams 2008. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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