Possibly, like me, you may have visited the first floor galleries of the Museum many times and paid little attention to the floor beneath your feet. I believe this may be taken as a tribute to the skill of the terrazzo mosaicists who laid the floor coverings and deliberately intended them to be unobtrusive.
Mosaic and terrazzo work has a long history with examples in the Middle East dating from 5000 years ago. Mosaic works from the Roman Empire are recognised as among their outstanding artistic achievements. Figurative work is dominant but abstract patterns are common too, as shown in the photographs below of two floors taken during a visit to Pompeii and neighbouring sites.
In 1999, a group from the English Heritage Trust made an official visit to the Museum and produced a detailed and extensive report including a substantial study of the history of the building. A copy in the Reading Room (TBM 5/2) summarises material from the Trustees’ minutes to state “. . . in 1875, French artisans were laying the oak floors in the Picture Galleries, a project still under way [three years later] when Italian ‘artificiers’ were executing mosaic work, presumably the mosaic floors”. A document recently discovered in the Museum’s archives tells us a bit more about these Italians.
The archives contain many thousands of the founder’s documents. The translation group is translating and cataloging collections of household bills. John Bowes was a hoarder and at least for some years appears to have kept all his bills, even the daily ones from bakers and dairymen, noting on the back of each when it had been paid.
However amongst this rather mundane material, there frequently occur some more interesting finds. In the collection for the year 1878, now catalogued as JB/3/3/26, there are documents relating to the flooring of the Museum, such as:
This is a receipt from Monsieur Hippolyte Louchart acknowledging a payment of 4000 francs from Mr. Bowes for the provision of parquetry carried out at his property at Barnard Castle, England. It is dated 23rd November 1878 (the convention of referring to November as the 9th month was common in France). It is one of a number of similar receipts of payment from Monsieur Louchart, who worked at the Museum for several years and for John Bowes in Paris prior to that. 4000 francs would have had a sterling equivalent of about £160.00 at the time, which would equate to slightly over 100 times that amount today.
A month later occurs the first and only document I have found that deals with the mosaic flooring a receipt for 6000 francs on account signed by J Mazzioli and Chauviret.
On the reverse of the sheet is the following:
– a letter dated Dec 19th 1878 from Jules Pellechet, the Museum’s architect, to John Bowes, saying that the total bill for M. Mazzioli’s work will come to about 17000 francs and he would like a second instalment of 6000 francs paid. John Bowes paid this promptly the next day and recorded his payment in his usual manner in the top left corner.
Who was Mazzioli? An online search reveals he came from a well documented family of Italian mosaicists of Friuli (the region centred on Udine) who had migrated to Paris and carried out work in both France and England. An extract from a book was a helpful source.
Grossutti, Javier P (2014) “In the hands of the Italians: Friulian mosaic and terrazzo workers in London”. Chapter 7 of Mucignat R (ed). The Friulian Language: Identity, Migration, Culture; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.
The first sentence refers to terrazzo flooring. My underline highlights the workers here at the Museum. This page is reproduced with permission of CSP, who kindly facilitated an email contact between myself and the author. Dr. Grossutti of Udine University was very pleased that I could provide a further example of the work of the Mazzioli mosaicists.
The Museum was not the only one in England to employ the Mazzioli craftsmen. Next time you visit the National Portrait Gallery, cast your eyes down at the entrance. According to https://bilderfahrzeuge.hypotheses.org/3815 this mosaic was created by Pietro Mazzioli in 1896.
Blog by: John Findlay, Volunteer in the Archives and Reading Room at The Bowes Museum