Cosmati were a Roman family, seven members of which, for four
generations, were skilful architects, sculptors and workers in
decorative geometric mosaic, mostly for church floors. Their name is
commemorated in the genre of
Cosmatesque work, often just called
"Cosmati", a technique of opus sectile ("cut work") formed of
elaborate inlays of small triangles and rectangles of colored stones
and glass mosaics set into stone matrices or encrusted upon stone
surfaces. Bands, panels and shaped reserves of intricate mosaic
alternate with contrasting bands, guilloches and simple geometric
shapes of plain white marble. Pavements and revetments were executed
Cosmatesque technique, columns were inlaid with fillets and bands,
and immovable church furnishings like cathedras and ambones were
In addition, members of the
Cosmati also engaged in commerce in
ancient sculptures, some unearthed in the course of excavating for
marbles for reuse. More than one ancient Roman sculpture has survived
with the name of one of these craftsmen incised in it.
The following are the main known Cosmati:
Lorenzo (dated works 1190–1210 but probably active earlier)
Jacopo (dated works 1205 and 1210)
Giovanni (1231 and 1235)
Cosmati pulpit in Santa Maria Assunta in Lugnano in Teverina
The earliest recorded work was executed for a church at Fabieri in
1190 (Lorenzo) (CE). The principal works of the
Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Lorenzo)
door at San Saba, 1205
door with mosaics at
San Tommaso in Formis
San Tommaso in Formis (Jacopo)
chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum, by the
pavement of San Giacomo alla Lungara
the magnificent episcopal throne and choir-screen in San Lorenzo fuori
le Mura, of 1254 (probably Jacopo the younger)
baldacchini of the
Lateran and of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, c. 1294
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Santa Maria sopra Minerva (c. 1296), in Santa Maria Maggiore,
Santa Balbina (Giovanni).
The chief signed works by Jacopo the younger and his brother Luca are
Anagni and Subiaco.
A large number of other works by members and pupils of the same
family, but unsigned, exist in Rome. These are mainly altars and
baldacchini, choir-screens, paschal candlesticks, ambones, tombs and
the like, all enriched with sculpture and glass mosaic of great
brilliance and decorative effect.
Besides the more mechanical sort of work, such as mosaic patterns and
architectural decoration, they also produced mosaic pictures and
sculpture of very high merit, especially the recumbent effigies, with
angels standing at the head and foot, in the tombs of Aracoeli, S.
Maria Maggiore and elsewhere. One of their finest works is in S.
Cesareo; this is a marble altar richly decorated with mosaic in
sculptured panels, and (below) two angels drawing back a curtain (all
in marble) so as to expose the open grating of the confessio. The
magnificent cloisters of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, built about 1285 by
Giovanni, the youngest of the Cosmati, are one of the most beautiful
works of this school. The baldacchino of the same basilica is a signed
work of the Florentine Arnolfo di Cambio, 1285, cum suo socio Petro,
probably a pupil of the Cosmati. Other works of Arnolfo, such as the
Braye tomb (it) at Orvieto, show an intimate artistic alliance
between him and the Cosmati. The equally magnificent cloisters of the
Lateran, of about the same date, are very similar in design; both
these triumphs of the sculptor-architects and mosaicists work have
slender marble columns, twisted or straight, richly inlaid with bands
of glass mosaic in delicate and brilliant patterns. In the crypt at
Anagni is the largest section of undisturbed
Cosmatesque decoration is not entirely confined to Rome, or even to
Westminster Abbey there are two
Cosmatesque pavements, the
finest north of the Alps  set in Purbeck Marble: one is the Great
Pavement before the high altar, the other the paving and decor
associated with the shrine of
Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor in the Sanctuary,
both works executed about 1268 for the connoisseur-king Henry III.
They are extremely unusual in England: more characteristic luxury
flooring in England consisted of lead-glazed ceramic tiles painted in
patterns. This mosaic is depicted in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors.
The general style of works of the
Cosmati school is more closely
related to Romanesque art, even though some of the buildings they
worked in are Gothic, as in their main lines are their larger
structures, especially in the elaborate altar-canopies, with their
pierced geometrical tracery. In detail, however, they differ widely
from the purer Gothic of northern countries. The richness of effect
which the English or French architect obtained by elaborate and
carefully worked mouldings was produced in Italy by the beauty of
polished marbles and jewel-like mosaics; the details being mostly
rather coarse and often carelessly executed.
Initial inspiration for the technique was Byzantine, transmitted
Ravenna and Sicily, but some of the minutely-figured tiling
patterns are Islamic in origin, transmitted through Sicily.
Ecclesiastical patronage in
Rome dried up with the removal of the
Papacy to Avignon in 1305, and by the time the curial court had
returned and the ensuing schism had been settled a hundred years
later, the craft tradition had lapsed. The differential resistance of
the stones used in
Cosmati work, marbles, porphyry and other colored
stones has resulted in uneven wear on pavements, which have been
periodically repaired, whether finely or coarsely, since the late
Middle Ages, with the result that modern assessments of the quality of
individual works may be compromised by overlooking later repairs.
^ P. Fedele, "Sul commercio delle antichità in Roma nel XII secolo",
Archivio della Società Romana di Storia Patria 32 (1909:465-70),
noted in Robert Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical
Antiquity (Oxford: Blackwell) 1973:9.
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This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cosmati".
Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Catholic Encyclopedia 1908: "
Dorothy Glass, 1984.
Linda Grant and Richard Mortimer, 2002. Westminster Abbey: The Cosmati
Pavements Courtauld Institute Research Papers, 3. On-line review
Paloma Pajarez-Ayuela, 2001.
Cosmatesque Ornament: Flat Polychrome
Geometric Patterns in Architecture (london and New York: WW Norton)
"Westminster Abbey: Protecting the ‘end of the