Terrazzo Around the World: The Rise of Terrazzo in Italy

Mosaic & Terrazzo have a very long history

Italy’s contribution to the world of art is immense, with the mere mention of any number of artists conjuring up vivid images in the mind’s eye. Who cannot visualize David and The Pieta by Michelangelo, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper? Art lovers revere The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, The School of Athens by Raphael and The Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti. We could go on, but suffice it to say, Italian art has flowed throughout the centuries from sculptures and canvas to murals and architectural designs displayed in Italy’s most applauded buildings. And this is where our story begins.

To understand the rise of terrazzo in Italy, we must first start with mosaic tile. First noted in the third millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia, small mosaic stones and glass were widely used in Ancient Greek and Roman times to produce both works of art and in architectural design. Christian basilicas dating back to the fourth century were decorated with mosaic walls and ceilings with the medium reaching a pinnacle of popularity in the Byzantine Empire from the sixth to fifteenth centuries. During the Renaissance, artists including Raphael continued to practice the technique. In fact, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was elaborately decorated with mosaic frescoes in the dome and huge mosaic murals on the wall. With just a glance, you might assume the artwork was created with the stroke of a brush, rather than tiny pieces of tile. The images are masterful and the attention to detail extremely meticulous.

Whether for grand scale projects or a wealthy client’s home improvement job, experienced artisans were needed to lay mosaic tile. Venetian craftsmen, primarily from the Fruili Region, excelled in the art of mosaic tile placement in the mid-sixteenth century and were often in demand. During their work for others, the mosaic tile workers were inspired to turn the remnants into the beautiful creation we’ve come to know as terrazzo.

Patterns Of Rome by @yunabonet Instagram

Left with oddly shaped pieces of marble after completing mosaic projects, the artisans decided to make use of the small chunks by mixing them with clay to create terraces at their homes. Terrazzo, which means terrace in Italian, is the term these craftsmen began using to refer to their newly created flooring material. And while they may not have intended it, their recycling of materials into terrazzo created an eco-friendly product, which we surely appreciate today.

Smoothing the terrazzo with a rubbing stone by hand proved to be a back-breaking task and eventually sparked the invention of the galera. Featuring a long handle, the galera allowed for more pressure to be applied by the rubbing stone with less effort. This solved one problem, but the surface still lacked the brilliance the artisans wanted to recreate like the luster of marble.  While we will never know who came up with this ingenious idea, workers began sealing their terrazzo floors with goat’s milk to produce a highly-polished look. Yes, goat’s milk.

Once mastered, the popularity of terrazzo began to grow. Michelangelo, in fact, chose to use terrazzo in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546. With beautiful terrazzo underfoot and gorgeous mosaic tiles adorning the ceilings and walls, this iconic building brings the history of terrazzo full-circle to its roots as a by-product of mosaic.

Widely used in the palaces of Venetian nobility, terrazzo was not only admired for its beauty, but also for its flexibility to adapt to the continual sinking of Venice’s foundations. Terrazzo did not crack as easily as other materials when exposed to moisture.  To decrease the odds of water damage, floors were hand-laid then compacted with a Venetian pile driver called a battipalo wielded by battipali (pole beaters).

The mixing of marble and stone with clay followed by smoothing and compacting it with hand tools was the predominant technique used to produce terrazzo from the mid-sixteenth century to relatively recent times.  Eventually, cement replaced clay, and bits of painted glass and tile found their way into the surface. In 1924, electric grinding equipment essentially replaced the galera. The battipalo was eventually phased out. Mid-twentieth century polymers, resins, and epoxies were added to the mix to reduce cracking and increase durability. But what about the goat’s milk? That’s been long gone with today’s terrazzo featuring a solid and impenetrable surface that requires no surface sealant. Occasional buffing and polishing are all that is needed to retain its lustrous shine.

Given its reputation for durability, terrazzo became an ideal choice for many twentieth-century public buildings including schools and government offices around the world. In the hands of artisans, terrazzo has been fashioned into breath-taking works of art found in hotels, restaurants, and shops around the world, not to mention private homes. Today, terrazzo is currently viewed as a luxury finish gracing floors, walls, kitchen countertops and more. Generally using recycled materials, terrazzo is also volatile organic compound (or VOC)  free, further cementing its eco-friendly status with environmentally conscious twenty-first-century consumers.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition of tradition and technology more apparent than at TREND Group’s world headquarters in the Villa alle Scalette. Overlooking the heart of Vicenza, Italy, the villa’s seventeenth-century façade has been painstakingly restored, while the interior has been transformed with contemporary and cutting edge materials. This fusion of past and present is a living demonstration of the infinite applications of the creative capabilities of the TREND Group.

TREND Group’s world headquarters in the Villa alle Scalette. Overlooking the heart of Vicenza, Italy, the villa’s seventeenth-century façade has been painstakingly restored, while the interior has been transformed with contemporary & cutting edge materials. This fusion of past & present is a living demonstration of the infinite applications & the creative capabilities of terrazzo
Villa alle Scalette, perched atop the heart of Vicenza, Italy

We also embody the tradition of Italian artistry into all the terrazzo products we produce. At our plant in Vivaro, Italy, we manufacture our company’s specialty mosaic glass lines, producing over 600 square meters of mosaic per month. We also own and operate the charming Orsoni glass foundry in Venezia, Italy as it still manufactures mosaic in the centuries-old manner our artisan customers require. Art and science meet when we turn individual glass mosaic tiles, produced in Italy and India, into uniform sheets with exquisitely detailed designs at manufacturing facilities in the United States, Australia, and Bulgaria. These products are distributed to our customers through our locations strategically located around the world.

Committed to providing each customer with unparalleled quality, learn more about our line of beautiful, sustainable products today. Just give us a call at  (866) 508-7363 or send us an email at info-us@trend-group.com. At TREND Group, we believe the only limit to creating superb designs is the imagination. We encourage you to view some of our amazing projects by visiting our Gallery.

Leave a Comment