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Opus sectile is an art technique popularized in the ancient and medieval Roman world where materials were cut and inlaid into walls and floors to make a picture or pattern. Common materials were marble, mother of pearl, and glass. The materials were cut in thin pieces, polished, then trimmed further according to a chosen pattern. Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design.
Although early examples have been found from Egypt and Asia Minor, the most prominent artifacts remain from 4th century Rome. A large set from the Basilica of Junius Bassus survived, depicting an elaborate chariot and other things. The popularity of opus sectile decoration continued in Rome through the 6th century, and affected areas as far as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey). Particularly remarkable are a series of opus sectile glass panels, found in a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, in excavations carried out in the 1960s; they have scenes of famous authors like Homer and Plato, scenes of Nilotic landscapes, harbour-front cities and geometric panels.
Marble floor inlay, Hadrian's Villa (early 2nd century)
Vegetal pattern from the Palazzo Massimi alle Terme
Although the technique died in Rome with the decline of the Empire, it continued to be used prominently in Byzantine churches, primarily in floor designs. From Byzantium it was eventually brought back to Sicily and the Italian mainland, in the 12th century as the Cosmatesque style, concentrating on geometric patterns. There was a major revival from the Italian Renaissance in the form of pietra dura work, although this normally consists of much smaller compositions and it is used on furniture, mainly. Architectural work from later periods tends to be called Intarsia.
In England, the technique was revived in the late 19th century by artists working in the Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Hardgrave, whose designs were executed by James Powell & Sons at the Whitefriars Glass Works, was a noted designer in this technique.
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- Katherine M.D. Dunbabin, "The Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments," American Journal of Archaeology 86.1 (1982), p. 71.
- James, Liz. "Opus sectile". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press.