"Rome, once the mistress of the world, is mainly represented at the Exhibition by specimens of sculpture, cameo, and mosaic work, for which she has long been celebrated". So wrote a contributor to the Illustrated Exhibitor who was inspired after viewing the Italian Contributions to the World's Fair at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
The ancient art of the mosaic was first popularised during the 16th century and was adopted by Byzantine mosaicists before becoming institutionalized towards the end of the century. In 1576 The Vatican Mosaic Workshop (Studio del Mosaico della Fabbrica della Basilica di S. Pietro) was established for the embellishment of St. Peter's. The city of Rome soon became renowned for the technique, and in particular for copies of great Renaissance and Baroque paintings, initially intended for the Vatican basilica, and in Vasari's words, 'appear at a distance as genuine and beautiful pictures'.
Soon after 1757, the mosaicists of the Workshop had completed decoration of the cupolas at St Peter's and feared for their jobs. As such, they independently began the production of mosaici in piccolo, or micromosaics. Their market consisted of royal travellers, connoisseurs and collectors visiting Rome on the Grand Tour.
Prior to the 18th century, the technique was based on the use of hardstones, but inspired by an antique Venetian method, Giacomo Raffaelli, began to use small pieces of coloured glass or smalti filati to form the image. This technique enabled artisans to produce micromosaics in a remarkable range of colours, tones and shadows during the golden age of the Grand Tour. These mosaics eventually appeared at the great trade exhibitions in Europe beginning in the second half of the 18th Century
Depicted here is the sultry face of a Bacchante, or Maenad, wreathed and festooned with vines and grape-clusters. She is a symbol of revelry and festivity, the devotee of Bacchus, the god of wine and festivities in Roman mythology. Note her cheeks flushed from consumption. Although the specific source for this portrait remains untraced, it is interesting to note that she bears resemblence to several images of Bacchantes produced in sculpture and painting in the 19th century, including the celebrated model executed by Clesinger.
In 1828, one of the most renowned mosaicisti or artist in tesserae of the early 19th century, Michelangelo Barberi (d.1867) executed a mosaic table top for a Mr. Neeld of London. The circular top which incorporates at its central panel a bearded head of Bacchus, sold together with its bronze base at Christie's London 12 June 1997, lot 30. A smaller related micromosaic portraying a companion Bacchante in a pose very similar to the present example and attributed to Barberi sold Christie's London 26 October 2000, lot 86.
It has also been suggested that the present plaque may be a depiction of Bacchus himself. If so, the depiction could have derived from 18th century portraits of a youthful diety, with long hair and softer features. Caravaggio and Gros both painted such images. For a similar monochromactic micromosaic depiction of a hirsute Bacchus portrayed in profile and wearing a choker, by Clemente Ciuli and dated 1804, see Gonzalez-Palacio, p. 124.