Luciana, the owner of the mosaic school in Ravenna where I am attending a five day workshop, told us yesterday morning that we were going to be Roman slaves, spending the rest of the day cutting marble into little pieces (tesserae) for our mosaics. We were each given the ancient tools - a hammer-like object, rounded at the top with carbide blades at the tips, and a hardie, a striking surface that is embedded in a log of wood.
The hammer is large, and the mosaic tesserae are tiny, and at first it seemed impossible that such an unwieldy instrument could cut anything precisely (at least in my hands!). It also looked difficult to be holding a hammer, but Luciana reassured us that it is actually healthier on the body to work with these tools than to use a modern tile nipper, which you squeeze in one hand to cut the material. Repeated use of the nipper can lead to carpal tunnel problems, whereas the Roman tools won't. I felt better knowing that the Roman slaves who prepared the mosaics did not go home each night will extraordinary pain in their arms.
Once I got into the groove of cutting marble, it was quite meditative. The trick is to rest the hammer on the log between taps (very little force is required to cut even marble!), to maintain an erect posture, and to trust oneself to hit the material and not one's fingers (which steady the object being cut). After a few hours I had a growing collection of small to tiny rectangles of marble, some of which I'd use in my mosaic.
We could choose to copy one of a dozen designs that the school pre-selected, none of which really grabbed me. But I had to decide so I selected an image of a duck that comes from a floor mosaic in Tiberias, Israel, figuring it would be a way to link my travels. In an attempt to spice up my image, I used my new cutting skills to create tiny and shiny red glass tips for the duck's feet, decking it out for a night on the town.