An exterior view of St. Peter’s Basilica belies the magic of the mosaics that adorn the building’s interior.

In a tucked-away workshop restricted from the crowds of Vatican City, highly skilled artisans painstakingly preserve and create traditional Italian artworks.

On a chilly, gray February day in the heart of Vatican City, several hundred tourists line up in St. Peter’s Square, waiting to enter its famed Basilica. Inside the church, busloads of more tourists mill around, hoisting cameras high into the air in an effort to see and photograph famous artworks: Michelangelo’s 15th-century Pietà, Bernini’s towering, bronze baldacchino, and hundreds of mosaics that adorn the basilica’s walls and the underside of its nearly 450-foot-high dome, another Michelangelo marvel.

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In another corner of the Vatican’s campus, several hundred yards away on the other side of an airport-style security checkpoint, stands a different building—smaller and much more discreet—that houses still more colorful mosaics. But here, there’s not a single tourist in sight. That’s because the building, the Studio del Mosaico Vaticano, or Vatican Mosaic Studio, is an active workspace for a team of highly skilled artists and craftspeople whose job is to restore and preserve the centuries-old mosaics inside St. Peter’s Basilica. They are also responsible for creating specially commissioned pieces for private buyers, as well as mosaics that will be given by Pope Francis and future pontiffs to visiting dignitaries.

Artists use centuries-old techniques to create mosaics that will be gifted by the pope or sold.

Inside a seldom-seen space

The Vatican Mosaic Studio, which is a few doors down from the pope’s private residence, is almost entirely restricted from public access. But visitors who book Vatican tours with a select few officially recognized guides can gain entry upon special request. On this day, we’re shown into the studio by Simone Amorico, the 38-year-old CEO of the bespoke, Rome-based tour company Access Italy, which has coordinated this tour.

Inside the almost silent studio, a handful of artists, some of them wearing lab coat–style smocks over their clothes, sit at individual workstations. Each nook is equipped with an easel and is littered with stacks of books and wooden trays filled with piles of tiny, colored glass tiles, which are made on site in nearly 28,000 different colors. To create the mosaics, each artist cuts his or her own tiles and uses tweezers to place each glass piece into a plaster base—the same manual method that mosaic artists have used for several centuries.

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Mosaics of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Christ the Redeemer adorn the interior dome of St. Peter’s Basilica

A new kind of art arrives at the Vatican

Mosaics first appeared in the Vatican at the end of the 16th century. Pope Gregory XIII had become enamored of the art form and wanted to adorn the interiors of St. Peter’s Basilica with the glittering artworks. So he recruited mosaic artists from Venice, whose 11th-century St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the best-known examples of Byzantine architecture and mosaics, to come to the Vatican to teach Roman craftsmen how to make similar mosaics themselves.

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In addition to learning the art of such mosaics, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman craftsmen pioneered a new technique, known as smalti filati, that allowed them to create tiny tiles; the resulting mosaics were so detailed that they could easily be confused for paintings.

During construction of St. Peter’s Basilica from 1506 to 1626, using both their learned skills and the smalti filati technique, Roman artisans blanketed nearly 108,000 square feet of its interiors, including its Gregorian Chapel and Michelangelo’s dome, with astonishingly detailed mosaics that are still intact today. In 1727, the Vatican Mosaic Studio was established to give the artists and craftspeople a permanent place to work.

Preserving artistic tradition in modern times  

Some 500 years have passed since mosaics became an integral part of the Vatican’s architectural and artistic fabric, but little surrounding the craft has changed, from the way they’re made to the motifs they feature. New mosaics crafted by contemporary Vatican artists vary in size, shape, and subject matter. Some depict tranquil Italian landscapes. Others feature icons of Roman architecture, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum. Still others pay homage to religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary and a certain modern leader of the Catholic church; hanging on a wall just inside the studio’s entrance, a circular, gold-framed mosaic depicts Pope Francis from the shoulders up, barely smiling and dressed in a ruby-red robe. Depending on their size and complexity, the Vatican-made mosaics can set buyers back anywhere from €3,000 to €200,000 (US$3,357 to $US223,834).

An artist works in the quiet Vatican Mosaic Studio. Mosaics can cost up to $230,000.

At the rear of the space, an artist pauses from his work on a mosaic of the Roman Coliseum. He says that mosaics he’s made have gone on to be gifted to several heads of state, the late President George H.W. Bush among them. A narrow wooden shelf directly below his canvas is littered with several thin sticks of uncut glass in amber and chocolate brown. A wooden tray filled with similar sticks in varying shades of green perches nearby. All are signs of the painstaking task at hand. More complex mosaics can take five months or more to make, he says—time well spent to keep this centuries-old art form alive.

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How to visit the Vatican Mosaic Studio

Guides need special access to take guests into the Mosaic Studio, so book in advance. 

Access Italy specializes in creating fully customized tours throughout the country. Its itineraries do not have a minimum number of passengers or dates. An average itinerary is 10 days with a starting price of €1,200 (US$1,335) per day per couple (including accommodation, tours, and transportation).

What a Life Tours offers two-hour tours of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Mosaic Studio for groups of up to 12 people (€89 or about US$100 per adult).

Exploro Tours has two-hour private tours of the Basilica and studio, including private transport to and from your hotel (€300 or US$334 for up to two people).

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