Sorrento is famous for its wooden mosaics. Surprised? Me too - so I decided to do some exploration into the traditional craft of marquetry, often referred to simply as 'inlay' (or intarsio, in Italian.)
Strolling down the narrow backstreets of Sorrento's shopping district, one sees that the industry of marquetry is thriving here - shops are everywhere. Sorrento inlay work boasts unsurpassed quality, beauty and craftsmanship - it has even acquired its own descriptive title: Sorrento Ware and there is a museum in town dedicated to the history of the craft.
The art of intarsio is very old (there have been inlaid wood objects found in Turkey that date back to 350BC.) The tradition was mostly likely brought to Italy in the 15th century - first to Florence then, later, to Sorrento. Since the 19th century highly skilled Sorrento artisans have created a vast range of inlay works ranging from intricate jewelry and music boxes, chessboards and furniture, to the stunning wooden panels in the Sorrento Cathedral:
The technique of wood inlay is extremely delicate. First a drawing is made on a wooden veneer that acts template for the design. Shapes are painstakingly cut from various types of wood that determine the desired color, and then the pieces are shaped. The tessera are less thick than a millimeter thick! The pieces all resemble an intricate layered puzzle. After being cut they are shaded by immersion into hot sand.
Lastly, the wooden tessera are assembled and secured to the wooden surface, sanded and varnished. The final image is flush to the surface and glossy smooth. Every work is unique piece of art.
Unfortunately, the art of intarsio is suffering a fate similar to so many of these small, artisan traditions - it appears that young people are no longer interested in maintaining the craft. So, I say we better get out there and get those authentic Sorrento music boxes while we can! (I would be happy to go back to Sorrento and pick one out for you!)