Born in 1938 in Spilimbergo, in the region of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Giovanni Travisanutto frequented the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli, a vocational school for mosaicists, where he was hired as a teacher after graduation. He has since become an internationally famous mosaicist known for his work in the New York City subway and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – from the secular to the holy.

Please tell us about your background.

Back in 1949, when I was 11, I was enrolled in the school for mosaicists in Spilimbergo. It was the postwar period, and my father Gaetano knew that the school would teach me a trade, which was fundamental to finding to work anywhere in the world. I remained at the school until 1970. That year was a turning point. An American mosaicist with Friulian origins came to visit the school. He was looking for a teacher to bring overseas to train young Americans in the traditional technique of mosaic. I decided to pack my bags, knowing how difficult it would be to leave my wife Lina and my two children Flavia and Fabrizio (six and two) behind in Italy. Four years later, we succeeded in reuniting and began a serene life together in New York. Those were years of constant, relentless work, many mosaic creations, and much appreciation, and we lived tranquilly. After coming to an agreement with Crovatto Mosaics, where I worked in New York, we headed back to Spilimbergo in 1979. I opened my own workshop, which I now run with my son Fabrizio.

What purpose does art serve if not to improve our life?

Every success is correlated to a mountain of sacrifice, humility and labour.

Is there a person or event that influenced your professional life?

Every single artist I have worked with has given me something positive. Our craft is not just an end in itself, but an enthusiastic exchange of ideas between us artisans and the artist, meaning the person who makes the design. The episode that influenced me most was definitely going to New York and working there in the early 1970s. From that moment onward, everything was different.

How is a mosaic made?

A mosaic always originates in an artist's sketch. He is the one who creates the idea, and he is generally the one who is asked by a client to make the project. We come into the picture when synergy has already been created between client and artist, leading to a sketch, drawing or painting. Our task is to construct a mosaic that is true to the style the artist wishes to transmit. There are many mosaic techniques, from the most traditional to the most abstract, and they include the Byzantine and Romanesque methods. We need to know all of them in order to render our work in the best possible way. We enlarge the drawing to a life-size scale, select the colours together with the artist, and create the mosaic. Naturally, we also supervise the actual laying of our artistic mosaics. Our service is meticulous, timely and customised.

You mentioned your 9-year stay in New York City in the 1970s. What did you learn in the Big Apple that was different from the school tradition in Spilimbergo?

The Big Apple is a miniaturised global world. There is a bit of everything; every bite has a different flavour. Regarding mosaic laying, I did not learn much, but on a human level I gained much experience. I met world-famous artists, and savoured the incredibly fast pace of life. All this marked me profoundly and influenced me for the rest of my life. New York teaches you to think quickly, act without wasting time, be brave and follow your dreams. It is a city that exalts the capable and massacres the mediocre without mercy, without ifs or buts.

Mosaic techniques have been handed down over millennia. Is it possible to unite tradition and innovation? How?

We are firmly convinced that all mosaic techniques have already been explored, but you need to know them very well in order to propose them to different artists. The artists are really the ones who bring innovation through their contemporary and original designs. The mosaic technique is always traditional. One century ago, you only saw classic mosaics laid with a technique that was employed to copy the most realistic paintings. In the 1980s, there was an explosion of more modern techniques using large and small tesserae. Going back in history, we see that each period is characterised by a particular style. Just think of the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. In my view, nothing combines design innovation with the tradition of artistic expression better than mosaic.

During your career, you have made hundreds of works, including decorations in the New York Subway and in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. How do you combine the secular and the religious? Does one influence the other?

I think there is not much exchange of influence between the mosaics we make in public places and the ones we make in big cathedrals around the world. To the contrary, I think the two are quite separate. We are the only mosaic atelier in the world to be famous in both sectors. This happened because we have always cultivated attentive relationships in both domains. For the religious work, you need to been well schooled in the classical and Byzantine techniques, which vary according to whether you are dealing with the Catholic or the Orthodox Church. For public places, the situations are highly diverse according to the artist preparing the design. When you work for a church, you are aware of the responsibility of having to execute a mosaic that must show and transmit a sense of faith, a religious creed. People expect a lot from work of this nature, and we must rise to the challenge of important requests from the wide range of contexts we are called upon to work in.

What is your source of inspiration?

Always strictly the design of the artist and his indications. This is why it is so important to be able to communicate with the artist before every project, so that there is perfect correspondence between his expectations and what our hands will create. Let us not forget that mosaics last eternally.

How important are training, competence and creativity in the mosaicist's profession?

Training is all. It takes years to become acquainted with all the techniques, which comes after having frequented a mosaic school. Every project teaches you something. After having realised many hundreds of works in every corner of the world, we are still here learning and talking to one another about new ideas. Competence is a consequence of training. There is no competence without knowledge, and knowledge cannot be bought. You acquire it over many years. As for creativity, I'd say that it is a condition you cannot do without in this trade, where everything is done by hand, where we transform a coloured material into complex shapes and patterns.

Is there an episode you remember with particular emotiveness?

In many years of work, episodes worth remembering are numerous indeed. Generally, we remember the artists more than the mosaics we made for them. The bond we form is so strong. I won't mention one event as the most important, but it is a beautiful thing to see the emotion and satisfaction on the faces of the people we work with when they see the finished mosaic. We are all like ships passing in the night, but to think that future generations will sometimes pause and look at one of our works is decidedly the most thrilling feeling of our craft. It happens that I see people observing one of our projects in a subway station or airport. It is great to think that each one of them receives a small amount of pleasure from the beauty transmitted from that particular artistic mosaic. What purpose does art serve if not to improve our life?

What advice would you give to young people interested in learning the mosaic craft?

I'd give them but two pieces of advice.

One: your market will be the world, so see to it that you speak English better than your mother tongue. Every person who contacts you must feel in good, professionally secure hands. Each client must be sure that he is understood perfectly.

Two: never be in a hurry. In this world, success linked to art does not arrive immediately, unlike in other sectors. In our craft, what counts is being very, very skilled. Many years are needed to learn, and sometimes even this is not enough to find your own market. But what is certain is this: if you become a good mosaicist who knows all the techniques, you will always find work and be appreciated for what you are able to do.

I don't know if this concept is easy to accept in an era where everything must be had immediately, and where professionalism is readily sold in exchange for short cuts, quick money and improbable promises. We must keep one eye on tomorrow, and one watchful eye on the past. Every success is correlated to a mountain of sacrifice, humility and labour.