Giovanni Travisanutto’s mosaic career began when he was an 11-year-old boy standing on a step stool to reach the workbench at the mosaic school in Spilimbergo, Italy, and ended with him once again reaching new heights as he stood on top of scaffolding about 150 feet in the air, helping to install the mosaic section that would complete both his career and the original plans of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

As he sat in the basilica’s pews on Dec. 7, looking up at the 18,300 square foot mosaic, Travisanutto, who founded the Italian mosaic studio that completed the Trinity Dome Mosaic, recalled how he entered the mosaic craft essentially because he had no other choice.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Travisanutto’s small hometown of Spilimbergo was destroyed, and the only school remaining was the Scuola di Mosaico, where people from across the world are trained in the mosaic craft. So when Travisanutto graduated elementary school, he began school there.

When he began classes, Travisanutto said he was so small that he couldn’t reach the workbench where everyone else was cutting the stones, so he had to pull up a block to stand on. At first, he was discouraged from doing the work and took a brief break from school, but soon returned and eventually graduated, thanks to the help of “a special teacher” who “understood he had to do something to make me on the right track, and he did it,” said Travisanutto.

That teacher, who is now 107 years old, came in his wheelchair to the large warehouse where Travisanutto, his son Fabrizio, and other mosaic workers were completing the project that would be the capstone of Travisanutto’s career. They had rented that space that was separate from their studio, because the mosaic was so large, with the Virgin Mary herself reaching 31 ½ feet tall by 33 feet wide.

Travisanutto Giovanni, the mosaic studio that Travisanutto founded in 1980, also completed the mosaics for the basilica’s Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome, Redemption Dome, and Italian and Hungarian chapels. Travisanutto said every time he was at the basilica, he would look at the Trinity Dome and think it would be impossible to install a mosaic there.

“This one was just a dream,” he said. “We said this would never happen.”

When he got the call from Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector, in September 2015, telling him that they wanted his studio to make the Trinity Dome Mosaic, Travisanutto said his initial reaction was to be happy, but he soon thought, “Oh gee, what do we do now?”

They had the same amount of time to work on the Trinity Dome mosaic as they did for the other two domes, but this dome is five times larger than the previous ones.

The Travisanuttos needed more than their usual 10 workers in order to complete such a large project in so little time, so mosaic workers from different workshops throughout the town of Spilimbergo joined forces to work on it together. From March 2016 until April 2017, the team worked on the mosaic for 10 hours a day, six days a week. 

“You are not allowed to be sick. And no vacation,” said Travisanutto. “Otherwise, we would never finish.”

Despite the grueling schedule, Travisanutto said everybody was excited to be working on the project, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s visit to the workshop was a highlight for the entire town, which has a population of about 11,000 people and is often referred to as the “town of mosaic.”

“When Cardinal Wuerl came there, it was something unbelievable,” said Travisanutto. “He celebrated Mass in our cathedral, because we have a beautiful cathedral, but we had never had a cardinal in our cathedral…so it was a big honor for all the town.”

The cardinal also visited the Travisanutto Giovanni workshop and went around to each workbench, placing a stone in each section that was being worked on.

The mosaic process began with color drawings to scale, which the studio then blew up to the actual size that would be placed in the dome. After the designer approved the larger drawings, they cut the paper into 30,000 sections, which were then covered with numbers that corresponded to thousands of different color shades.

Each part of the mosaic has very precise coloring, and as an example, Travisanutto said the blue garment worn by St. Mark the Evangelist has at last 20 different shades of blue in it, and each person’s face has about 30 different shadings.

Travisanutto compared the process of making the mosaic to an orchestra, with each worker assigned to a particular part that contributes to the whole. Three or four of their best people were assigned to do all of the faces, about 20 people worked on the garments, and the rest were assigned to the background and ornaments.

Travisanutto was overseeing the whole project, but still made time to do a few of the faces of saints himself, including St. Damien of Moloka’i, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, and St. John XXIII, or “Papa Giovanni,” as Travisanutto calls him.

The entire mosaic is made up of more than 14 million pieces of Venetian glass, called “tesserae,” which the workers hand cut with a hammer to create the right size for the design. They used the Reverse or Indirect Method, which creates the mosaic in reverse with the tesserae individually applied by artisans to paper, using a paste made from flour and water that would be dissolved after the mosaic was installed in the dome. After each section was completed in the studio, they were shipped to Washington in 60 boxed crates.

Travisanutto sent three of his own workers to Washington to do the installation, and hired three more, because “the installation has the same importance as the mosaic,” he said. Those workers, who were supervised by Alessandro Casani, had to grout the sections of mosaic, place them on the wall, take off the paper, and make any necessary adjustments before the mosaic dried.

“When we decorate the church, you feel that you do something for your religion, for your people, for the future of your religion,” said Travisanutto, who noted that in contemporary times it is often difficult to express religion without offending somebody. “(But) I don’t think we offend anybody by doing something beautiful,” he added.

Travisanutto noted the long history of artwork in Catholic churches, including the catacombs in Rome, which was used to explain the religion itself before it was common for people to be able to read. But still today, Travisanutto believes artwork serves an important purpose in in churches around the world.

“There has to be some beauty. There has to be somebody happy looking at something,” he said, “Besides the religion, besides the faith, I think if you walk inside this church you feel good. And then it is up to you, how you believe or you don’t believe.”

On June 16, Travisanutto joined Cardinal Wuerl and Msgr. Rossi as they placed the last section of the mosaic in the Trinity Dome. With that project now completed, Travisanutto, who will soon be turning 80, said he will still stop by the mosaic studio every once and a while to say “Buongiorno,” but he trusts his son, who now runs the company, to take over the work.

“For me, (learning they would make the Trinity Dome mosaic) was the best news I had because I knew I would finish with this one,” said Travisanutto. “This is a nice way to finish…It is a dream that came true.”