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A unique part of Rennes's heritage, mosaic art has left its mark not only on the Breton capital, but on the entire west of France. It all started with the Odorico family, who settled in Rennes in 1882. Their work marked beginning of a tale spanning two generations of Italian artists and craftsmen, who decorated many buildings in and around the city of Rennes. Their rich artistic heritage can still be admired today on the city's guided tours.
The Odorico saga began in Paris. Having completed work on the Palais Garnier, many of Italy's mosaic specialists decided to settle in other regions of France. The Odorico family, originally from Friuli, were part of this movement and first moved to Tours, before venturing further west to settle in Rennes in 1882.
THEY CAME FOR THE PALAIS GARNIER AND LEFT TO CONQUER BRITTANY
"Italy was overflowing with mosaic artists, but there were only a handful in France," explains Philippe Bohuon, architecture and heritage assistant coordinator in Rennes Métropole's art and history department. "The construction of the Palais Garnier brought the technique back into fashion. When it opened in 1875, many prominent figures travelled from all over France to attend shows at the opera. This is when they started rediscovering mosaics."
The Italian craftsmen seized the opportunity to establish themselves in a new market: France. Some opted for Marseille, like the Patrizio family whose descendants are currently restoring the Poirier building on avenue Janvier in Rennes, while others headed for Nevers or Limoges. Many also chose to stay in Paris. Just like all good entrepreneurs, the Italian mosaic artists divided the market up into carefully allocated geographical sectors to support rather than compete with each other. The Italian diaspora worked together to generate business from their tesserae – the distinctive, tiny glistening tiles.
After taking the gamble to head west, the Odorico brothers, Vincent and Isidore, encountered a rather difficult beginning. But they nevertheless succeeded in establishing a mosaics industry in Rennes. The second generation of Odoricos (Isidore's son, also called Isidore) reaped the rewards as the industry began to blossom in western France, branching out into Nantes, Angers and Dinard.
"Above and beyond a renewed appreciation for mosaics, several other factors explain the Odorico's success in Rennes. Firstly, new techniques, such as the indirect method, helped reduced costs and accelerate production," states Gilles Brohan, architecture and heritage coordinator and head of the Rennes Métropole art and history department. "In parallel, Brittany's boom in tourism, which saw the construction of seaside villas, generated work for Italian mosaic artists. And another factor that favoured this new decorative feature was its easy upkeep, which correlated with improvements in hygiene at the time."
MOSAICS MAKE A COMEBACK
Odorico mosaics had become the latest trend. At the turn of the 20th century, mosaic seemed to be the perfect material for public buildings, be it schools, nurseries or swimming pools. The best example in Rennes is the stunning Saint-Georges swimming pool, which was decorated in 1925 and became a listed building in 2016. It is a fine example of hygienic architecture and was clearly a sound investment, as swimmers still use the pool today to do lengths along its 96-metre frieze rippling with green and brown enamel. In Rennes, the craftsmanship of the Odorico family is also displayed on various other monuments, shops and churches.
IN HOMES AND AT SCHOOLS, MOSAICS WERE A MUST!
Mosaics were also popular in the home, with bathrooms being introduced in all houses in the early 20th century. "Even the parquet used in the entrances of older buildings and houses was being replaced by mosaics, which made it easier to clean interiors," explains Philippe Bohuon. The same was also true in schools. The Jules Ferry Laws supported the construction of educational facilities everywhere, bringing with them mosaic benches for practical work. One of the oldest classrooms in Rennes at the Emile Zola high school is completely covered in mosaics.
Originally luxurious features in churches, mosaics were quickly becoming popular for their practicality as well as for the plethora of designs they allowed.
The indirect method, which allowed 50 cm long patterns to be designed in workshops, made simple, geometric designs much more accessible. But it wasn't just their technical skill that set the Odorico family apart. "The Odoricos knew how to incorporate small pieces of glass into quite dark cement compositions, bringing out the colours in the light," explains Philippe Bohuon. This became the Odorico signature and contributed to their success throughout Brittany.
ART DECO: THE GOLDEN AGE
The second generation developed this artistic flair. Isidore Odorico studied at the Rennes Fine Art School. According to Gilles Brohan, "his artistic vision enabled him to rework patterns and be more creative, while the first generation was more concerned with perpetuating and reproducing ancient methods." At the height of the Art Deco movement, the young Odorico, a talented artist, designed some highly original creations..
The classic stylised forms of Rennes's original mosaic craftsmen gave way to more liberal forms and lines in materials and colours that changed in the 1920s. While 19th century mosaic artists worked with marble or stone, the second generation used cement and ceramics, which were much cheaper.
Another advantage of Art Deco designs was that their abstract and geometric forms required fewer cuts. Despite this, the Odoricos were tasked with some highly specific and prestigious commissions. Le Petit Caruhel villa in Etables-sur-Mer, for example, boasts mosaic floors designed by painter Maturin Méheut, while the Sainte-Thérèse church in Rennes is decorated with both Art Deco designs and figurative religious art. The skill of the Odoricos resided in their ability to simultaneously incorporate ancient and artistic craftsmanship and to execute specific commissions while maintaining their immediately recognisable style.
Many mosaics, particularly those from the second generation, can still be admired today on the guided tours organised by the Tourist Office. The inter-war period was particularly prolific for the Odoricos in Rennes, when their workshops employed around 100 people. At that time, Rennes was the most significant producer of mosaics in France.
HERITAGE TO DISCOVER AND PROTECT
The first workshops located on rue Joseph Sauveur later moved to larger premises on rue de Léon, which has now been turned into apartments. Part of the mosaic facade can still be admired at the Museum of Brittany in the Champs Libres, where a large exhibition on Odorico was held in 2009. Another part can still be seen at the original site, offering one more hidden treasure to add to the Breton capital's long list! Many others often resurface during renovation works. Lifting 1950s lino can sometimes uncover beautiful mosaic bathrooms, for example. Daniel Enocq, an Odorico mosaics enthusiast from Rennes, lists every mosaic he finds to ensure this heritage lives on. (see his interview in French on the Unidivers website).
The Odorico family, who were in business until 1978, is undoubtedly part of what makes Rennes's heritage so unique. From the city centre's covered market to the Saint-Georges swimming pool, the Valton building on rue d’Antrain, the post office at République, rue de la Monnaie or the Sainte-Thèrèse church, Odorico's legacy is a must-see on any trip to Rennes. Sometimes, all it takes is a visit to a shop (the Regard-Marine opticians at place Sainte-Anne, La Taverne de la Marine at place de Bretagne, the pharmacy at place Saint-Michel, or Jean Cédric's food store under the arches of the Rennes Opera House) to find a mosaic-embellished floor.
MOSAICS HAVE LEFT THEIR MARK ON THE CITY
"The Odorico family has left its mark on the city of Rennes and the entire north-west of France," concludes Philippe Bohuon. "Even the post offices in Cancale, central Saint-Malo, Saint-Briac and Saint-Lunaire have been decorated with Odorico mosaics, just like the post offices in Rennes and Vitré."
So far, Odorico mosaics have been identified in 122 towns in western France. Rennes houses the most impressive remnants of this centuries-old craft, which has survived since Antiquity and was modernised by the Odorico family.