Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, July 6, 2009

Generous Gift Showcases Roman Mosaic

The Romans used mosaic art extensively throughout their empire. From Britain to the Middle East, examples of many different mosaic techniques have been discovered. Like much of Roman art, the mosaic technique was something that they absorbed and modified to suite their own artistic needs. The earliest mosaic examples come from Mesopotamia, dating from the 2nd millennia BCE. Those examples are primarily geometric in design using different colored tesserae. The Ancient Greeks embraced mosaics, decorating their floors with geometric designs made of tesserae or pebbles. In the royal Macedonian city of Pella we find some wonderful examples of figurative scenes executed in mosaic and during the Hellenistic period mosaic art would reach a new height. It is from the Hellenistic model that the Romans developed their mosaic art. Many famous Roman mosaics, such as the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, are thought to be based on Hellenistic paintings. Pompeii is famous for its many beautiful mosaics, but elsewhere in Italy and throughout the Roman world, many astounding mosaics have been found.

Artistic tastes in Rome fluctuated then just as they do today. First of all there were several different mosaic techniques that were in use, some being more popular than others at different times. The three most popular mosaic techniques were Opus Vermiculatum, Opus Tessalatum and Opus Sectile. Opus Vermiculatum was by far the most sophisticated mosaic technique, utilizing the smallest tesserae in a dazzling range of colors. Many fine examples, such as the Dove Basin Mosaic from Tivoli, showcase this technique. Opus Tessalatum utilized black and white tesserae and was primarily used to form geometric patterns, though figurative scenes using this technique became popular. Opus Sectile focused on patterns made out of large pieces of stone, usually different colored marble. The floor of the Curia Julia in Rome is a good example of this technique. Different techniques were also used in conjunction. An Emblemata was a small, finely made Opus Vermiculatum "picture" that was surrounded by a large area of geometric designs in Opus Tessalatum.
Thanks to a generous gift from the Leon Levy Foundation the Shelby White, Israelis will now be able to view a beautiful Roman mosaic once again. The Lod Mosaic is a huge, 600 square foot mosaic floor dating from around 300 CE. The mosaic was discovered in 1996 but had been subsequently reburied due to lack of funds for its preservation. That has changed thanks to the gift of $2.5 million to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The money will be used to build a new facility to house and preserve the mosaic. Money for the preservation of the world's ancient sites is always in short supply and it's refreshing to see such generous philanthropy at work to protect the Lod Mosaic.