Mosaics offer a vivid picture of ancient Roman life. From dramatic athletic contests to tender portraits of local wildlife, mosaics provide a glimpse at who the Romans were, what they valued, and where they walked.
The new exhibition Roman Mosaics across the Empire (at the Getty Villa through September 12) features examples from Italy, France, North Africa, and Syria, some dating back 2,100 years. Large assemblages of mosaics aren’t usually on display at the Getty Villa—no wonder, given that the largest group in the collection is over 600 square feet and weighs 16,000 pounds!
Exhibition curator Alexis Belis, author of the accompanying digital publication Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum, walked me through some of her favorite facts about mosaics, as well as a few can’t-miss objects in the exhibition.
1. Roman mosaics were meant to be walked on.
Paintings covered the interior walls of Roman villas, but weren’t practical for decorating floors. Enter mosaics: a durable and lavish way to spruce up a room and support foot traffic at the same time.
2. They’re interactive.
Mosaics are designed to be seen from different angles and to change as your perspective moves. A mosaic from LACMA’s collection, on view in the exhibition, sports a hunting scene around the border, encouraging you to walk around and look again.
3. The Romans perfected mosaics as an art form.
The Greeks refined the art of figural mosaics by embedding pebbles in mortar. The Romans took the art form to the next level by using tesserae (cubes of stone, ceramic, or glass) to form intricate, colorful designs.
4. Mosaics are full of drama and violence.
Action scenes, violent hunts, exotic creatures, and angsty mythological episodes are all frequent subjects on mosaics. The dramatic scene below, for example, shows a lion sinking its fangs into the haunch of a fleeing bull.
5. Mosaics were symbols of wealth and status.
Blending art and home décor, Roman mosaics were commissioned to adorn and impress guests inside private homes and villas. Wealthy Romans chose themes to reflect their status: mythological stories would show off a man’s book learning, while scenes of wild animals being captured for fights in the arena might highlight his sponsorship of public games.
6. To get special colors, mosaic artists used glass and imported stones.
Mosaic artisans relied on local stones for the bulk of their work, but imported unusual colors for special highlights. When no stone would do, they turned to glass in bright colors like blue and green.
7. They’re as brightly colored now as they were 2,000 years ago.
Mosaics are made of stone and glass, which fade hardly at all.
8. The most detailed Roman mosaics use small stones to achieve an effect like brushstrokes.
Especially in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, artists “painted” with stone, using small, vivid tesserae that resemble Pointillist daubs of pigment. (See the image at the top of this post.)
9. Mosaics tell us about ancient history.
Mosaics are significant not only as art, but as evidence of where and how people lived, worked, and thought. The locations and architectural settings of many mosaics have been recorded over the centuries by archaeologists, helping illuminate their cultural context.
10. Many mosaics lay under the soil for thousands of years.
Because they are built into the foundations of buildings, mosaics are among the best-preserved of all forms of Roman art. Frescoes were knocked down and bronze sculptures melted for reuse, but countryside ruins often sat undisturbed for centuries under layers of soil and vegetation.
11. The Romans sometimes redecorated, adding new mosaics on top of old ones.
The Roman rich weren’t so different from those today—they liked to update. This mosaic of the Medusa was found on top of another mosaic of a marine scene. Instead of demoing the original floor, the contractors just put the new one on top.
12. Where the Romans went, so did mosaics.
The spread of mosaics parallels the vast spread of Roman power, from France to Syria to Tunisia. And like the rest of Roman culture, mosaics in different places reveal a combination of local traditions and Roman influence.
13. Just like music and fashion today, mosaic styles had their fads.
In Italy and Gaul (France) in the first century A.D., black and white mosaics came into style—and no one is really sure why. Cost savings? Not likely, since the style makes an appearance at the villa of Roman emperor Hadrian, who could afford the best of the best.
14. Thousands of mosaics still dot the landscape in the Mediterranean Region and North Africa.
Partners in the international MOSAIKON initiative are working to improve the conservation, presentation, and management of these mosaics, many of which are still in situ (in their original archaeological locations).
15. Mosaic artists had different styles, which you can see if you look closely.
Large mosaics were a massive undertaking, requiring the hands of more than one expert. If you look closely at the Bear Hunt Mosaic in Roman Mosaics across the Empire you can see an example: the two faces in the far right corners have different styles, colors, and quality, revealing that different hands made them.