Colors of the Romans Exhibit Highlights Ancient Mosaic Art
A new mosaic art exhibition in Rome is available for fans and visitors. It’s not large, but the carefully chosen pieces are here to tell a story. The curation team chose each to help in presenting “a significant cross-section of Roman culture”.
The exhibit, which is open at the Centrale Montemartini Museum through June 2022, is a must-see for visitors to the city. The individual pieces have been pulled from various Capitoline museums throughout the capital, and some haven’t been on display in decades.
The selections include mosaic wall art and more from the period between the 1st century BC and the 4th. These are shown alongside frescoes and sculptures that furnished the buildings of the Romans, providing context and insight into their trends and tastes. For example, popular colors of their time are used. Unchanged by time, these are surprisingly bright and well-preserved. We’ve often talked about how our favorite type of art is more durable than any other ancient art form – and it’s definitely proven here. Once again, mosaic artwork brings ancient times into the present – immersing visitors in a world that no longer exists.
Entering that world has been assisted by the exhibition’s four thematic sections, which follow a chronological order. Here are some of the highlights for your viewing pleasure.
The first exhibit area showcases the history and techniques of Roman mosaic. The works chosen represent all types of mosaic floors and wall decorations – illustrating techniques, materials, colors, decorative motifs, and the way mastery of the art form progressed.
This section of floor looks quite modern, doesn’t it? It’s an example of a “Woven” floor mosaic with colored stone inserts (crustae), from the late first century BCE. The name stems from their pattern, where tiles had been set in pairs in alternating instructions. It was just the beginning!
In contrast, this piece from the 2nd century AD shows how the availability of smaller mosaic tiles (called emblema) from Greece allowed artists to create more detailed images. This fragment features polychrome tiles with natural calcite.
This was an important advance. Mosaic became a respected and wildly popular art form – and ancient Romans began using it everywhere. Walls, fountains, tombs, temples: all were splashed with mosaic art. As materials improved, so did the images. The first section shows how the availability of colored glass, shaped tiles, and demand for lifelike images created mosaics that were full of life and subtle shading.
This depiction of a sailing ship was discovered at a villa owned by Claudius Claudianus, a senator and successful shipping magnate. The movement, details, and subtlety of color create an image that seems almost three-dimensional.
In the second part of the exhibit, visitors explore a section devoted to daily life in Rome between the end of the Republican age and the late ancient age. Polychrome mosaics from luxury residences and other spaces are on display. The variety of these artworks helps viewers imagine how they became a part of daily life – both ornamental, but highly functional. It seems that ancient Romans loved mosaic art for the same reasons we do – it was durable, didn’t fade, and was easy to clean.
This floorplan map is a fine example. Where we might rely on a printed sign board today, this lovely piece helped guide bathhouse visitors! With rooms, pools, and waterways all color-coded, it was a functional piece of art.
This incredible Egyptian-themed floor mosaic art was intended for strictly ornamental purposes. It’s part of a villa owned by an unknown fan of the culture. Among the finds was an 13th-century BC-era Rameses II statue, and this piece – showing daily life along the Nile banks.
Even bits of mosaic from a pool area are on display. This piece with seashells is quite similar to the fad for garden grottos in the 18th century.
Here’s a bit of mosaic border with birds – it would look at home in any modern kitchen!
The third section enters the realm of spiritual life in ancient Rome, with some magnificent pieces from the Basilica Hilariana. This piece of the threshold features a potent ward against the Evil Eye. Made with small marble, limestone, and glass tesserae, the composition features an eye at the center – but then it gets complicated. First, it’s being pierced by a lance. An owl is perched above, while a team of that includes a panther, a goat, a bull, a scorpion, a snake, and birds surrounds it. As Romans believed it could cause illness and death, it was a powerful symbol of protection for those who entered.
As the exhibit winds its way into the fourth and final section, a glimpse into the funerary practices of the Romans emerges. Unlike the stark whiteness one might expect in mausoleums and tombs, these mosaic artworks are full of color. These peacocks, for example, were unearthed at a family tomb from the 2nd century AD.
Like many other motifs, funerary ornaments followed trends. Tiled wreaths of flowers and fruits were popular – a more permanent version of the floral offerings that decorated the tombs during memorial ceremonies. Also seen frequently: the eternal cycle of the annual seasons – each personified and identifiable from their seasonal produce. You’ll see blossoms for spring and grapes for autumn, for example.
Have we missed a gem of an exhibition somewhere in the world? Let us know in the comments about some of your favorite mosaic art pieces in museums!
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