Near Rome, in the city of Palestrina, there is a small archaeological museum located where the temple of Fortuna Primigenia, famous throughout Italy, once stood. In its highest room, the so-called ‘the Barberini mosaic’, which is the best proof that museums in smaller towns can also hide real treasures and that they are worth visiting.
The mosaic depicts the landscape of Egypt. It is not a specific place, but rather a “symbolic postcard” reminiscent of our tourist advertising collages. In one painting, artists-craftsmen placed various characteristic elements of the Egyptian landscape: from the sources of the Nile high in the mountains (the upper part of the mosaic) to landscapes in the delta. We can interpret the landscape as a meandering river or as the Nile in flood. We see the cultural mix of the Ptolemaic period: Hellenistic temples with slender columns next to traditional, squat sanctuaries with high pylons and huge statues on either side of the entrance gate. There we have amused people during a banquet (an association with Dionysian or Bacchic intoxication immediately arises) next to priests carrying a statue of a deity in an official procession.
The Barberini mosaic is a real treasury of genre scenes, thanks to which we can better imagine the world of Ptolemaic Egypt. The lower part refers to the society and material culture of Egypt. There we can see, for example:
- reed boats and fishermen fishing,
- soldiers in a military rowing ship,
- hunters hunting (from boats!!!) hippos,
- a traveler on a donkey with a servant on foot,
- peasant in the backyard,
- sailing ship arriving at the port,
- a shepherd watering cattle,
- farmers threshing grain (?)
- a group of soldiers under the canopy of some representative building.
The upper part is rather a reference to nature symbolized by a large number of animals: lions, rhinos, gazelles, snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, and hyenas. Interestingly, since the Romans had no previous contact with most of these animals, captions in Greek were added under most of them to help observers identify which animal they were looking at.
The history of the mosaic is very interesting. It was found in Palestrina, at the foot of the hill, in a building adjacent to the ancient forum. As you can guess from the shape, it adorned the floor of a room with a niche in the wall. It is huge: it measures about 6.5 meters by 5.3 meters, so it has an area of over 30 square meters!
It is not certain when it was created, but it is believed to have been created before the Roman conquest of Egypt, probably in the late 2nd century or early 1st century BCE. It is interesting that Egyptian themes became very fashionable a little later, when Egypt became a Roman province, so in a sense, the Barberini Mosaic was ahead of fashion. It is possible that it is a copy of some other, older Greek mosaic. It can be said with a high degree of probability that it was not made by local mosaic makers, but probably by professionals brought from Alexandria. I have found no trace of this anywhere, but I wonder if it is possible that the mosaic was originally made somewhere in the East and brought to Praeneste as war booty.
As a curiosity, it is worth mentioning that perhaps it was the Barberini Mosaic that Pliny the Elder had in mind when he wrote in his Natural History that “mosaics began to be used already in the time of Sulla. To this day, there is one made of very small cubes, placed by him in the temple of Fortuna in Praeneste.
Unfortunately, after its discovery at the beginning of the 17th century, it was removed from the floor in a rather brutal way, which caused serious damage to it. What we see today is the result of its reassembly and the completion of the missing fragments in the mid-17th century (fortunately, detailed drawings were made before it was separated from the ground). This is clearly visible in the photos taken from a closer distance, where the differences in the size of the cubes and their color are sometimes very clear. However, let’s remember that the mosaic was repaired and supplemented many times in antiquity, so many of these observable differences came from the times of the Roman Empire.
Anyway, if you are near Palestrina, don’t miss the local archaeological museum! It’s worth it!