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Roman mosaic

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The figure shows a fragment of rich mosaics in Piazza Armerina from the 4th century CE showing two musicians performing in the circus.

The Roman mosaic technique was very popular in the Roman state. From the colorful, marble (or glass cubes) squares various patterns were laid on the floors or walls. This technique was also used in the early days of Christianity. The Roman mosaic developed in two directions: black and white compositions in the Italian style and colored in the Hellenistic and Eastern style were created.

The size of the cubes and the style of their stacking depended on the prevailing fashion. Sometimes tessers with a side length of about 1 cm, sometimes just a millimeter was used. The smaller the cubes, the more precisely the chiaroscuro and perspective could be reproduced. The technique of arranging mosaics from the tiniest tesser was called opus vermiculatum, from the Latin word vermis – “worm”. The most magnificent examples are preserved in Herculaneum, Staba and Pompeii, which disappeared under the ash of Vesuvius in 79 CE and are dated to the II-I century BCE The famous mosaic depicting the battle of Issos, with the image of Alexander and Darius, looks like a painting. There are also examples of Roman mosaics in Ostia, Syria, Dacia, Rhineland, Spain and the cities of North Africa.

The mosaic technique achieved the richness and complexity of performances, especially at the end of the Roman Empire. This is documented by the floors of a villa in Sicily in Piazza Armerina in the province of Enna (center of Sicily). Musicians, performances, also African beasts hunting, gladiatorial fights, races and other entertainment were presented.

The mosaic reached its peak of prosperity and sophistication between the first century and the third century CE

Roman mosaic showing the choir from schola cantorum from Caupa. Dated to III century CE.

Mosaic is an extremely decorative technique for creating paintings or ornaments, considered a monumental painting. It is distinguished by its exceptional durability, thanks to which it is valued and willingly used as architectural decoration. The mosaic was primarily reserved for floors. This technique was also used to decorate walls exposed to moisture, at home fountains and other water intakes. Most often, the floors had a geometric drawing with a colorful composition on a white background.

Roman floor-builders were ordinary craftsmen. Simple, geometric motifs were arranged by slaves, but the plants also employed masters of crafts specializing in specific scenes or body parts. Sometimes figural motifs in the form of an emblem were made in the workshop and inserted into a frame already laid in place, which is clearly seen because these two elements differ in style and technique.

Mosaic showing Odysseus’s journey from Carthage.

Mosaics and paintings decorated the homes of wealthy Romans. Contrary to appearances, variegation was desirable, because the rich city districts differed from the poor because they were shimmering with colors. Important public buildings, such as porticos surrounding forums and hot springs, were also decorated with colored stones. They performed exceptionally well in baths. Since the floor was placed there on brick posts, between which warm air circulated, it was better not to load it with marble slabs, but to lay light mosaics. In general, mosaics worked well in places where there was water – nymphs and fountains, in which the tessers were arranged at different angles, so that the water flowing down them would emphasize the colors and give them a flash. In such places, there were water motifs on the mosaics: shells, fish, seahorses, tritons, nymphs, feasts by the water and ports.

Floor with the inscription cave canem – House of the Tragic Poet.
Author: Radomil | Based on Creative Commons License by - On the same terms 3.0.

Mosaics usually had the right form depending on the room. The function of the room with images of dogs and the inscription cave canem (beware of the dog) in Pompeii or welcoming guests with palms and candelabra in the vestibule of Villa del Casale is obvious. Similarly, you do not need sea-themed mosaics to recognize a bathhouse (engineering solutions are far more important). If in one of the rooms of the thermal complex there is a motif of men rubbing oil, it can be assumed that it was a massage room. The oval room with the chariot race stage at Circus Maximus could have been a place to practice, but scenes from such races also decorated the home rooms of the houses. In bedrooms and private rooms , erotic motifs, cupids or children’s performances most often appeared, and in libraries and music lounges, scenes with Orpheus or the mythical poet Arion.

However, the specific type of performance was not permanently assigned to only one type of room – much depended on the taste and the whim of the owner.

  • Krzemińska Agnieszka, Luksus w kostkach, "Polityka", 7 August 2012
  • Szolginia Witold, Architektura, Warszawa 1992

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