Museum  August 4, 2021  Christopher Siwicki

Rarely Seen Ancient Mosaics on Show in Rome

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Coffered pattern mosaic, 1st century BC.

Open a book on Roman art and you will likely find pictures of mosaics–images of people, animals, objects, landscapes, and geometric patterns made from the arrangement of squared pieces of stone and glass tesserae. Although the technique of mosaic-making emerged in Greece in the fourth century BC—using rounded pebbles rather than cut tiles—the art form was embraced by ancient Italian peoples from the second century BC onward and then spread across the Roman Empire.

Mosaics adorned the floors, walls, and ceilings of public and domestic buildings. They vary in quality, with bigger tesserae often employed for the paving of large areas, while tiny pieces are used to depict the intricate details of a scene. The best mosaics go beyond mere decoration; they are masterpieces of design and execution.

Colours of the Romans: the mosaics of the Capitoline collection is an exhibition currently on at the museum Centrale Montemartini in Rome. This is the second show at the museum on the theme of colour in the ancient world, following Colours of the Etruscans in 2020.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Fragment of a mosaic showing a scene from Homer, with Greek inscription.

The exhibition opens by channeling visitors through a narrow corridor with displays panels explaining the history of mosaics and how they were made, accompanied by some small, fragmentary pieces. But it is only after this, when the corridor opens out onto the main exhibition hall, that the wealth of what is on display becomes apparent.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic of a labyrinth bordered by a city wall, 1st century BC.

Many of the mosaics in the Capitoline collection (Montemartini Centrale is part of the Capitoline Museums) come from excavations carried out between the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. This was a period of dramatic urban transformation in Rome. Following the incorporation of Rome into the newly unified Italian nation in 1870 and the decision to make it the capital, the population swelled within five decades from around 200,000 to over a million people. The accompanying property boom required the clearing and building over of vast areas of the ancient city, which had remained largely uninhabited since the end of antiquity.

Archaeology was no barrier to development and a huge amount of historical data was destroyed. While many objects were rescued, these were placed in storage, displayed briefly in a museum which opened in 1929 only to close a mere ten years later, and then put back into storage, only emerging on occasion for special exhibits.

The mosaics in this exhibition form part of this remarkable collection and presents the public with an opportunity to see the rich material that is not normally on display and, in some cases, has not been seen in decades.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic of a ship at Alexandria, late 2nd-early 3rd century AD.

In 1876, while constructing the road Via Nazionale, the remains of a luxurious Roman house and nymphaeum (a monument connected to water and dedicated to nymphs) dating from the late second to early third century AD was uncovered.  Among the decoration was a large mosaic of a ship leaving the port of Alexandria, identifiable by the presence of its famous lighthouse. The sails, rigging, crew, and embellishments of the ship are carefully picked out in a colorful and detailed arrangement, set against a glittering, deep blue sea.

A decade later, workers uncovered a house on the Quirinal Hill whose owner held a particular interest in Egypt. The finds included a thirteenth-century BC statue of Rameses II, brought to Rome from Egypt, as well as a beautiful fragment of mosaic showing life on the Nile river.

Mosaic with Nile scene, 1st century BC.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic with Nile scene, 1st century BC.

4 b Mosaic with Nile scene, 1st century BC
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic detail with Nile scene, 1st century BC.

While many of the mosaics come from Roman houses, others once adorned tombs. These include an octagonal image of two peacocks and a Latin inscription marked out in mosaic, which reads ‘To the Mani Gods. [This was] made for her daughter Timarete and for Rioro, an extraordinary husband, very virtuous’.

5 b Mosaic of peacocks from a 2nd century AD tomb
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic of peacocks from a 2nd century AD tomb.

Mosaic with funerary inscription, 2nd-3rd century AD.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic with funerary inscription, 2nd-3rd century AD.

Also on show is an intriguing assemblage from the basilica Hilariana, the headquarters of a college of priests devoted to the worship of goddess Cybele and the god Attis. The floor of the entrance to the building comprises three separate registers: a mosaic of animals surrounding the evil eye cut with a spear; a mosaic inscription reading ‘to those who enter here and to the Basilica Hilariana, maybe the Gods be propitious’; and a slab of marble with two pairs of feet facing opposite directions carved into it, a visual symbol both welcoming the traveller and also wishing them a safe journey home.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Entrance to Basilica Hilariana, 2nd century AD.

Perhaps the most interesting piece is the unique birds-eye plan of a bath building. Although the middle section is missing, it is possible to understand the different rooms and how they relate to each other. The rooms’ dimensions were even included in Roman numerals. What is more, the plan is color-coded: the walls are yellow stones with black borders, the rooms are shown in white, blue depicts water channels, green indicates pools, and the red tesserae likely represent windows.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic of the plan of a bath building, 3rd century AD.

The importance of this exhibition goes beyond the mosaics themselves, it makes accessible part of the rarely seen collection of the museum and narrates a fundamental part of the story of archaeology in Rome.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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