The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)
The conversation went a bit like this:
D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?
D: Santorini or Rhodes?
Me: (Inner musing: Santorini = the whole Greek thing. White washed houses set on cliffs over looking azure seas. Rhodes = mosaics) Rhodes!
And so off we went one weekend to see the mosaics of Rhodes, Greece. As it happens, Rhodes is a perfect place to really see mosaics, not just the tarted up ancient variety which now hang on museum walls. Pebble mosaics, characteristic of many of the Greek islands, are everywhere in the medieval town of Rhodes covering pavements, shop entrance ways, hotel foyers and cafe floors. What a delight! Instead of cranning your neck to see mosaics plucked from their original settings and displayed like works of art in hushed settings or having to lean precariously over a barrier to get a closer view of them at archeological sites, here they are all over the place. Neither revered or disregarded; they are just there.
It’s refreshing to reconnect with the utility of mosaics which is often overlooked when their ancientness makes them precious. Once mosaics become mere objects, things to be viewed, they lose some of their fundamental qualities including the fact that mosaics (as a rule) were made to be walked on and looked at from above* and were designed as an intrinsic, carefully thought out addition to the overall structure of a building. Moreover, a tidied up museum-worthy mosaic gives the impression that mosaics are always perfectly presented like Victorian children brought into the drawing room after tea. In fact, of course, mosaics come in all shapes and sizes, both well executed and roughly finished, intricate and plain, luxurious and crude.
So what’s particularly gratifying about seeing the mosaics of Rhodes is that the experience gives you the chance to see the children (if you pardon me for extending the analogy) with grass stains on their frocks and earth under their fingernails. It’s not just the pebble mosaics which you can enjoy while sipping your coffee or strolling down the street. There are fragments of late Roman mosaics in the Archeological Museum which are incorporated into paths and left out to the elements.
It’s rare to get a chance to see less than perfect examples of this ancient art. Poorer samples are mostly locked away in museum store cupboards never more to see the light of day. Sometimes they are abandoned in situ with no signposts or fanfare like the fragments near Atalanti, Greece which are quietly left to the waves and the odd fisherman who might use them as a platform from which to cast his line.
When I posted these fragments on Facebook some people were outraged that things of such antiquity could be treated so casually. But just as the underground vaults of the Cairo Museum are so full of artefacts that they have been reburied, so it’s true to say that not everything can be preserved and put on display. There is just too much of it. It seems to me to be far better to leave mosaics where they are as in the Atalanti case or to re-purpose them as they have done at the Archeological Museum in Rhodes, then to stuff them in the back of a proverbial cupboard.
After all, even the most humble of mosaics are intended to decorate and delight so why not allow non-museum quality pieces to at least fulfill this simple function? The Archeological Museum of Rhodes which is housed in a 15th century military hopsital has a number of carefully preserved mosaics displayed in a covered cloister.
These include pebble mosaics from the 4th century BC depicting mythological scenes (and looking remarkably similar in style and execution to some of the pebble mosaics at Pella in Northern Greece):
In addition there is a 2nd century BC aquatic scene with ducks, a 3rd century AD depiction of Europa being abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull as well as this lovely one of Eros on a dolphin:
Wonderful of course but not – dare I say it? – wildly exciting. Seeing a mosaic on a museum wall with a plaque explaining its origins is a bit like seeing a polar bear in a glass tank – there is much to appreciate but you are left with a strong sense that things are not as they should be. That feeling is rapidly dissipated, however, by wandering through the museum’s slightly unkempt gardens and coming across sections of ancient mosaics, leaf strewn and collecting puddles, waiting in the shadows to be stumbled across. I was quite overcome.
I know that ancient things need to be looked after and having tourists tramping all over them isn’t the best way to preserve mosaics but, damn it, sometimes I don’t want to have to get out my binnoculars to appreciate them. And it was these simple, damaged, broken and ignored pieces that got my heart beating faster than the ones deemed worthy of being put on the wall.
The museum is stunning in its own right …
…and also has two full size mosaics in the open air which dont have the finery of the ones on the walls and are somewhat the worse for wear but again pleased me much more than their fancy counterparts:
Part of the mosaics is even left unfenced so that you are forced to walk over it to get to the toilets:
It’s clear that Rhodes simply has too many mosaics to be able to look after them all. Peering through a fence I saw others unprotected and unloved:
And a stroll down the back streets revealed the ruined walls of a early church with frescoes still visible and patches of mosaic lying undisturbed:
The urge to take mosaics out of their original settings both for good reasons (to preserve them for future generations) and bad (to hog them for oneself) is a long established one. The other mosaics of Rhodes still left to mention are examples from the island of Kos which were brought over between 1937 and 1940 to decorate the badly damaged medieval Palace of the Grand Masters during Italian occupation.
The palace was intended as a summer residence for the King of Italy and later for the fascist dictator Mussolini and the mosaics were laid out in state rooms which still retain the feel of fascist pomposity. Their transpostion to these clinically grand spaces takes away their intimacy and makes them almost impossible to enjoy. I tried to photograph them and even though the light was poor and my photographs don’t do them justice you can see that something is missing. The surfaces are too uniform, the varnish is too shiny and the lighter grout colour is wrong.
It was a relief to get back outside and to wander some more through the narrow backstreets of the old walled town. To see mosaics everywhere being used, being appreciated, being included…
…And even being a little disgusting:
*Here’s a brilliant short video by the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California about the conservation of mosaics on Roman North Africa which talks about some of the problems involved in removing mosaics from their original settings. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/video/399939/conservation-of-mosaics-in-roman-north-africa/
Coming soon: Making mosaics on mesh, Part II: Large scale mosaics.