Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: the mosaics.
Pompeii Mosaics: Preserve of the rich
There is one thing that really bothers me about mosaics: they are the preserve of the rich. There is no way around it. Mosaics take ludicrous amounts of time to make, require skilled craftsmen to execute and there are no short cuts. Ever since they were first used to embellish the palace floors of Pella, Greece in 400 BC, they have been symbols of wealth and status. In the world before Porsche Cayennes, 50′ flat screen TVs, and infinity pools they served the same function of demonstrating that you enjoyed luxury and had money to throw around. Look at the Pompeii mosaic portrait of a gentlewoman above – her hair is coiffed, her lips are pursed, her pearls are large and she has the haughty look of one for whom only the best will do. Who can blame her? How glorious it must have been, how deliciously comfortable, for bare feet to walk on stone, swept and freshly washed, after being accustomed to floors of beaten earth. The Roman mosaic floors which survive generally speak of this world of ease and plenty – of languid content and quiet delight in domestic order but what I liked about the Pompeii mosaics in Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the British Museum exhibition on show till September 29, was that they also spoke of real people with vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies.
Everyday mosaics in Pompeii
The best, as far as I am concerned, is this wonderfully eccentric mosaic of a pot of fish sauce:
It’s barking mad. Its owner, Mr. Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, was clearly very proud of himself for making a go of the fish sauce business and felt such fondness for the product that had made him wealthy that he wanted to have it immortalised in stone. No tasteful motifs of Roman gods and goddesses for him or intricate marine scenes that could have belonged to anybody. Oh no. He wanted to make sure that the whole world knew, loud and clear, that he was the maker, the connoisseur, the lover and producer of the best fish sauce on the market and you can almost see him waddling complacently over his new floor admiring it from every angle and congratulating himself on his originality.
The other oddball mosaic in the exhibition is the one of the skeleton holding two jugs of wine (pictured above) which was thought to be once the central emblema of a dining room. We are told in the exhibition catalogue that the message is intended for the diners to ‘seize the day’ in the face of the inevitability of death but it seems a rather bizarre design choice to have in the middle of your floor. Death cant have been very far away in the days before antibiotics and effective medicines and I’m really not sure that there was any need to ram home the message when everyone was meant to be having a good time.
The famous Pompeii dog mosaic (below), often copied, is also in the exhibition. It’s simple black and white design with touches of red which was laid in an entrance hall leading straight from the street conveys an obvious warning to all those who enter. But there’s a wryness in the work too: the dog is tied and is bouncing forward in a friendly manner (unlike the more aggressive CAVE CANEM dog mosaic) and you get the feeling that this dog was part of a family.
It’s counterpart, the cast of a dead dog, is remarkably similar in size and breed and wearing the same wide collar, and it too was probably tied up when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD and rivers of superheated ash and gas poured into the city below.
Pompeii mosaics: technical brilliance
The Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition also includes other, more conventional, but no less remarkable mosaics. There are three theatrical mosaic masks from the pre Christian era, one of which is fake, with a interesting explanation of how the experts can tell. For sheer technical ability, detail, and close attention to life nothing beats the woman’s portrait (above) and this well known aquatic scene of fish swimming around an octopus wrestling with a lobster:
And it’s the details, in the Pompeii mosaics or otherwise, which make this exhibition worth seeing; which bring the ancient world before us as a world of ordinary, imperfect people whose dying made them extraordinary and whose art shows their drive for perfection. Don’t miss the graffiti in the lower half of an fresco demonstrating the ‘second style’ in Pompeii painting. It’s a child’s drawing, a simple, clumsy shape of a human figure with a line for a mouth and dots for eyes made by stabbing at the wall and chipping away at the plaster. It’s this, like so much else, which makes the exhibition more about life than death.