The Unswept Floor Mosaic down the ages
The moment came when I was stirring the porridge. The news was on, the kettle was boiling and I was standing in the kitchen trying to marshal the troops for school, get breakfast on the table and check Instagram at the same time. It was one of those moments you get in films when the screen goes wavy and a pony-tailed girl in a pinafore running down a garden path changes into a bent old woman walking slowly down an empty street. The moment came when this slid by on my phone screen:
A pavement mosaic in Brighton, England, 2016. A cheerful design of kitchen objects and fruit scattered across a surface- maybe a table or a work space. But press the rewind button and it’s an ancient Roman floor, circa 200AD. That casual photograph posted by talesofjude proves, if proof were needed, that ancient mosaics have remarkable staying power. It’s not just that some are still serving out their function as floor coverings while entire civilisations have risen and been reduced to dust but their longevity is more subtle, more insidious than that.
The Brighon mosaic with its cherry stems is of course a direct reference to the Asaraton or Unswept Floor motif from Roman times. The original is a simple but brilliant idea: a mosaic of the debris of a Roman feast. A troupe d’oeil of the detritis dropped under the revellers’ couches, fruit stones, empty shells, sucked bones, fish heads, seed casings, bits of fruit and, in one version, an enterprising mouse making the most of the free meal.
There is something about the idea which has a lasting appeal and a contemporary relevance which means that it keeps popping up – adapted, interpreted and borrowed – in various forms and recognisable versions. As far as the Romans were concerned, they clearly had a bit of a fashion craze going with the whole concept so much so that four examples from ancient times still survive. They can be found a) In the Vatican Museum in Rome b) At the ancient basilica of Aquileia, Italy c) At the Chateau de Boudry in Switzerland and d) At the Bardo Museum in Tunisia.
We know that the Romans were fond of repeating designs throughout the empire – I have lost count of the number of drunken Dionysoses and gored deer I have seen in ancient mosaics – but this work lends itself to more than just to hum drum copying. It has a playfulness about it, a touch of social commentary running through it, an extra dimension which lifts it from being something simply amusing and decorative to something arresting, not troubling exactly, but faintly provocative. It makes permanent our impermance in a way which ever-so-slightly unsettles as much as it appeals.
Thanks to Pliny the Elder we also know that there was at least one other Unswept Floor mosaic in antiquity dating to the second century AD: The most famous in that genre was Sosos who laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or unswept room, because on the pavement were represented the débris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tesserae of many colours. – Pliny, Natural History 36.184.
This is my all time favourite mosaic in the whole wide world so, naturally, I had to make one of my own. In my mosaic, which I have written about in an earlier post, I adapted the conceit to depict the ‘detritis’ of a friend’s life, scattering the objects which represent her work and world on to the ‘canvas’ of the mosaic which is used as a kitchen splashback. In this mosaic the glasses represent my friend’s advancing age, the pen her work as an academic, the single dirty sock (no doubt found under the bed) her role as a mother and so on. There is that cherry stem again and my mouse is nibbling an aubergine end (my friend’s favourite vegetable) instead of a walnut.
That’s what makes the design so perfect. You can do pretty much do anything you want with it. Mosaic artist Helen Bodycomb used the idea to make an Unswept Floor mosaic for a fresh food market in Camberwell, Australia. Here the concept is reworked with modern food items and the suggestion of items which have been discarded is removed – Bodycomb’s rendition is more of a still life, beautifully worked and brilliantly executed, but without the momento mori dimension of the ancient versions.
Helen writes: The Unswept Floor is approximately 6 feet (1800 mm) high x 9 feet (2700 mm) long. It is installed on a wall, not a floor, so maybe it should really be called ‘The Unswept Wall’. Anyway, the food items are made exclusively using glass I had made some years earlier for another project and treated as raw material for recycling into this project; specifically, this used fused double layers of 3 mm thick float glass, with fired on-glaze and transparent glass enamel paintings encased between the layers. The white background is a combination of unglazed porcelain and carrara marble tesserae. Details from Helen Bodycomb’s mosaic below:
Jane Franks, from Buckinghamshire, UK, decided to use the concept for a garden step mimicking randomly strewn autumn leaves. The photo on the right shows the same mosaic with real unswept autumn leaves mixed amongst their mosaic equivalents.
‘The village where I live in Buckinghamshire has been a settlement since the days of the Romans…and bits of mosaic tesserae have been found in the near vicinity. The spot where we live is recorded as having a dwelling on it for hundreds of years – we are in the centre of the village on the crossroads, so this is not surprising. And it is entirely possible that a Roman housewife or innkeeper cooked and cleaned in the same few square feet as I do. Therefore, my ‘Unswept Garden Step’ is a nod to the Romans, who knew a good thing when they saw it. It depicts leaves that you will find locally, the idea being that in the autumn the real leaves that collect are indistinguishable from the mosaic ones. I used porcelain for the background and vitreous glass tile for the leaves. A local builder created the step for me. The entire step measures 3 metres across and 1.20m at the centre,’ writes Jane.
British based mosaic artist Maureen O’Kane was so inspired by the the Unswept Floor mosaic that she applied for funding from a Welsh television channel to develop and make a short animated film using it as the central theme because it ‘offered the potential to explore the idea that we learn so much from how people lived from what they discard.‘ The film, which was animated by Jane Hubbard, starts with items of rubbish falling onto a modern tiled floor in a family kitchen including a postcard of Rome showing the Vatican Museum mosaic. It won a Welsh Bafta and took Maureen to Rome to see the Vatican museum mosaic up close. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sULP7iwmK0E
Another ambitious modern rendition of the Unswept Floor mosaic is this one from Vanessa Somers. Her work, measuring six foot wide and five feet high, uses the orginal colour scheme of the Vatican Museum mosaic and is a clear re-examination of the ancient theme. Instead of focusing on the remnants of a generic banquet, however, she uses articles which might have dropped to the floor during a 21st century amorous dinner for two: a strappy shoe, a champagne cork and cuff links are among the items strewn on her ‘floor’.
The Unswept Floor mosaic can assume almost any guise and pop up in an almost infinite variety of modern versions but it still remains firmly attached to its ancient roots. In many respects this table top made by Arianna Gallo of Koko Mosaico is an unrelated trompe d’oeil of ordinary stuff accumulated on a coffee table. Details of Koko Mosaico’s table below:
But even though there is not a single cherry stem or fish skeleton to be seen, the design implicitly refers to its ancient counterparts, as if the influence of the Romans hovers in the background of even this most contemporary of works. Other modern asaraton, like Martin Cheek‘s collaborative work for the entrance to the Roman Museum in Canterbury, UK, while not in any sense a copy, directly borrows items (that mouse again, the fish bone) from the ancient originals, clearly establishing the debt owed by modern mosaicists to their earlier influences.
More recently, Martin Cheek has used the trompe d’oeil concept to decorate the edges of a large private interior space in Barbados with shoes which have slipped off the owners’ feet as they step onto the floor: (Photos by kind permssion of Martin Cheek)
Rather like Pliny’s reference to the mosaic which no longer exists, there are also unmade versions of the Unswept Floor which are waiting their turn to be added to the canon. Michelle Weinburg an artist based in Miami and New York, has made maquettes for a large scale public work originally intended for the Arts Park in Hollywood, Florida. The project never came to fruition but the plans remain and Michelle writes:
And as a last homage to the abiding influence of the Unswept Floor mosaics down the centuries, here is a little collection of copies of the famous fish skeleton. Taken out of context the social commentary angle of the work is removed and the fish skeleton becomes nothing more than a fish skeleton, lovely in its detail:
More reading on Unswept Floors: http://parenthetically.blogspot.gr/2012/08/unswept-and-unwelcome.html
and a little piece by the Getty Museum on conserving the Bardo Museum Unswept Floor: http://www.getty.edu/museum/conservation/partnerships/roman_mosaics/