floor mosaics

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece.

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)

mosaics of Rhodes
Partridge feeding her chicks, 2nd century AD, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

The conversation went a bit like this:

D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?

Me: Yes!

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! 

mosaics of Rhodes
Mosaic floor, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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. Continue reading

Mosaics in Greece: the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki

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Bird and flowers, 6th century basilica, Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.

We all have our favourite museums. If not a favourite museum, then a favourite wing of a museum, or a display case, or even a single object that makes our heart stop with its beauty or intricacy or fragile, impossible antiquity.

The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece (or Museum of Byzantine Culture as it is properly called) has many of the hall marks of the museums I love: a good coffee shop, some wonderful icons, charming signage: Continue reading

Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul

NB: The Great Palace Mosaic Museum will be closed for two years from 2016 for resoration and refurbishment. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?pageID=238&nID=91723&NewsCatID=375

Great Palace Mosaic Museum: the facts.

For once, I will stick to the facts. Confronted with mosaics of such beauty and intricacy, covering so great an area, made so long ago and depicting such an extraordinary range of subjects, I don’t even know where to begin. So I wont try. Look at the photos, break open your piggy bank, cajole your bank manager, have another look behind the back of the sofa, and book your flight now. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum of Istanbul is simply not to be missed.

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Little mosaic birds from ancient sites

Irresistible mosaic birds

I cant resist little mosaic birds from ancient sites. They keep popping up all over the place, looking a bit goofy, prone to gangliness,  unsure of themselves, and often with a neglected, somewhat forlorn air which only adds to their charms.

Andulusia, Spain.
Black and white bird from Andalusia, Spain.

Take this fellow below. You walk into the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna expecting to spend the next few hours with a crink in your neck marvelling over the Byzantine mosaic wonders overhead and the first thing you see on the threshold is this bird. Just sitting there minding it’s own business, knowing that no one is going to pay it any attention, but cheerful none the less. One’s heart melts.

Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Continue reading

Mosaic: craft or art?

Looking at the floors of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. I sometimes come across fierce debates on the internet about whether mosaic making is an art or a craft. Think of Andy Goldsworthy’s works in stone versus Maggy Howarth‘s pebble mosaics. But does it really matter? Drifting around St. Mark’s in Venice recently, captivated by the stone floors while the great Byzantine mosaicked ceilings soared away above my head, too far away and too gloomily lit to be appreciated, I really felt that it didn’t. The floors are just pieces of coloured marble, purely decorative and entirely functional – isn’t that what craft is all about? – and yet heart-stoppingly intricate and beautiful. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. These pavements were made in the 12th century and, eight hundred years later, we are still walking on them. The guidebooks don’t dwell on them so that’s all people were doing – walking and looking up and taking photographs and the floors were just there, doing what they were meant to do and few people pay them much heed but, it seemed to me, if we were just told to look down rather than up, these floors would inspire as much wonder and awe, as much astonishment at the ingenuity and sheer brilliance of the workmanship as the ceiling mosaics do. We don’t know the names of the craftsmen who made these floors or those who executed the glass mosaics overhead and indeed few mosaicists in antiquity or later times were ever identified, but the point is that their work endures and that it is still admired. Isn’t that the point of all creative endeavour, be it art or craft? To make the beholder pause, to instil that fleeting moment of delight or curiosity or puzzlement, before being swept up again in daily affairs? Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.

Beautiful pavements

Celebrating crafts

Woodwork, textiles, ceramics and knitting – all crafts, of course (we say) but often visually appealing and deeply satisfying, so, again, I wonder does it matter if something is called an art or a craft and does being a decorative art somehow elevate it to a different, more admirable order, as if, moving into a grand mansion, we become instantly better than we were? Here are some examples of modern crafts, for no particular reason, except that I like them and they have a lot in common with mosaics:

Kaffe Fassett quilt
Kaffe Fassett quilt
Kaffe Fassett blanket.

Kaffe Fassett blanket.

And a few more St. Mark’s floor mosaics to finish off:

Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. (Excuse the quality of the photographs – those determined hordes of tourists would persist in tramping over the floors!)

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: the mosaics.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic portrait Life and Death  Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic skeleton

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:

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: fish sauce mosaic

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.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic guard dog

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.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Dog cast

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:

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic marine life

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.