mosaic portrait

Seeing eye to eye: ancient mosaic faces (and one of my own)

Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

You know what it’s like. I know you know. That moment when you open the oven and find your lovingly prepared cake has failed to rise, peer into the washing machine to discover the white wash has turned an alarming shade of pink, or herd a bunch of fractious children up a hill in the sizzling heat with the promise of an ice cream at the end, only to find you’ve left your wallet in the car. Well, I am sure you also know that mosaic making has it’s own such moments. Except they are not really moments. They are long wasted hours when you look back and think: darn, drat and bother it (to put it politely). So it was when I had a go at making a mosaic face.

Taking inspiration from ancient mosaic faces

I know I’ve told you that my thang is ancient mosaics but, hey, lets say it all over again. I cant get enough of them in all shapes and forms from vast basilica floors to little fragments behind museum glass, but I have a particular fascination for ancient mosaic faces. One reason I like  them is that sometimes they are a bit wonky which is charming and gratifying at the same time. But for all the wonky faces, like the one above, there are others which are stunning in their precision and authenticity. This melancholy woman from Pompeii is a case in point. Continue reading

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.