mosaics from italy

Mosaics in the history of art (or not as the case may be)

mosaics in the history of art.
Neptune mosaic, 2nd century AD, Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Photo: @Tony Hisgett.

My father, old now, was and is an art historian through and through. An academic who’s devoted his life to art, he is now confined to a chair but his mind is still keen and his hearing is sharp so he seemed like a good a person as any on which to test my theory about mosaics in the history of art. The theory revolves around the fact that mosaics are essentially written out of the history of art but as I started to expound my theory, my father took exception to my premise. That’s quite wrong, he said. So I corrected myself: Not all mosaics, but pre-Byzantine mosaics do not feature in the history of art, I said. At that, he relaxed and listened.

mosaics in the history of art
Port Scene, detail. 1st to 3rd century AD. Photo: @John Paul Getty Museum.

The theory first took root when I was visiting the Archaeological Museum of Sparta in Greece with a friend, S, whose life, like my father’s, has been devoted to art. I have often wondered why these glorious, clever, beautiful and infinitely varied and various things are not referred to in the history of art. Why does The Story of Art, the seminal work by E. H. Gombrich, only mention them in passing before he stops to dwell on the 6th century mosaics of St Apollinare, Ravenna? Why does Stephen Farthing in Art, the Whole Story also gloss over pre-Byzantine mosaics before taking note of the12th century Monreale Basiilia in Sicily? What’s going on here? Why are we all familiar with the Venus of Milo in the Louvre but few of us have any idea about the existence of the Zeus and Ganymede mosaic in the Metropolitan? Continue reading

The Unswept Floor mosaic: ancient and modern

Unswept Floor mosaic
Detail of Unswept Floor mosaic, 2nd century, Vatican Museum, Rome. Cherries circled.

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:

Unswept Floor mosaic.
Screen shot of Instagram photo of an Unswept Floor in Brighton, England from talesofjude.

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. Continue reading