There are three ways to deal with being dragged around Italy to every conceivable mosaic site because your mother is completely nuts about little bits of stone stuck together in patterns that all look exactly the same. Continue reading →
We set out easily enough from Trieste. We typed ‘Aquileia‘ into the GPS, checked it against the map, congratulated ourselves that we only had an half hour drive and set off in a cheery mood. Fast forward to an hour and half later, insert a lot of rude words and we arrived. Everyone was so annoyed (with the GPS, with each other, with Italy, with driving across the whole of Europe and back) that they had to stay in the car to recover some sort of equilibrium but needless to say I leapt out because here I was at last: Aquileia, once a great city, one of the greatest of the Early Roman Empire, hugely important and hugely wealthy and hugely rich in mosaics. A squabble with Kate (the GPS lady) wasn’t going to stop me.
Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: History
The city itself was destroyed by Atilla the Hun in the mid 5th century AD and so it was abandoned, become overgrown and was largely forgotten. A sad end, but the good thing was that no other city rose in its place so the ruins of Aquileia now constitute the most complete example of an early Roman city in the Mediterranean world. Another good thing is, that for all his sacking and pillaging, Atilla left the great Basilica of Aquileia still standing – today a World Heritage Site with some of the most beautiful mosaics I have ever seen.
Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: Photos
The floor of the basilica is so covered with mosaic decoration of such astonishing variety and originality from a wonderful aquatic scene, to patterned expanses and unusual animal details that I am not even going to try and show you the half of what I saw. This post just covers some of the bird mosaics and others will follow:
I always find that it helps to have a target or two: written down, printed out and taped somewhere conspicuous so that you cant escape it. I’ve been writing annual lists of Mosaic Resolutions for some time now, usually to mark the new school year, and sticking them up on a cork board over my studio table. As the year progresses, the board gets covered up with other things – postcards of mosaics, pages torn out of magazines, other people’s business cards and reminders about materials that I am running out of. But then, every so often, the Resolution list re-emerges beneath all the detritus and it reminds me where I am and where I’m going in terms of my artistic goals– sometimes in a good, affirmative way: ‘ah, yes, I wanted to do that, and I’ve done it,’ and sometimes in the sinking way you feel when you realise that you’ve forgotten to thank a dear old aunt for the packet of embroidered hankies she gave you for Christmas.
Here’s the board with last year’s list totally submerged:
For me, writing out my artistic goals helps keep my nose to the grindstone. This time last year my resolution list included taking on the task of redesigning and updating my website myself (as opposed to getting a professional web designer) and the knowledge that I intended to do it hung over me for almost the whole year. I kept putting it off and putting it off, not wanting to stop making mosaics in order to waste time fiddling around with technology, but then as the summer approached and I knew I was running out of time, I took a deep breath, sat down and did it. The point is that I only did it because I wrote it down so that I couldn’t escape it. Of course I could have just thrown the piece of paper in the bin but that would have been cheating. And if I hadn’t written it down, I would have either a) forgotten about it or b) thought of some excuse why it wasn’t so important after all and never got around to it.
Artistic goals: short, achievable and flexible.
Well, now it’s time for this year’s mosaic resolutions. Generally, I like to keep them short and achievable and also, when it comes to setting creative goals, a little bit flexible. I don’t want to tell myself I must make x or y and find myself dreading it – every project has to be approached with enthusiasm and new ideas and different avenues keep opening up so you don’t want to unintentionally block yourself in. I also find that if the list is too long, it just adds a layer of stress which is completely unnecessary. Keep it simple. Keep to the things you really, really want to be sure you’ve done (d.v) by this time next year amidst all the other things you’ll be doing.
1. Make two wedding mosaics: one for a dear friend in Greece who is getting married next month and another for my nephew who is getting married in 2014 in the UK. I’ve got ideas but I am not sure exactly what I want to do yet.
2. Make a kitchen splash back for a friend’s house in Normandy. This is something that I really have been thinking about for ages and we’ve discussed designs and sizing and materials and I’m all set to go, so I must get to work. It will be done on mesh so it’s easy to transport.
3.Sign up for this: http://liturgy-east-x-west.org/online-icon-course.html. I started making icons a year or so ago because for at least two months a year I am away from home and cant make mosaics and want to have something I can take with me wherever I go. I thought about taking up embroidery, and maybe I will, but meanwhile its icons. Here’s one I’m still working on in a class in Athens:
What was I on about? How on earth could I have thought, even for one milli second, that Ravenna wasn’t the place for me? That the acknowledged Mecca of mosaics with church domes and walls heaving with the most astonishing brilliance and detail, should somehow leave me cold because of my professed preference for the more sombre and intimate pleasures of Roman floor mosaics? Stuff and nonsense! I was enraptured by the Ravenna mosaics. Entirely smitten.
I walked into the church of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo alone one Friday morning, impatient to get going while the boys and David savoured their eggs and bacon at the hotel buffet, and just stood there in total astonishment. These mosaics, which I have seen so many times in books and on internet searches, were entirely different in reality. Of course, you fool, of course. A camera just cant do justice to the scale of the decorations, the quality of the colours and the liveliness of the images. I found that there were whole segments of the Ravenna mosaics that I had never seen or failed to notice, dwelling as the camera tends to do, on the well known and familiar.
And to cap it all, I had set off expecting to either get a terrible crink in my neck or to be forced to play the loony English woman card and lie shamelessly on my back on the hard stone floor, only to discover that I could see everything perfectly well just by looking up.
Ravenna mosaics: details
Take the photograph at the top of this page of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian with Bishop Maximian and his retinue in the presbytery of the Basilica di S. Vitale. We’ve all seen it. Nothing new there although of course it doesn’t diminish the wonder of really seeing it. But then there’s this:
A detail of Theodoric’s palace in the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo. Those curtains – the tassels, the folds in the cloth, the casual way they are knotted as if to keep the hems out of the suds on cleaning day. Or this, and this, and this:
The magis’ gorgeous spangled leggings at the Saint Apolliinaire Nuovo; a detail of an arch in the Neonian Baptistery and Abraham offering a roast pig to some pilgrims in the presbytery of the Basilica di S. Vitale while Sarah, wrapped in her shawl, looks on from a hut roofed with rushes.
As it happens, we’d downloaded the complete 18-hour audio book of Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius to while away the hours as we drove from Athens to Perthshire and back, so by the time we got to San Vitale, the characters immortalised in smalti were as familiar to us as sit com personalities. There was the hood-eyed, ruthless Empress Theodora, the former child prostitute, dripping with jewels. Next but one, standing among the Empress’ female attendants, I almost did a double take when I thought I recognised Theodora’s closest friend, the beautiful, scheming, faithless Antonina. Opposite, is Justinian whose face, when you know his history, reflects his jealous, greedy, misguided, power hungry nature.
Ravenna Mosaics: floors
And then when you cant take it any more, when you’re gorged on mosaic gorgeousness, you sit down limply in a pew and look down and there are even more mosaics as surprising in their own ways as the ones of the walls. These are in the Basilica di S. Vitale:
There’s plenty more to say about the Ravenna mosaics. I could bore you and even myself on the subject, but I better keep a check on it. Just as a place, mosaics or no, I loved it. It’s an exquisitely beautiful city in that inimitable Italian way – calm, slow moving, mostly pedestrianized and perfect for walking around. Tourists come but they don’t take over and amazing food can be easily found… and then, when you’re all mosaicked out, the best ice cream in the whole world – ever.
My friend Alison Scourti, who keeps cropping up because she is almost the only person I know who shares my passion for mosaics, and therefore shares a part of who I am, told me to go see the glass mosaics of Kechries at the Archaeological Museum of Isthmia not far from Corinth, Greece. Needless to say, I didn’t know what she was talking about. She told me they were Roman and were oddly wonderful. Roman glass mosaics? Who ever heard of such a thing? Bits of glass in Roman mosaics, fine. But whole mosaics made out of glass, just didn’t sound right. I have seen the opus sectile mosaics in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome, but they were made, as one might expect, with different coloured sections of marble. Not glass.
But a mosaic is a mosaic and if Alison said I must see them, then I clearly must, so on a recent trip to the Venetian town of Naphlion in Greece’s Peloponnese region, we stopped at the one-room museum which houses findings from the adjacent archaeological site. The museum has all that one might expect of a museum from an important site dating from the seventh century BC with lots of additions and modifications over the following centuries. There are pots and jewellery and clay figures but there are also the glass mosaics that Alison had insisted I see. They are panels not floor mosaics and rather disconcerting in their unexpectedness. Seeing them was like seeing a middle aged lady in twinset and pearls on the 10:23 to Henley take out a copy of NME from under her Daily Telegraph. One’s preconceptions get all jumbled up. They are strange; they open another up another window, a different vision of what you thought you knew and their strangeness makes them wonderful indeed.
It seems that there were once as many as 126 panels which were probably brought over from Alexandria, carefully taken off the ship which carried them, and stacked in their original wooden cases against a wall. But before they were installed, an earthquake struck and the panels were covered by the sea and never recovered until the 1960s. According to the blurb at the museum they ‘belong to the mosaic decorative arts which originate in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Similar compositions in glass or marble were found at Ostia, the harbour of Rome. The style, belonging to Hellenistic, Roman and Egyptian tradition, is already reminiscent of the Byzantine style.’
I took tea (and delicious cake) the next day with Matthew Dickie and Elizabeth Gebhard, who was there when the panels were excavated and who has been director of the University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia since 1976. She explained that the mosaics were stacked facing each other, and that when they were discovered they were fused together by time and water to such a degree that it was largely impossible to separate them. Therefore what we now see is the backs of the works.
Here, to help you out with the concept of the decorative arts originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, are two examples of opus sectile from the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:
For me, the beauty of the panels lies in their naïve execution and the appreciation they reveal of their makers’ delight in the natural world and pride in man’s achivements. The gigantic squid next to a ship in full sail with a gorgeously curved prow. The fisherman sitting staring into the sea depths in front of a harbour lined with impressive-looking public buildings. The colours, now muted, must have been fabulous. A bit like the colours of the socks my mother knits.
We were in the car again. The temperature outside was nudging 40 degrees. We’d spent the weekend diligently looking around ancient sites (of which more later) with the sun beating down on our heads and peering at bits of old things in museum display cabinets. Now we were heading back to Athens and the idea of a swim seemed more like an imperative than a choice. The road ran next to the sea and it was just a matter of finding a place where it was easy to park so we could plunge in with no further ado.
So we chose a stretch at random which had no particular appeal – the beach was narrow and close to the road. It was not a place you’d normally want to linger but the water was clear and cool and that’s all we cared about. Then, as we swam out we noticed there were signs of ancient remains on the waters edge and when we swam closer we could see submerged outlines of man-made structures – walls, perhaps, or pavements.
We later discovered that we had been swimming over the Roman harbour of Kechries where St. Paul landed and, so the story goes, cut his hair in fulfilment of a vow, before proceeding up the road to preach to the Corinthians.
What was intended as a quick dip turned into a happy hour of marine archaeology for David and the boys, while I swam back to shore to fiddle, as is my wont, with pebbles and to look for pieces of coloured glass worn smooth by the sea. But this time my idle sifting was not among pebbles, but through shards of ancient pottery strewn all along the shore, as casually discarded as the cigarette butts and plastic bags of modern life. What fun I had! Its no secret that the beaches on this particular shore were rich with broken pots but I had never expected such a hoard as this. I found what looked like a crudely made pot lid (top left in photo above) and a piece of clay with wavy striations (bottom middle). Fergus discovered what must have been the base of a amphora handle.
I could have gathered bagfulls but, for now, I am content with a modest supply. I want to see if I can make mosaics with them. I cut a couple of pieces and laid them the flat side down with the sea-rounded edges upwards – see the bottom left hand corner of the photo. I love the range of terracotta tones and I think that something fine could come out of them. Let’s see. If I do make something from them it will be a particular pleasure to think that one of the pieces might have been thrown aside the day St. Paul came into land, dropped by an excited follower in his eagerness to get close to the man himself.
(formerly Athens, Greece)
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Helen Miles Mosaics
I learnt how to make mosaics with Greek masters of the craft in Thessaloniki and Athens who taught using traditional methods with a focus on Byzantine iconography. Later, I become fixated with Roman designs and now my aim is to preserve the simplicity and directness of early mosaics while creating pieces which suit our modern lives.