Palazzo Massimo Museum

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.

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Mosaics in Greece: black and white mosaics at Isthmia.

Floor view, Isthmia
Black and white floor, Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaics at Isthmia, Greece

Another example of little known, or at least little written about, mosaics in Greece. These black and white mosaics at Isthmia, near Corinth, can be about an hour’s drive from Athens.

mosaics at isthmia
Octopos, Isthmia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The site isn’t on the main tourist trail and was virtually deserted the day we visited so I had them all to myself. They are unfenced and you can walk on them which seemed disconcertingly decadent as well as marvellously thrilling that more than a millenium after completion they are sturdy enough to do the job they are made for.

mosaics at Isthmia.
Mosaic floor, Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Aquatic motifs

Aquatic motifs keep coming up in Roman mosaics – what better symbol of trade, wealth, food, the fickleness of the nature, the unpredictability of the Gods and the extraordinary beauty of the seas?

mosaics at Isthmia
Mythical creature at Isthmia, Greece – part God Oceanus, part fish, part horse. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Countless people must have sat waiting for months and years for their loved ones to return from long sea voyages and when such a wild and monstrous force dominated your life, it was inevitable that it would turn up in other forms suitably contained, controlled and domesticated.

mosaics at Isthmia
Dolphin detail, Isthmia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

I am struck by how extraordinarily similar in execution these mosaics are from others on the same theme – of course one would expect creatures from common myths to crop up all over the Roman empire, but why, in some cases, are the same themes actually made in almost the same way? Pattern books? A few specialist mosaic designers who travelled though out the region?

Take this mosaic at the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:

Black and white aquatic scene, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

This in Pompeii:

Mosaic floor in situ, Pompeii bath house.

Or this floor mosaic at the House of Italica, Western Andalusia, near Seville:

Black and white aquatic mosaic, Italica house, Western Andalusia, near Seville

Terrifying and mysterious as it was, the sea, pristine, crystal clear and teaming with fish must have been more lovely by far than even the loveliest of Mediterranean seas of today. Here’s an example of one in Pelion, Greece, not far from where Jason set off on the Argo:

Labinou beach, Pelion, Greece.

 

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The glass ‘mosaics’ of Kechries

Kechries glass mosaics - ship and squid

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.

Kechries glass mosaics - fisherman and port

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.

Kechries mosaics - borderKechries glass mosaics - border detail

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:
Opus Sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Opus sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, 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.

Mummy's socks

 

 

 

 

 

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Direct method mosaic technique: the higgledy piggledy look

Achieving naturalness in direct method mosaics

I have been having a go at making direct method mosaics onto wood, using cement based adhesive as opposed to glue. The idea is that I want to recreate (at least a fraction of) the higgledy piggledy immediacy of many of my favourite Roman/early Byzantine mosaics. Looking at them, one can almost sense their original makers crouching over their work, one on one side, one on the other, pushing tesserae after tesserae into the soft substrate. As I imagine them, the Roman craftsmen work fast, with the sun beating down, sometimes choosing stones that fit perfectly, other times cramming them in a little too closely. They run out of a certain hue, call to their assistants to fetch more,  get up to stretch their legs and then resume their labour at a slightly different angle. I am constantly drawn to these early masterpieces because of the real sense of many hands at work and because of their entirely human imperfections. The more technically exact works, like many of the famous mosaics from Pompeii, leave me totally unmoved.

My own attempt to be more higgledly piggledy  is prompted by the fact that I was taught how to make mosaics by Greek mastercraftsmen who were themselves heavily influenced by church decoration and iconography. Their work  had the precision of necessity: one wouldn’t want a saint’s nose to be out of joint or a dragon’s snarl to be translated into a wry grin by a piece of smalti gone awry. I am trying to rid myself of this over exactitude and regain a bit of spontaneity. I’m just playing around, and enjoying it.

Here is a detail of a mosaic in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome which I love. You can see the higgledly piggledyness that I am talking about in the background andamenti around the bird:

Fav Rome Bird_ed

 And here is a detail of an ungrouted leaf mosaic I have just finished, not quite the same thing, but I’m trying:

black and white leaves detail

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