Pompeii

Making Roman mosaic copies

roman mosaic copies
Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.

Heraclea Lyncestis
Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading

The modernity of ancient mosaics

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Man hugging his dog. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Many years ago, when I lived and worked in Egypt, I spent a week in the Cairo museum researching an article about it’s 100th anniversary. My apartment was close by and I would nip in through a side entrance bypassing the crowds and spend hours wandering through it’s musty, less frequented galleries. I was allowed to go into the conservation room and try on ancient pharaonic jewellry and I had all the time I wanted alone with the spookily alive Fayoum portraits.

Bardo Museum. dog and worker.
Dog and worker. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

Such delights are hard to forget but it was in the Tutankhamen exhibition that I remember having that feeling which ancient things can give you – of hopping over a barrier of time and seeing, not the objects themselves or their beauty or oldness, but the people who used and held them. It was the hinge of Tutankhamen’s folding bed that did it for me. A hinge: utilitarian, practical, simple and unchanged over thousands of years. No more or less a hinge than all the hinges we use in our daily lives. Never mind all that gold – it was the hinge that I loved. Continue reading

Snap! Comparing ancient mosaics.

Mosaic floor in situ, Pompeii bath house.
Mosaic octopus, Pompeii bath house. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Octopos, Isthmia
Mosaic octopus. Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Finding similarities between ancient mosaics

The day is done. The dishwasher is rumbling away, the boys are arrayed on the sofa in front of the TV, the dog is stretched out in the part of the sitting room that he has claimed as his own and I slink off, tea in hand, to my computer. It’s my way of unwinding.  A quick check for any interesting mosaic pins on Pinterest,  a glance at mosaic matters on Twitter (oh, how I love it’s brevity), followed by a longer, slower look at what fellow mosaicists are up to on Facebook, clicking through to interesting links they’ve posted which often leads on to another link and then another… And as the idle minutes pass, day after day, I start to notice certain similarities between ancient mosaics from all over the Roman world.

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Leaf border design. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Leaf border design. Nikopolis, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Leaf border design. Stobi, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Continue reading

Weird and wonderful: my top ten strange ancient mosaics

odd mosaics. no accreditation.

The Romans: sticklers for conformity

When it comes to home decor, the Romans were sticklers for conformity. If you amassed a fortune, there were two things you had to do: one, get yourself a sprawling villa in a prime location. Two, call in the mosaic team. But it was de rigueur to keep to the pattern book. From one end of the vast empire to the other, from the drizzling hills of Roman Britain to the sizzling plains of Antioch, the designs and themes of ancient mosaics show striking similarities. The images that appear most often are hunting scenes, depictions of wild animals, of mythological characters, of masked actors and of gladiatorial battles. Continue reading

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.

 

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