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.
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 the 12th century Monreale Basilica 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?
It’s not that pre-Byzantine mosaics don’t attract academic or public attention, of course they do. They are admired, studied, written about and painstakingly lifted and preserved. Specialists in Roman mosaics write learned tomes about them, as well they should, and there are wonderful books aplenty full of gorgeous coloured illustrations detailing mosaics from across the Roman empire. But that’s not the point. The point is that Farthing’s 550 page volume includes examples of work as diverse as an Indian 12th century bronze, a 19th century indigenous North American blanket and a Korean 13th water sprinkler, but Roman mosaics, unillustrated, are relegated to a single line: ‘The floors of many of the [Roman] homes were covered with elaborate mosaics’.
S, who studied history of art and who has spent the past three decades working in the art world, warmed to the subject as she looked closely at the 3rd-5th century mosaics in the unfrequented provincial museum where we had stopped on our way to a Pelopponesian beach.
Was it perhaps their functionality that kept them off the art history radar, she suggested? A vase by Edmund de Waal is a work of art. But does the same vase with a bunch of irises in it become simply a vase? Roman mosaics were largely made as floors for people to walk on so they didnt get as much attention as works which were made purely to delight. Perhaps it is because they were designed and made by anonymous artists, S continued? By and large mosaicists of old did not sign their work and they therefore do not comfortably fit into our modern notion of Art being made by a single named Artist.
There was much to be said for S’s theories but still, somehow, they didn’t quite cover the wholesale neglect of pre-Byzantine mosaics in the history of art. There must be another explanation and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. Could it be something even more fundamental to the nature of Roman mosaics, something we scarcely think about now but which for centuries meant they weren’t included in the canon that we nowadays consider central to the history of Western art?
As far as I can see, the key difference between Byzantine era mosaics, which are included in the history of art, and pre-Byzantine ones which are not, is that it was during Byzantine times that mosaics were lifted, figuratively and literally, from floors and used as wall decorations. Moreover, pebbles, stones or ceramic were replaced by smalti – colourful, rich, glittering glass – thereby elevating the ‘art’ of mosaics from being merely utilitarian floor surfaces using everyday materials to a decorative form which was respected, admired and coveted. This ties in nicely with S’s theory but nevertheless it is impossible to claim that Byzantine mosaics are somehow artistically superior. Even Gombrich has to admit that the mosaics of San Apollinare are ‘rather stiff and rigid’ and that ‘there is nothing of the mastery of movement and expression which was the pride of Greek art, and which persisted till Roman times.’
Then it came to me – the explanation was simple. The reason why pre-Byzantine mosaics are excluded from the history of art is because they were immovable. Think about it – during the Renaissance when painters sought to codify and refine the principles of representational art by studying and emulating the work of the ancients, they would understandably have concentrated their attentions on sculpture – objects which could be easily transported. If you tried to remove a mosaic it would crumble into a million tesserae which meant that they were all but worthless and never acquired the status of artefacts that could be widely admired outside their original context.
Moreover, most of the mosaics we know now hadn’t been excavated by the 1500s so Renaissance artists would have been largely unaware of them. Excavations at Pompeii began in the 1740s, Delos in the 1840s, Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale in the late 19th century, Pella in the 1950s, Zeugma in the 1990s and so on. So all the time, the crucial centuries, when western art was flourishing, pre-Byzantine mosaics were effectively invisible.
This invisibility was later consolidated by the collecting tendencies of the young aristocrats who took their Grand Tours of Europe from the late 18th century on wards. Drifting around the continent, buying, amassing and shipping anything movable back home to adorn their country estates – marbles, books, sarcophagi, manuscripts, vases, jewels, furniture- but not mosaics. Art is about display and mosaics couldn’t be displayed so they didn’t get accepted as Art.
At this stage in history methods for moving mosaics were still rudimentary. If a mosaic took your fancy, you were likely to hack out the central emblema, usually a neat, transportable tableau, and discard the rest, so the full magnificence of mosaics in situ or properly lifted could not be appreciated. These private collections in turn formed the basis of the first museums which in their turn would have been the focus of the burgeoning curiosity in the history of art which began to become a formal discipline in the 19th century. Thus it was, so my theory goes, that mosaics were left out of the history of art.
This means mosaics in the history of art are rather like women or black people in history full stop. Their perceived inferiority and therefore invisibility meant that they were only rarely able to step over the social and cultural divide and when they did so their contributions didn’t fit into the prevailing norm so were largely unrecorded. Looking back, academics are now aware of how certain categories of people were cut out of the history books and can do something to rectify the gaps in our understanding but when it came to rewrite the history of art, pre-Byzantine mosaics were still disregarded.
This seems even harder to explain but again I am sure I have found the answer. When art history was being rewritten and the neglected areas of world art were finally being discussed and included in the study of how art evolved, Western historians were understandably keen to look outwards to parts of the world which had previously been ignored.
According to my theory it would have been harder to weave Roman mosaics into the new narrative than it was to turn one’s attention to things of beauty from further afield. Adding Roman mosaics to the story of art would have smacked of more of the same, reinforcing the endlessly Western-centric focus of art history, whereas an Indian bronze or a Korean water sprinkler was something fresh and innovative. Thus, once again, Roman mosaics got left behind.
It’s just a theory but my father, listening intently, agreed with my reasoning. It may be nothing more than a hunch but it goes a long way to explaining why mosaics still hover in the no man’s land between art and craft. Even when the acknowledged greats of 20th century art, Picasso, for example, or Diego Rivera, experimented with the medium, their mosaic works remain little known. Wham-bam-in-your-face work by Niki de Saint Phalle, who’s sculpture garden is a mosaic orgy, is harder to ignore but the fact that she was heavily influenced by Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell and that her work is as much about surface, texture, reflection and found objects as it is about fantastical forms and sinuous shapes seems to receive less attention.
To finish here is a detail from the floor of the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. We see from this floor, which incorporates Roman mosaic fragments, that the Byzantine builders understood something of the beauty of Roman mosaics – they used them when they could have easily tossed them aside and started again. But they thought of them as something lesser, something not as good or as splendid or as worthy as their own smalti creations, and so the story of Roman mosaics in the history of art began.