In my recent travels, mostly exploring Mediterranean history (including Romans and Greeks) I’ve seen an awful lot of mosaics like the ones in Italica. I’ve even watched curators working to restore a mosaic in Pompeii.
But I’d never thought much about the fundamentals of creating a mosaic.
Mosaics are just a lot of coloured stones laid on the ground in a clever pattern, aren’t they?
Nope. There’s much more to it than that.
Engineering mosaics to last
If the coloured stones (tesserae) were simply laid on the ground, even if they were grouted together with mortar, they wouldn’t have lasted long. And many of them, as we know, have lasted for thousands of years. They had to be hard-wearing. They were going to be walked on.
Not all of them, of course.
Some mosaics were for wall decoration as you can see in my earlier blog showing some of the incredible religious mosaics in Sicily.
Like this one here where the colours and all that gold really sing.
Floor mosaics have lots of hidden underpinnings. (Wall mosaics probably have a lot less. Not sure on that, but it sort of stands to reason, doesn’t it?) In the museum in Ecija near Seville (called Astigi by the Romans) there are wonderful floor mosaics plus an explanation of how they were made. In pictures, I’m glad to say.
If you look closely at the image above (click to enlarge) you should be able to see small coloured markers on the layers: light blue at the very top, then red, then green, then yellow, then finally dark blue.
And the next image (right) explains them for us:
- light blue: mosaic tiles (tesserae)
- red: bedding layer
- green: nucleus, a fine mortar of sand, smashed tiles and bricks and lime
- yellow: mortar of gravel, terracotta** and lime
- dark blue: pebbles and rocks
** You may remember from my blog about olive oil that oil amphorae couldn’t be used in mortar because the oil reacted with the lime to produce soap. Not great in mortar. So the broken terracotta pots would have been from some other commodity, like wine or grain.
It was vital to get the underpinnings right or the mosaic would not last. The image below shows a mosaic in the Lebrija Palace in Seville (properly Casa Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija). In the early 20th century, the Condesa spent a fortune saving mosaics and other relics from Italica and other places. She transported them to her palace in Seville and rebuilt her house around them. But this particular mosaic didn’t survive too well. If you look closely you can see signs of heave.
Treasures of the Lebrija palace in Seville
The Condesa got a lot right, though. The courtyard of her palace contains a fabulous mosaic of the god Pan (in the central medallion), shown here in an image I took from the balcony above. The individual parts of the mosaic are amazingly clear. And they’re just the kind of images you would expect in a Roman mosaic. Here are a couple of them in close-up. They both involve Zeus doing what he so often did. On the left is Leda and the Swan; on the right, Europa and the bull. Yes, quite. Rape or seduction? You decide.
The palace has a lot more than mosaics. It has sculptures, and tiling, and wooden ceilings that are absolutely beautiful. This blog is about mosaics but I’m going to include a few extra images from the Lebrija palace, just because I can!
On the left is the wooden staircase with tiled walls (including trompe l’oeil). The stairs lead to the Condesa’s private apartments. On the right is the ceiling at the top of the tiled staircase. She also saved a huge octagonal mosaic (shown below) and built an octagonal room round it.
Yes, she was very rich and saving the antiquities was her passion. So she indulged it. Without her, many of these artefacts might have been lost for good. Farmers used to find them while ploughing. They knew the Condesa would pay for their finds so they didn’t destroy them which they might otherwise have done.
Never mind Zeus. What about Bacchus (Dionysus)?
Back to Ecija and its wonderful floor mosaics. Quite a few of them depict Bacchus. There is this splendid late 2nd century mosaic of the Triumph of Bacchus, shown below. Bacchus is riding in the chariot, top left, drawn by male and female centaurs. And the colours are still vibrant. (I’m also pasting in the legend to the mosaic so you can identify some of the other figures. Zeus is there again with Leda at #7.) But that’s not Bacchus’s only appearance in the Ecija museum’s collection. He appears again in the late 2nd century mosaic of The Gift of Wine, shown below. It depicts the myth that Bacchus/Dionysus donated the secrets of vine-growing and winemaking to humanity.
Bacchus is the child riding on a panther at the bottom of the mosaic. The other figures are all enjoying the fruits of the vine, as many of us may still do 😉 The shepherd, bottom left, is feeding grapes to his goat. Top left, two more shepherds are toasting with a wine cup. Above Bacchus are a bacchante and a goat-legged Pan with more grapes. And the satyr on the right is treading grapes to make more wine. The message, I’d say, is clear.
So mosaics depict male gods and male pursuits (like women)?
Not entirely, to be honest. For example, the corner medallions in the Lebrija courtyard mosaic shown earlier in this blog depict the four seasons. Some beautiful female faces there. And some female gods and demi-gods did get a look in. Like this 4th century semi-circular pavement of Thetis the sea-nymph from the museum in Jaén. Can’t say she looks too happy, though.
But then you get something as gorgeous as this 2nd century mosaic of Pegasus, the winged horse, in the museum in Cordoba. Look closely and marvel at how 3D his body is and how his muscles are sculpted by the artistic wizardry of the unnamed mosaic artists.
And they were artists. Obviously the grunt work of laying the bottom layers didn’t require such skill and was probably done by less valued slaves but only a real artist could create marvels like Pegasus. Sadly, it’s all too likely that even the greatest mosaic artists were also slaves.
Highly valued, yes. But free? Probably not.