Pompeii’s Mosaics

The Archaeological Museum in Naples is a feast whose tables were set mostly by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The ground floor houses statues, some of them gargantuan, some more likely to fit into a ceremonial niche in the family home. They’re a separate story because it’s the upstairs exhibits that, however delicate and sweet, provide the main course–at least for this diner–even if this display is merely the second best I’ve ever seen.

(There’s a  new museum in Gazientep, Turkey that exhibits the colossal mosaic floors unearthed in nearby Zeugma. These recovered masterworks include many room-sized mosaic scenes–Neptune and an underwater seascape, the semi-pornographic scene of Pasiphae overseeing Daedalus as he crafts the cow in which she will hide to lure the bull of her desires. She gives birth, then, to the Minotaur and we are off on the full-scale saga: how a dominant Crete finally loses out to Theseus and Athens, all this half-history, half-myth stemming from a rather retiring, almost shy young woman whose monstrous love Daedalus can realize. Meanwhile, his son, Icarus, serves as his apprentice, taking a break from building the wings on which he’ll soar too high. See Bullfinch; see Auden; see Jung. I believe one could have no furniture in this room; the tale told on the floor is too delicious to be interrupted.)

So, while Gazientep focuses on the grand, Napoli gives us, mostly, smaller decorative pieces. Some may be small corners of a floor; some are the basins of fountains; some were installed on the walls.

The thing about mosaics, I think, is that the craft and the art are always on equal display. In a painting you might study the brush strokes and such individual details, but only after you have absorbed the whole picture. But in mosaic work, the detail of each tessera, its separation from and its pairing with each adjoining tile is clearly, assertively  visible. There seems to me that perfect moment when the handyman’s victory that turns into artistic joy: “Look how I’ve added just the hint of a blush to that cheek bone! Imagine how I shaped each piece, how I made that sweeping curved line out of perfectly square pieces, how the separating lines give way to a whole image.”

The tweezers of it! The chipping and sanding, the polishing! And can you tell me, please: are all those colors chosen from available stones? Or are some painted so the portrait, the duck feathers, the cat’s whiskers, the fish scales can be correct?

Well, then. Take a look.

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5 thoughts on “Pompeii’s Mosaics

  1. We’ve been doing large elaborate jigsaw puzzles lately. It would seem to me that this is the reverse process. You start with the big picture, then design each piece.

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    • The artist must begin with a complete design in mind, right? Then, perhaps new opportunities arise while looking at the stones’ colors, or perhaps some small fragment just fits in–There!–to create a dimple where there was only undifferentiated flesh. In any case, the probable back and forth between original design and materials-directed variation seems like good inventive fun.

  2. Modern-day mosaicists tread the same ground as stained-glass artists. One of their options is to use carefully-cut bits of stained glass to build their works. Of course, there is always the traditional ceramic or colored stone approach. However, if the artist needs additional colors (unavailable in nature), the only real options are either to manufacture your materials (hence the relationship to stained glass) or to color the available items.

    As American colonists gained wealth by growing indigo for its coloring properties, so Mediterranean craftsmen may have made a business of providing the right materials for their artists.

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