I Mosaici…Mapping The Mosaics of Italy
As we travel through my map of Italian art history, the intricate mosaics shown in the illustration are examples of this enduring art form found throughout the country. Strikingly beautiful, mosaics can certainly tell us much about Italy’s history as well.
Along the northeast coast of the peninsula lies Ravenna, home to one of the most storied treasures of ancient mosaics in the world. Beautifully preserved and richly colored, these intricate masterpieces can be found in several sites including San Vitale, Galla Placidia Mausoleum, San Apollinare Nuovo and San Apollinare in Classe.
Constructed in the 6th century, the octagonal San Vitale retains a solid almost severe exterior, belying the glorious art it holds. Looking up at the golden halo mosaic surrounding the depiction of Emperor Justinian I felt the power of this great work of art. The ruler of the Byzantine Empire and conquerer of Ravenna stands before us with his eternally unblinking stare, a commanding presence in the stillness of the ancient basilica. On the opposing wall, a mosaic of Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora, gazes across the centuries toward her husband. The portraits of the royals, crowned with jewels and pearls, make it easy to imagine the pomp and ceremony surrounding their regal court.
Heading south, we arrive in Rome at Santa Costanza, originally built by Emperor Constantine in 350 AD as a mausoleum for his daughter. Unpretentious on its exterior, the interior is filled with delicately designed mosaics giving the space an airy, ethereal atmosphere. What strikes me about these mosaics is that they employ a pale background; the images retain a very crisp and defined appearance. Here, the vault and walls are covered with ornate swirls of olive branches, grape vines, fruit, floral and geometric motifs. Objects float, as if suspended in space: painted urns, bowls, doves, peacocks, mortar & pestle and other depictions of domestic life – each item lends its distinctive shape to become part of the whole design.
Herculaneum, known as Ercolano in Italy, lies on the southwest coastline of the boot, just southeast of Naples. Frequently overshadowed by the fame of nearby Pompei, the ruins of Herculaneum are an archeological treasure on their own. Of all the mosaics in Italy, these pieces truly celebrate daily life by elevating the mundane while offering a glimpse of how some Romans lived in the first century AD.
Herculaneum mosaics display a variety of subjects including domestic animals and a dining room depiction of food scraps seemingly tossed onto the floor. My favorite piece is the floor of the women’s bath house that depicts an octopus, lobsters and dolphins all surrounding a majestic Triton of the sea. I’m guessing that the sheer exuberance of the tentacles and dolphin tails created a memorable impression upon all who entered this space many centuries ago just as it still does today. The violent eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 covered the city and its inhabitants in mud flows and volcanic ash, abruptly destroying the town yet preserving it for future archeological discovery. It would be another sixteen centuries before the first rudimentary excavations of Herculaneum began.
The Villa Romana del Casale, located on the island of Sicily, is the site of the richest collection of late Roman mosaics. Arguably the most famous mosaic of the villa, my illustration depicts a group of female athletes competing in various sports. Wearing their chic two-piece athletic gear, this mosaic is often referred to as “The Bikini Girls”. Here, winners of the sporting contests are crowned with flowers and bestowed with palm fronds. Created during the late 3rd century and the early 4th century AD, the remains of this once luxurious villa are home to a tremendous quantity of beautifully preserved mosaics including boar hunting scenes, whimsical designs (think cherubs fishing from a boat) and geometric patterns.
To view the full illustration, see Part I of my Italian History Map blog dated 4/29/10. I’ll be posting the third and final installment of my blog dedicated to this map soon. Until then, I wish you “Arrivederci”.