Tag Archives: mosaics

Abbeville Book Buzz – November 2012


While the Abbeville Blog has been exploring Abbeville’s new releases in depth throughout the fall, other media outlets have been buzzing about our books as well. Here’s a roundup of some of the more notable November coverage.

The New York Times chose Renaissance Intarsia and Greek and Roman Mosaics for its Holiday Gift Guide, praising them both as books that pack “intellectual heft and emotional wallop.” The editors particularly enjoyed the arcane trivia and fantastic lore offered in each:

[Greek and Roman Mosaics'] glossary is entertaining: ancient installers called themselves tessellators, and a favorite squiggly motif was known as “opus vermiculatum. ” Many of the mosaics have been removed from their original mortar beds; a petaled frame from a Tivoli villa’s scene of doves around a birdbath has been cut apart and dispersed among collections in Germany, England and France.”

Scholars liked intarsia images of musical instruments and books, and popes and monks ordered portraits of saints. The wood grain lines, dotted with mother-of-pearl, were positioned to represent tiny gleaming swords, bird feathers and draped robes. The raw material, the [Intarsia] authors explain quite evocatively, came from trees felled in winter, “and only during the waning phase of the moon.”

Equally evocative was the review of Pieter Bruegel in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, which revels in the sensuous thrills of the volume:

This lavish book looks and feels indulgent; revealing with thrilling intimacy details of large panel paintings, including dress, gesture, facial expressions and under-drawing, it offers the closest thing to a museum experience … Taken together with [Larry] Silver’s Hieronymous Bosch (2006), Pieter Bruegel presents a masterful survey of Northern Renaissance visual trends over a span of more than a century. The book provides a fabulous resource of images, supported by a lively text that re-engages with a much loved master, and is sure to inspire many more people to look again at Bruegel.”

The reviewer also salutes author Larry Silver for deftly negotiating the vast body of scholarship on Bruegel—a painter who has become “a brand in every sense”—while at the same time keeping the emphasis where it ought to be: “Silver’s tome…rightly declares its central purpose to be the contemplation of pictures.”

Speaking of contemplation, the JapanCulture NYC blog found a whole garden’s worth of blissful serenity in Jonathan Singer’s photographic opus, Fine Bonsai: Art & Nature: “Dr. Singer creates bold, colorful images that spring off the page and demonstrate how nature can at once be both delicate and powerful…each of [the book's] 596 pages offers moments of contemplation and meditation.” In the Journal of the American Bonsai Society, editor Bob King agreed that “this is more than your average coffee table book”:

Jonathan Singer with his grounding as an art-based photographer has revealed what he sees as the true nature of the trees through the use of selective lighting. The same black background makes the trees “pop” from the pages … As I viewed the book, I also considered the educational component for the bonsai community. The book is not just a collection of photographs of bonsai. It appears that the planned design was to have trees shown without detailed information close at hand, thereby forcing the viewer to appreciate the individual tree without the prejudgment of who was involved in the development. The sections of the history, aesthetics, and container selection all add value to this book as a comprehensive book on the art of bonsai.

And there, like a master gardener trimming a bonsai plant, we will cut off the roundup before it sprawls untidily. We hope you’ll continue to follow the Abbeville Blog throughout December for more Abbeville news, author interviews, and reflections on art and art history, as well as holiday gift ideas. See you Monday!

The Menander Mosaics and the Ancient Sitcom

Scene from Menander’s Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast), Dioskourides of Samos, 2nd century BC.

We’d like to conclude Mosaics Week here at the Abbeville Blog by taking a close look at the famous Menander mosaics from the Villa of Cicero. As Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics notes, the villa was among the first buildings to be excavated at Pompeii and may or may not actually have belonged to the great philosopher-statesman. But “while the true owner of ‘Cicero’s’ villa remains unknown to us, the author of the two emblemata there does not: both…bear the Greek inscription Dioskourides Samios epoiese (Dioskourides of Samos made me), attesting to the mosaicist’s awareness of his own skill.

What sort of mosaics did this mosaicist mosaicize? The emblemata at the Villa of Cicero depict scenes from the comedies of Menander, a popular ancient Greek dramatist whose work survives today mainly in fragments. These lively, racy works were not unlike ancient sitcoms, thriving on timeless comedic staples: love, sex, money, class conflict, and so on. The specific works featured in the villa mosaics are Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast) and Theophoroumene (The Possessed Girl); the first has been lost and only a partial text of the second has come down to us. To get a flavor of Menander’s style, however, we can peruse his only play to survive in (basically) complete form: Dyskolos (Grouch), available online in a translation by Fairfield University’s Vincent J. Rosivach. The following excerpt features Sostratos, the hero, a young gentleman of leisure in love with a peasant girl; Khaireas, Sostratos’s valet and buddy; and Pyrrhias, a slave in Sostratos’s house, whom Sostratos has earlier sent to approach the father of the girl he loves. The angry father has thrown dirt and stones at Pyrrhias, as angry fathers do.

Py. Let’s get out of here, I’m begging you.
So. Where?
Py. From the door here, as far as possible. A son of distress, either he’s been driven mad by some god or he’s naturally crazy, the man who lives in that house, the one you send me to. Damn! My toes, I’ve shattered nearly all of them banging into things.
So. [aside to Khaireas] He’s come here and gotten drunk.
Kh. Clearly.

Take a moment to savor this vintage stumbling-drunk joke, 2300 years old now but still kind of funny. Compare a more recent incarnation:

And so the human comedy continues. The works depicted in the villa mosaics are hardly less fun, especially once you know the stories behind them. The scene from Synaristosai, for example, features one courtesan complaining to another, and to the second courtesan’s mother (their procuress), about her romantic troubles. What is this if not ancient Rome’s answer to Sex and the City?

That’s not to suggest that these artworks are anything but classy. Bawdy and populist though their subject matter may be, Greek and Roman Mosaics reminds us that these “two emblemata…are still among the most beautiful mosaics recovered from the ancient world.” Far from serving as the Roman equivalent of a SATC dorm poster, they “attest to the refined culture of the villa’s owner.” And to the refinement of ancient Roman culture itself, which in slightly Warholesque fashion could turn even its pop indulgences into priceless art.


Two Images, One Battle?: Altdorfer and the Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic (c. 120 BC) is one of the most iconic images to emerge from ancient Roman culture, as well as one of history’s most notable images of Alexander the Great. Originally a floor mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii, it has since been excavated and transferred to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples–where, according to Archeology magazine, it is “safe from the feet of Pompeii’s two million plus yearly visitors, as well as from the rain and sun that have damaged the whole site.”

The mosaic depicts a clash between the Greek king Alexander and the Persian king Darius, sometime during the fourth century BC. About it, however, little else can be said for certain. The precise historical incident depicted is a matter of controversy, as Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello explain in Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics:

…But exactly which battle is represented here? Some believe that it is Alexander and Darius’s first meeting, at Issus, in southern Turkey, in 333 BC, while others suggest that it is their second, and decisive, clash, at Gaugamela, in northern Iraq, in 331 BC; both times Darius escaped the battlefield in his chariot. A third possibility is that the image synthesizes multiple episodes of Alexander’s campaign against Persia.

The authors then ponder the many other enigmas surrounding the image: who is the artist? Who commissioned it, “or rather the lost painting on which it was presumably based”? Was it executed at Pompeii or imported from a Hellenistic center? How and when did it sustain the damage–the “gaps, repairs, and incongruencies”–that mar its left side in particular?

It’s likely that none of these riddles will ever be definitively solved. The “Which battle?” question, however, remains particularly tantalizing because the answer may bring the mosaic close to another famous image from art history. If the Issus conjecture is correct, the mosaic would portray the same event as The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), a stunning High Renaissance masterwork by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer. Two images from entirely different cultures and eras, both perhaps representing the same battle–both, in their own way, thrilling.

The Battle of Alexander at Issus, Albrecht Altdorfer

The mosaic is notable among ancient artworks for its command of perspectival illusion. One horse, radically foreshortened, charges into the frame as another charges out at us; the troops’ bristling spears seem to converge toward a vanishing point somewhere in the thick of battle. Altdorfer’s Battle makes even more masterful use of illusionistic depth. Its ranks swirl and clash in a valley extending all the way to the horizon; its clouds churn in the mirroring vortex of the sky. Even the scroll of fate is rendered sturdily in three dimensions; set in a massive wooden frame, it dangles above the scene like a weight about to drop.

Yet where the mosaic has a “you are there” intimacy, our perspective in the Altdorfer is that of a detached god only temporarily visiting earth. We are up the slope a ways, slightly above the fray; the horses and soldiers are a collective, a swarm, as impersonal and destructive as a force of nature. No individual face or figure pulls our focus, with the arguable exception of the horseman at bottom right, who is just about to charge into the madness.

In the Alexander mosaic, we do have a figure in central focus, though perhaps surprisingly (given the title by which we know the piece) it isn’t Alexander. Instead the lines of the spears draw us toward the fleeing Darius, riding slightly higher than the rest, turning on his horse to lament the death of his bodyguard. Part of the success of the mosaic depends on its quality of portraiture, the vividness of the despair on Darius’s face and the implacable calm of Alexander’s expression as he watches. In something of a reversal of expectations, the Renaissance image is more epic and the classical image more intimately human: the one gives us the impersonal sweep of war, the other tragedy on a personal scale.


Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.

Mosaics, Wine, and The Spirit of Dionysus

Pella. Pebble mosaic, Dionysus on the Panther. 103 x 106 ¼ in. (262 x 270 cm). 330-310 BC.

This week we at the Abbeville Blog toast Greek and Roman Mosaics, a comprehensive survey of classical mosaic art by Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello. And when we toast mosaics, we toast rowdily, with bowls of wine. That’s because, as you thumb through the (gorgeous, full-color) illustrations in the book, you’ll find that a striking number of ancient dining room floors feature mosaics with Bacchic themes.

What would we do without Bacchus, a.k.a. Dionysus, a.k.a. the god of wine, revelry, and ritual madness, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite god? This jovial scamp has been entertaining the masses and driving women crazy since he first popped out of Father Zeus’s thigh.

Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale (inv. 9991), from Pompeii, House of the Faun (VI.12.2), triclinium (34). Winged Dionysus on a Tiger, 64 1/4 x 64 1/4 in. (163 x 163 cm). Late second century BC.

His influence on Greek and Roman mosaics is far-ranging but sometimes intriguingly oblique. For every Winged Dionysus on a Tiger from the House of the Faun in Pompeii–in which the god carries a giant wine jug and rides that tiger like the party will never end–there is a more subdued or even sinister memento of ancient drinking culture, such as the wine pitcher-toting skeleton from another Pompeiian mosaic. (Both pieces are held at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.) These were civilizations that knew, and honored, both the ecstatic and the sobering side of drink.

For a god, Dionysus is not always portrayed as especially powerful. A famous pebble mosaic at the palaces of Pella, about 28 miles southwest of Thessalonica, “depicts Dionysus, limp and ephebic, on the back of a sinuous, rampant panther, a theme also seen in vase painting,” according to Pappalardo and Ciardiello. This image was part of the traditional symbolism associated with the cult of Dionysus. Does it perhaps symbolize the animal desires that master us during drunkenness, taking our weakened human willpower along for the ride?

Rome, Musei Capitolini (inv. 1256) from Tivoli, Villa Adriana. Drinking Doves. 33 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (35 x 98.5 cm). Probably second century AD.

Nor are animals themselves, in these mosaics, immune to the charms of wine. One recurrent mosaic motif, the most distinguished rendering of which was discovered in Tivoli at the Academy of the Villa Adriana in 1737, depicts “Drinking Doves”: doves clustered around a winebowl. Pappalardo and Ciardiello suggest that they are “an epiphany of Aphrodite, or an apparition of the goddess of nature in the form of her sacred animal.” Later they “appeared in late-antique and Byzantine art, in which they took on a symbolic Christian meaning.” Though not a Dionysian image per se, these birds shed their own kind of light on the drinking culture from which they emerged. If there is something terrifying and self-abasing about drunkenness in Greco-Roman art, there is also something communal, even democratic. The power of drink and drinking rituals holds sway over all creation: gods and men, birds and beasts alike.


Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.