An explosion: orange, green, yellow, red, ultramarine blue. All very far from the black and white that most associate with all things ancient. The classical world, and especially the Roman world, was in color; and not just any old color! Brilliant colors, even obtained by using precious stones such as lapis lazuli, crumbled for painting and reduced to fine tesserae for mosaics. Ah, the mosaics! Fine craftsmanship to create opus tessellatum, with more or less square tesserae, creating decorations that were more than just geometric patterns, and opus vermiculatum, with very small tesserae, 3 millimeters per side at most, and not always of a regular shape because once applied they reproduce an effect that today we call brushstroke.
Marble, glass, clay… each material contributes to the creation of a colorful environment that infuses light and a sense of comfort. In the villas of Pompeii, in the residences of the imperial indolence of Baia, in the patrician domus of Herculaneum and Stabiae, mosaics and wall paintings “break through” the walls of the rooms and project them towards the gardens and the sea. And more than visiting the excavations of the Roman city, it is a stroll inside the archaeological museum of Naples that renders the wonder of the kaleidoscope that surrounded rich merchants and nobles. The mosaics delimited thresholds, decorated floors, recreated with their emblemata of infinite tiny tesserae the luxury in which the residents of the domus lived.
“The technique was the same still used today. Once the design was chosen, reproduced on card, often from among conventional subjects but also produced on commission, the carefully leveled base was prepared using various layers of mortar up to the last, very fine layer, where the tiles were positioned and set, composing the image, whether it were the geometric pattern of the meander, or a thousand cubes, but also towers, intertwined branches, soft blue peacocks or doves taking a drink,” explains Caterina Serena Martucci, the archaeologist who accompanies me on this journey. Often, the Romans also used wax to fix the tesserae, a technique that has preserved the masterpieces of Piazza Armerina for us to enjoy. Thus, we begin to walk through the rooms called Magna Grecia, custodians of jewels, amphorae, vases, cups and statuettes. The giddiness of stepping on—albeit with our feet covered in disposable shoes—such precious and oh, so colorful floors! From the Villa dei Papiri, the sumptuous Herculaneum residence of the Pisoni, the circular “carpets” of isosceles triangles of white, black, yellow and red marble or the yellow and red meander pattern edged in black reach Charles III of Bourbon, who laid them in rooms closed to the public for decades; while the villas of Stabiae still offer the large “tapestry” of square tiles with the signs of the zodiac, edged with red festoons with dolphins and anchors. The rooms, one inside the other, take your breath away and you can’t decide between looking at the dazzling design under your feet or the glowing gold of the jewels and the colored terracotta of the exhibits.
“The discovery of the color of the ancient world was a disruptive message that allowed us to escape from the great deception of the whiteness of the statues and access our ancestor’s real perception of the world,” smiles Paolo Giulierini, Director of the MANN. Marble and semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise bear witness to the wealth of the empire and the widespread nature of its relations with the known world. Whilst the white marble tiles are of Italic origin, as Rome expands, red, yellow and black tiles arrive from Africa or Asia Minor, combined with the brilliance of ancient green and dark and light blue obtained from semiprecious stones.
The center of the decorations feature depictions of men and animals, myths and heroes, fountains and gorgon heads, but also the incredible variety of fish reconstructed in the impluvium in the House of the Geometric Mosaics in Pompeii, an opus vermiculatum from the 1st century BC (the golden age of this technique, which is today impossible because it requires a very long time that is difficult to plan, Caterina reminds me) for a work destined to be seen through the veil of rainwater that collected in the bath in the center of the atrium of the house, which was partly uncovered. Local workers laid the tesserae, but the elaborated ornaments were entrusted to expert craftsmen, initially Greeks, who often composed the design in wooden boxes in the workshop and then laid it in the floor. And it is from this wisdom that we get the two facing roosters or the leopard, but also the gigantic lion with cupids, Dionysus and Maenads from the 1st century BC in the floor of the triclinium in the House of the Centaur. To understand this eruption of color fully, we must resort to a true “fake”. One of the rooms of the MANN, in fact, houses a 19th century German reconstruction room that brings together pieces from different Pompeian domus. First of all, the four columns from the house of the same name, decorated with shells at the base and with brilliant ultramarine blue glass paste tiles with a floral and geometric design on the whole body.
The walls are decorated with “little squares” and aedicules from rooms of the Insula Occidentalis, the House of the Skeleton and from the Villa of Arianna in Oplontis. A triumph of intense blue, egg yolk yellow, orange red, green and myriad other colors. “The materials,” the archaeologist explains, “were often fragments of those used to make other things—splinters and pieces of waste—in a sort of circular economy that allowed the use of marble, glass pastes, leftover bits of stones worked to be set in jewels.” This magic that also emerges in the somewhat clumsy stories of reality that the craftsman may never have experienced, such as the rectangular mosaic from the rooms of the Casa del Fauno, in a room preceding that of the Alexander Mosaic, made in c. 100 BC: a million colored precious marble tesserae to celebrate the victory of Alexander the Great over the Persians. In this rectangular mosaic, the subject is the Nile, and shows the fauna and flora of the exotic river, including a hippopotamus and a comical crocodile with the body not exactly true to form. Yet the marble faithfully reproduces the lapping water and the richness of color of a reality distant in time and place.
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