Storytelling in Mosaics in Rome

Storytelling in Mosaics in Rome
17 June 2016 0 Comment

From ancient Rome to the height of the Church in the Middle Ages, mosaics tell a vivid story that has lasted for centuries.

Who were the first people to stumble across the technique of painting colour and glazes onto thousands of minute individual pieces of terracotta tile (called tesserae), and gluing them together to form some of the most evocative imagery ever created by man? Archeologists have pieced together conclusive evidence that suggests that the earliest known examples of mosaics made of different materials, found at a temple building in AbraMesopotamia, are dated to the second half of 3rd millennium BC. They consist of pieces of colored stones, shells and ivory. Excavations at Susa and Chogha Zanbil show evidence of the first glazed tiles, dating from around 1500 BC. Painting with tiles as we understand it today, was not realised or practised until the times of Sassanid Empire and Roman influence.

In antiquity the Romans became the masters of this difficult and demanding technique. Executing work throughout the empire that after more than two thousand years, in locations like Rome, Ravenna, Sicily, Spain and Britain, still sing with a vibrancy of colour and design with narratives that entertain and amaze us today! Their subject matter was as eclectic as the many locations in which you can find these works. In Sicily you can enjoy the famous mosaic, “Girls in Bikinis” at Villa Romana del Casale, from the first part of the 4th century A.D. The Irano-Roman mosaic floor in the palace at Bishapur, is from the 2nd century A.D. and is a lyrical masterpiece. From gladiators fighting tigers, to meandering friezes of flowers and fruits, Rome’s love for pleasure and pain all found their way as subjects into the mosaics that continue to entertain us to this day. A visit to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome will have you spellbound as you admire one great Roman mosaic after the other.

By the late 4th century A.D. with the Roman Empire a quickly fading memory, the arrival of Christian basilica’s provided more walls and vaults to occupy the masters of mosaic. The earliest examples of mosaic from this period that survive in Rome can be found at the church of Santa Pudenziana (reconised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome and rarely open to a visitor!) and the magnificent Mausoleum of Santa Costanza which is well worth a visit. There is a scene, in mosaic in one of the apse in the Mausoleum that portrays Christ with the ideals of law and justice. He is shown with his apostles Peter and Paul along with a few sheep representing his role as Shepherd governing and leading his flock. He is shown giving Peter the scroll representing law, with the inscription, “DOMINUS LEGEM DAT,” or “The Lord is giving the Law.” Christ is clothed in golden robes, suggesting his power and supremacy. He is shown rising above paradise, which further shows his dominance over both heaven and earth. There is still a visual and cultural ‘hangover’ from Imperial Rome seen in the toga’s worn by both Peter and Paul!

Perhaps the greatest cycle of Christian mosaics, and some of Rome’s earliest, that still shine their magic today can be found in the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore. The oldest surviving here are hard to see but are ever present as 27 panels that meander along both sides of the nave. They are masterworks of great individuality representing Old Testament events most vividly of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt across the Red Sea. They were created before the Middle Ages when the language of mosaic design fell under the influence of a Byzantine narrative and dogma, as one can see in the Coronation of the Virgin, decorating the apse of the church. It is a work of Jacopo Torriti from 1295 and whilst magnificent in scale and execution, the pre-determined style of the 12th century in church mosaic, lacks the joyous individuality of the mosaics of the nave.

They have stood the passage of time over many centuries, telling stories that still amaze and delight us today. The mosaics of Rome are testimony to many cultures and many moments in time and most of all, reminding us still that we are creatures of the stories of history and faith!

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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