Dichromatic Mosaic Panel – Caracalla’s Baths, Rome
The City of Rome and the provinces of the Roman Empire are most associated with the use of mosaics for decorating buildings, however the Romans themselves did not actually invent this artistic technique – they merely perfected it. In fact the tradition of making mosaics has far earlier roots.
The Early Beginnings of the Mosaic Craft
Mankind has always had a fascination with arranging natural materials into interesting patterns. Pebbles embedded in sand or mud to provide hard standing at the entraces to dwellings, could be decoratively arranged to amuse children and were probably the earliest precursors of the craft of mosaics. Although not truly mosaics in the modern sense, walls in the ancient Near East and Egypt were often adorned with pieces of coloured stone, tiles and other materials that were embedded in the plaster. Before the classical era, the early Ancient Greeks created floors of hardened material, using lime and sand to make a kind of mortar and they would often embed pebbles in the surface of the mortar to further reduce the wear and tear. The pebbles would usually be arranged to form pleasing patterns – some of these floors are still in existance today. People still make pebble floors and they can be very attractive.
Greece and Rome
From these early beginnings, the first true mosaics were developed. This was done by replacing the pebbles in the panels with tiny prepared blocks of coloured stone (tesserae) and grouting the gaps between them with lime mortar. This method of mosaic making could create a flatter, more comfortable floors, with more opportunities for creative patterning. This technique started appearing around the 4th Century BC in Greece and elsewhere and became increasingly more sophisticated during the Hellenistic period, following Alexander’s conquests. With more influence from the East, patterns became more intricate and artists started using the technique to represent both human beings and animals in staged situations. At this point Rome began to expand its influence in Italy and interact more with the Eastern Mediterranean as well. It was the Roman invention of superior, waterproof pozzalanic cement, to replace ordinary lime mortar, that eventually made mosaic floors far more hardwearing and durable. This improvement was achieved by adding a blend of crushed volcanic rock to the ground limestone in the lime kiln. The excellent properties of the new cement were the key to creating a superior product and the use of mosaics for various applications soon became widespread. Not surprisingly, the moneyed classes were quick to see the advantages of having attractive, easily-cleaned floors in their villas, temples and bath houses .
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Roman Mosaic: Portrait of a god or hero? .
The First True Mosaics Came from Ancient Rome
As already stated, the Romans were not the first to experiment with the technique, but it was they who really perfected the art of making mosaics. Using a variety of small pre-cut marble, glass and stone blocks, called tesserae in Latin, and putting their superlative cement technology to good use they created the first true mosaic panels. They enthusiastically made this art form their own in every sense of the word and no patrician’s villa would be considered complete without several magnificent floors and wall coverings, commisioned to be unique art works from the studio of one of the most popular mosaic artists. Besides being attractive, correctly laid mosaic tiles rendered floors waterproof, hygienic, easy to clean and equally important – they also reflected light – essential properties for the bathhouses of a nation obsessed with bathing. Roman innovation in the technology of making good quality cements, mortars and concrete, was an essential factor for successful waterproofing and frost resistance. The cement was used to create a hard, crack resistant concrete core, a durable mortar bedding material that bonded well to the tesserae and it also provided a tough grouting media that was resistant to abrasion. These inherent qualities of the pozzalaniccement were directly responsible for giving Roman mosaics their impressive longevity .
Romans Make Mosaics Their Chosen Art Form
Roman mosaic designs are very distinctive and display worthy examples of both abstract and representative art. Although always immediately recognisable as Roman, many different style and themes are used. Black and white (monochromatic) highly stylized mosaic representations of dolphins and sea monsters adorned the floors of public baths, whilst in the seclusion of their villas, the rich favoured more colourful realistic mosaic representations of gods, gladiators and gracious ladies at leisure. However a great deal of purely geometric mosaic decoration and highly stylised bordering was used in repetitive patterns.
The Twisted Rope Pattern
The twisted rope pattern was a favorite technique for borders and was used in continuous braids by Roman artists to frame and emphasise the main features of their chosen theme
The Mosaic panel to the left, illustrates how the technique of laying out repetitive braids can add depth and distinction to a featured object or motif. Yet, it is simple, clean and uses a very limited pallet of tesserae colours. The twisted rope pattern was a great favorite with the Roman craftsmen and there are many fine examples from all over the Empire. This striking floor panel was found under the excavations for the Bank of England.
The Roman Method of Making Mosaics
It has been suggested that the Ancient Roman craftsmen generally used the Indirect Method of making mosaics for creating most of their larger pieces. While there is no direct archaeological or literary evidence to give absolutely clear indication of how these craftsmen went about their trade, the following scenario seems plausible and would fit in with what we know of the high degree of practicality and organisational ability the Romans always displayed in dealing with physical tasks. This characteristic talent of the Romans is evidenced by the speed with which they could complete massive projects, such as the aqueducts and Caracalla’s massive bath complex (thermae) in Rome, which was completed in just a few short years. This huge pubic bathing facility had literally acres of mosaic pavements, floors and wall coverings. Even though it was built in great haste, the mosaic art work was never compromised and was of an extremely high standard – evidence of a well organised and sophisticated industry.
It is most likely that travelling artisans would contract to install mosaics for villas, temples and bath houses for both private and public patrons throughout the vast Roman empire. To fulfil their commissions, the artisans would often have had to travel long distances, bringing their tools with them and also carrying sets of special board templates. They would probably have been based in a home workshop, possibly in Rome itself or otherwise in one of the major provincial cities. However the contractors would accept commisions as far away as the remote west of Britain and the Euphrates valley, on the other end of the known world. It is not plausible that these remoter areas could have found the skills locally to produce the quality of workmanship that has been unearthed there, so the use of contractors with the necessary skilled workforce is a fairly safe assumption.
The board templates the artisans brought with them would have been the pattern guides for the specific mosaic designs commisioned by their client. These designs might just be stock-in-trade patterns for geometric shapes and common popular themes or, (depending on the depth of the clent’s pocket), they could be specially commisioned original pieces from a famous mosaic artist. In either case, the wooden templates would probablyhave been prepared off-site in the home workshop beforehand, by the contractor’s mastercraftsmen. As the Indirect Method of making mosaics was most common, they would have been set up with reversed (mirror-imaged) patterns for each sequential portion of the chosen mosaic design. The designs would be pre-etched into the surface of the boards, probably with a hot iron stylus. Both stock and original design concepts would have initially been drafted by a specialised mosaic artist and then probably put into a catalogue for displaying to potential clients. Once selected by the patron, the reversed pattern would have then been scaled up from the artists original design and carefully etched into the wood of the template boards by a master craftsman at the home workshop.
On site the surface to be covered (concrete or brick) would be prepared by roughening it up with chipping hammers to ensure a good bond with the cement mortar that was to be applied. Meanwhile the actual tesserae blocks (mosaic tiles) would be prepared by the contracting artisans, usually from stone found locally in the district around their client’s estate – although some special tesserae such as glass or marble might be imported from further afield. Hot beeswax was used to temporarily fix the best face (bright sides) of these tesserae to the template boards, taking care to faithfully follow the inscribed pattern. When all the tessarae were in place on the template and the wax had set hard, the boards would be lifted up and rotated, so that the protruding mosaic blocks (underside face) could be pushed directly into a prepared bed of wet cement mortar that had been applied to the backer surface. After the cement had set and been well cured, heated water would be used to melt the wax and break the temporary bond between the template boards and the mosaic tiles. Minor repairs and re-setting of any loosened pieces could be done with a little cement mortar, before grouting.
All traces of wax needed to be removed before the mosaic tiles could be grouted, as wax would prevent the grout from bonding to the tesserae. The grouting was done with plain or coloured cement mortar. This grouting bound the mosaic tiles into a tight matrix that was both waterproof and attractive. The grouting was also essential for preventing potential frost damage. All that remained then was cleaning and some final polishing of the stones to bring out the colours of the finished piece. On completion the contractor would accept his fee and leave the patron to show off his treasure to his admiring neighbours. The artisans would set out for home, with the valuable patterned template boards carefully packed away for re-use on future projects.
The Good Things of Life
Wealthy Romans always enjoyed the good things of life and there are many mosaics devoted to simple pastoral or culinary themes. Often wall or floor panels featured somewhat random, but pleasing assemblies of favorite dishes, familiar homely objects or peaceful farmyard animals in the fields.
Affluent Romans liked to decorate the walls of their villas with familiar country scenes as this gave them a sense of peace and well being. Most wealth was derived from agricultural estates.
Mosaic Floors on a Vast Scale
The scale of Roman mosaics on both the walls and floors of some of their public buildings, particularly in the huge bath complexes called thermae, could be very impressive; each individual mosaic panel representing literally thousands of manhours of work by highly skilled mosaic artists and craftsmen. In the emperor Caracalla’s huge bath complex in Rome, the entire floor was originally covered in mosaic work – the equivalent area of several football fields.
Today there still exist many fine examples of Roman mosaic panels that can be viewed from every land that made up the widespread Roman Empire. It is profoundly moving, after the passage of some twenty centuries, to still be able to admire wonderful Roman mosaic art in all its original splendour. Perfectly preserved wall panels and floors are on display from countless villas, palaces, baths and temples in countries as far flung as Britain, France, North Africa, Sicily, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and of course in Italy itself. Many of these examples are in almost pristine condition. This is indeed a lasting tribute to the permanence of the medium of mosaics and is entirely due to the durability of the materials that mosaic art employs.
After the Fall of Rome
To some extent he early Byzantine churches stylized their depiction of saints and martyrs into a tradition of somewhat stiff-looking mosaic icons. However this style was given more sophistication and freedom of expression in the finely executed mosaic icons of the later orthodox churches of Greece and Russia. The Islamic expansion in the 8th and 9th century brought Roman mosaic techniques directly into contact with Eastern artistic influences; the magnificent Alhambra palace in Spain is the crowning glory of this benign merging of artistic expression. In the medieval and Renaissance era the floors and walls of cathedrals, Italian palaces and the private homes of the wealthy were made resplendent with the development of new mosaic techniques and materials, such as the development in Italy of specially fired glass tesserae called Smalti, using metal oxides to add to the brilliance of the mosaic tiles. In the modern era, innovative techniques, imaginative applications and the development of specific adhesives and mosaic materials have taken us far beyond the scope of Roman mosaic work, but in essence, there is much in the art form that still remains the same.
- A modern work, executed in traditional style, at Ain Karim
Israel photos by Stella Geel
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