155. Mosaics

What a difference eight centuries make!

Within a 24-hour period, I was able to view two of the world’s greatest mosaic-filled structures, built nearly a millennium apart. The first, Villa Romana del Casale, was a huge residential complex constructed in the 4th century, by a rich and powerful figure in the waning days of the Roman Empire. It was buried in a landslide in the 12th century, so when it was discovered in the 1800’s, it was remarkably well-preserved, not unlike Pompeii. Excavations began in 1929 and continue to this day in the surrounding area.

Mosaics on the floor and frescos on the wall

It is thought that the Villa was constructed over the course of about a decade, designed by the best artists from nearby Morocco and Tunisia and actually produced by scores of enslaved people. It used 120 million tesserae, the tiny pieces of naturally-colored granite and stone that make up a mosaic, some so small that the images are of nearly photographic quality.

The four hexagons represent the four seasons

The most famous of these is the “Bikini Girls,” long thought through chauvinist eyes to represent entertainers, or perhaps even concubines. Modern archeologists have now concluded what is glaringly obvious: they are athletes engaging in a competition.

The winner is in the center wearing the crown and holding the laurel branch

The Cathedral at Monreale, was built in the 12th century by craftsmen from Constantinople, using 100 million glass tesserae, containing 2200 kg. pure gold. The effect is that of walking into a massive structure made of shimmering, solid gold.

A wedding rehearsal; just someone’s parish church
A closer look
The massive cathedral complex

Fast forward another eight centuries. I have always been enchanted by mosaics. Several years ago, I had the chance to take a mosaic-making class at our local art center. For a month, under the constant, close supervision of the instructor, I barely managed to glue about one hundred tesserae to a mirror frame, more or less a kindergarten- level project. Should I tackle my floors next?

3 thoughts on “155. Mosaics

  1. I vote that you should tackle the project of mosaic for your floors. I’m sure you’ve been properly inspired.


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