Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.33

Carla Salvetti, I mosaici antichi pavimentali e parietali e i sectilia pavimenta di Roma nelle collezioni Capitoline . Musiva & Sectilia, 6, 2009.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2013.  Pp. 380.  ISBN 9788862275637.  €195.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Dirk Booms, British Museum (

This handsome 6th volume of Musiva & Sectilia breaks with the usual format of the journal, and delivers an edited catalogue of the mosaics and sectilia pavimenta of the Capitoline collections. Probably because of its manageable scope, the author was able to offer more than just a catalogue. After three different prefaces, the ‘Introduction’ presents the results of the historic research on the collection, which centres on a distinct period of excavations in Rome and the specific politics involved. The small group of mosaics (105, with 4 opus sectile panels) was formed in the years 1870 to 1926-44, with half of them actually being collected between 1872 and 1885 (p. 37, note 2). Such a historical snapshot is an important contribution on its own and is one result of new archival research which included studying original photographs of the excavations, watercolours, notes by the excavators (mostly Lanciani), and even objects found in the same contexts. Not only were exact find spots of mosaics recovered, but photographs and aquarelle drawings of unknown, and unfortunately now lost, mosaics as well (41-42). During years of conservation and restoration sponsored by the Musei Capitolini and museums in Mannheim, Québec and Montréal, the team was able to clean and restore mosaics still housed in wooden crates since their excavation, as well as those that had not received curatorial attention since their first mounting in 1939. This full and final publication should be seen as a celebration of all this hard work.

The catalogue is presented clearly and systematically and, as far as possible, by region within the city of Rome. No provenance could be established for around 40 of the mosaics and, because most of them are of admittedly average aesthetic quality (presumable from private monuments and houses), and several are small and extremely fragmentary, dating remains very difficult (47-49). Each region of the City (Celio, Quirinale e Viminale, Esquilino, Velia, Campo Marzio, Aventino, Trastevere-Portuense, Ostiense, Tiburtina, Appia, and Anagnina) has one or more Italicized paragraphs about the history of the excavations and the find-contexts within it.1 Most of the polychrome and figurative mosaics have been published before, and some are among the best-known from the City.2 Salvetti does a very good job analysing the subjects of the fragments and the use of colour, and applying comparanda for stylistic analysis and dating. For the specialist, however, there will be little new or groundbreaking information in these updates, with the exception of one or two surprise finds. When one of the almost 1000 crates left untouched in the stores (since 1939 or since being transferred from Palazzo Caffarelli at an unknown date) was opened, the team discovered a mosaic fragment that strangely enough does not come from within the city limits,3 but from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Archival research indicates that the panel is most likely to come from the Campana collection, part of which was acquired by the Musei Capitolini shortly after 1870 (227). It can be attributed with certainty to the Exedra in the Piazza d’Oro, as other panels in different collections, as well as fragments in situ, survive.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the care and expertise given to the historic research and iconographic analyses of the mosaics, slightly less care was given to their technical aspects, as well as to the editing and production of the volume as a whole. Each entry has at least one accompanying photograph, and further images present historical views of excavations or notes or watercolours from them. On the whole, the illustrations are very crisp and clear, though some photographs are slightly (figs. 14, 44, 63, 86, 106, 117) to very blurry (fig. 125), and one fragment of mosaic still has a post-it note stuck on it (fig. 14). All of them lack a scale bar. Additionally, out of the 105 mosaic entries, 15 do not include measurements (two even state the measurements are “not detectable”, despite supplying a photograph), while 77 give no average measurements of the individual tesserae, a practice which should by now have become universal. The four marble floor panels, however, do have proper technical information (except cat. nr. 109, with “non-detectable” measurements) and in-depth analyses and comparanda, with the exception of cat. nr. 108, which incorporates Guidobaldi’s opus sectile motif Q3p.4 The earliest occurrence of this motif is not from the 2nd century AD in Agrigento (306), but is found in Domitian’s villa at Circeo,5 Trajan’s villa at Arcinazzo,6 and Hadrian’s/Marcus Aurelius’ villa at Villamagna, Anagni.7 One could perhaps infer that in the 2nd century AD, the motif leaves the imperial domain and enters the Roman private sphere, but given that no provenance is known for this fragment, an earlier date than the one provided is just as possible.

These (perhaps pedantic) criticisms aside, a word should be said about the English translations in the book. It is admirable that after every chapter, apart from the catalogue proper, an English translation was included, making the text more accessible to a wider public. Following Italian practice, however, this translation does not seem to have been checked by a native English speaker, resulting sometimes in very awkward, although still intelligible, sentences. In a few instances though, the translation is plainly wrong and confusing—hence the following errata:

• The mosaic with perspective meander from Vicolo de’ Colonnesi for ” il mosaico con meandro in prospettiva da vicolo de’ Colonnesi”(not “the mosaic with the meander viewed from Vicolo de’ Colonnesi”, 29)
• The end of Antiquity for “fine dell’epoca antica” (not “the end of the ancient age”, 31)
• Severan period for ”età severiana” (not “Severus’ age”, 57 and 320)
• Antonine period for ”età antonina” (not “Antoninus’ age”, 320)

Not even journal and monument names seem to escape the confusion:

• The Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale is translated as Municipal Archaeological Committee’s Bulletin, under which name nobody will be able to find it anywhere (p 59; yet not translated on 19)
• The Museo della Civiltà Romana becomes the Museum of Roman Civilisation (on 62, footnote 1; but not on 15)
• And the Sala della Lupa at the Palazzo dei Conservatori is translated both as Hall of the She-Wolf (29) and the more ominous sounding Wolf Hall (319)

Such slippage is all the more surprising for a journal which, regarding languages, stipulates in its editorial guidelines: “if it is not the author’s native language, manuscripts must be checked and revised by a native speaker before submission” (379).

Without a doubt, this final presentation of the mosaics will be extremely useful and interesting to both specialists and art lovers. The prominence of the Musei Capitolini collections as a whole, the historical research surrounding the mosaics’ excavations, the discovery of new fragments, and their cleaning and restoration all warrant this new publication, which includes the smallest and seemingly insignificant fragments.


1.   In some places (such as 108 and 115), there is no division between the preceding catalogue entry and this italicised introduction, which can be confusing.
2.   As mentioned in the introduction, they are published by Salvetti herself in Musiva et Sectilia vols. I and V,. Several entries in Donati, A. (ed.) La Forma Del Colore. Mosaici dall’antichità al XX secolo.(1999, Milan) were only slightly amended to be published in this new catalogue. See also Werner, K.E. Mosaiken aus Rom. Polychrome Mosaikpavimente und Emblemata aus Rom und Umgebung. (1994, Rome).
3.   This is one of only two mosaics in the collection with a known provenance outside of Rome the other being the well-known emblem from the harbour area at Anzio, showing a lion being taunted by three cupids, with Hercules in the background.
4.   Guidobaldi, F. “ Pavimenti in opus sectile di Roma e dell’area romana: proposte per una classificazione e criteri di datazione,” in Pensabene, P. (ed.) Studi Miscellanei 26 – Marmi Antichi. Problemi d’impiego, di restauro e d’identificazione. (1985, Rome), 171-233.
5.   Righi, R. “La Villa di Domiziano in località "Palazzo" sul lago di Sabaudia: pavimenti in opus sectile dell'edificio balneare ad esedre.” Quaderni del Centro di studio per l'archeologia etrusco-italica 3 (Archeologia Laziale II) (1980) 97-110, spec. 103 and 106-109; Angelelli, C. ‘Sectilia pavimenta minori e/o inediti della villa di Domiziano,’ in Livi, V. and Righi, R. (eds), Studi e ricerche sul patrimonio archeologico del Parco Nazionale del Circeo, Atti del Convegno, Sabaudia, 27 marzo 2004 (Priverno, 2004). Sabaudia: 83-95, spec. 83-89.
6.   Grazia Fiori, M.G. and Mari, Z. ‘Pavimenti e rivestimenti in opus sectile della Villa di Traiano ad Arcinazzo Romano.’ La mosaïque gréco-romaine IX. CEFR 352. (2005, Rome) 629-644, spec. 641.
7.   Booms, D., Candilio, F., Di Miceli, A., Fentress, E., Fenwick, C., Goodson, C., Maiuro, M., McNamee, M., Privitera, S. and Ricciardi, R. ‘Excavations at Villa Magna 2008.’ FOLD&R (2008) 126: 5.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010