BMCR 2004.02.39

Antike Bildmosaiken

, Antike Bildmosaiken. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 2003. 319 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 31 cm. ISBN 3805331568. EUR 49.90.

Modern viewers may well experience ambivalent reactions to the extraordinarily fine pictorial mosaics that characterize principally the late Hellenistic period. On the one hand, they must rank among the most skilful and technically sophisticated works produced in antiquity, with their innumerable tesserae often as little as one millimetre square, their astonishing range of colours and tones, and their virtuoso representation of natural forms. On the other, the concept of a picture on the floor is strange to modern taste, a contradiction of the role of the floor as a surface to be walked on; and the attempt to imitate in stone and glass effects easily attained in painting challenges our views of both the natural limitations of the medium and its potential virtues.

Bernard Andreae (hereafter A.) has taken as the subject of his book this category of pictorial mosaics in Italy, together with their forerunners in the Hellenistic East. The majority of these are emblemata: small panels, averaging less a metre square, created in their own supporting trays of stone or terracotta, and destined to be inserted into the middle of a floor made in quite a different technique. Others, however, are more substantial, and a few exceptional works are designed to cover the whole floor of quite a large room: foremost among these are famous masterpieces such as the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii or the Nile mosaic from Palestrina. They have in common their fine technique, known to modern scholars as vermiculatum, and an extreme naturalism, whether the mosaicist sets himself to portray the plumage of a bird or scales of a fish, a garland of leaves and flowers, or (more rarely) a scene of human activity. With few exceptions, they are well known, among the most familiar treasures of major museums, especially in Rome and Naples. Appreciation of the full brilliance of their technique, however, is hindered when they must be judged on the basis of inadequate photographs.

The immediate and outstanding impact of A.’s book, therefore, is due to the quality, and also quantity, of its illustration. The mosaics selected for discussion — about one hundred — are illustrated by more than three hundred colour plates; the more important ones are repeated several times at different scale, with many details reproduced at 1:1. This enables the reader to distinguish the separate tesserae and to understand the ways in which the mosaicists construct their image out of the juxtaposition of these distinct coloured entities. It also permits direct comparison of similar subjects and details in different mosaics, thereby providing a basis for A.’s perceptive comments about the development of style. The genesis of the book is explained in A.’s acknowledgements as a series of contributions to a Roman monthly magazine, designed to accompany the photographs, many of which were executed especially for the project. It is a marvel of modern publishing that such a work can be produced, at a very moderate price; and much credit must go to the publisher, Philipp von Zabern.

The opening two chapters are organized chronologically; first the pebble mosaics of Pella, which in their even less malleable technique already show the influence of painting, then the fully developed Hellenistic vermiculatum mosaics, as seen at Alexandria, Pergamon, and Delos. The rest of the book is devoted to the Italian examples of the genre. The Alexander and the Nile mosaics are treated separately; subsequently a thematic arrangement is adopted, with chapters devoted successively to fish, birds, felines wild and tame, scenes of the stage, human life (a rather mixed bunch), and the comparatively few mythological subjects. The final chapters are again more specific in focus, one on the emblemata from Hadrian’s Villa, another on the emblemata from the mid-Imperial villa at Baccano, recently reconstructed in the Museo Nazionale Romano — Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The development outside Italy after the Hellenistic period is not covered; neither the emblemata of Tripolitania, for instance, nor, much more importantly, the continuing tradition of pictorial mosaics in the East. Nor, with the exception of Baccano and one or two others, does A. discuss the mid-Imperial examples in Italy itself, for many of which Michael Donderer has suggested a use on walls rather than floors.1

The main contribution of the book, pictures apart, lies in the detailed discussion of the individual mosaics. For some, this provides valuable insight into their original appearance. For the Palestrina Nile mosaic a digital reconstruction of the original arrangement is offered (pp. 108/9), differing from that of Whitehouse in the proposed position of the sections in the bottom right corner, together with extensive arguments in explanation and justification.2 The proposal (p. 90) to exhibit this reconstruction in the original setting of the mosaic, protected by Plexiglas with a thin film of water flowing over it, offers an exciting attempt to use modern technology to recreate something of the effect of the original, which can in no way be grasped from the sight of the mosaic itself in its museum setting. A similar digital reconstruction is offered of the Capitoline Doves (which A. argues strongly to be Hadrianic, not an earlier work re-used) with its original borders, of which fragments are scattered through numerous European museums. With many of the others, A.’s close observation of the style, and the very detailed comparisons that he is able to draw between the rendering of similar subjects and motifs in different mosaics, allow him to construct a model for the overall stylistic development, which can be used as a criterion for dating individual examples, which notoriously for the most part lack external chronological basis. Thus in most of the categories of motifs he traces a development from the extreme naturalism that is typical of (and confined to) the later second century BC, through the more formal rendering of the first century BC, to the abstract and schematic treatment of the Empire. The argument risks circularity in places, though the overall picture is undoubtedly convincing.

What the specialist in ancient art may miss here is any discussion of the underlying questions that these mosaics raise: the relationship to painting, the use of models, and their connection with the other mosaic tradition, both older and longer-lasting, which aims at two-dimensional decoration of a floor surface. The latter is touched on, when A. points to the origins of the crenellated border pattern of the Sophilos mosaic from Thmuis in woven carpet patterns (33, 36), or in his discussion of the asarotos oikos of Sosos of Pergamon, where extreme trompe l’oeil naturalism was applied to something that by definition is the decoration of a floor, not based on painting. It recurs, inevitably, at the end, in his discussion of the mid-Imperial developments, where numerous emblemata are combined in a single pavement designed to make its effect as an overall composition. But the relationship between the purely pictorial and the more ornamental concept of a mosaic is more complex, and more densely interwoven from the days of the Pella mosaics onwards, than the reader would gather here. Nor is it part of A.’s aim here to explore the problems of hypothetical originals and their relationship to the mosaics discussed. In the conclusions A. states that most of the Bildmosaiken were based upon famous older paintings; elsewhere he draws attention to their occasional use of models in different media, other mosaics, or even works of sculpture. It is apparent from even a cursory comparison of his photographs that this relationship and the connection between the treatment of similar motifs in different mosaics, are at least as complicated as the problem of ‘Roman copies’ of Greek sculpture is now acknowledged to be; but that is not a question which the present book sets out to study.3

The origin of this book in a collection of separate monthly essays is sometimes apparent: the same information is at times repeated from chapter to chapter, and matters discussed earlier are set out again in a different context. There are also occasional pieces of editorial carelessness, especially in the notes and bibliography. In general, however, the volume must be welcomed for its merits: a spectacular array of illustrations, perceptive description and discussion of the individual mosaics, and some valuable new contributions to the study of familiar material.


1. M. Donderer, ‘Ein verschollenes römisches Mosaik und die Gattung der Wandemblemata’, in Mosaïque. Recueil d’hommages à Henri Stern, Paris 1983, 123-8.

2. Cf. H. Whitehouse, The Dal Pozzo Copies of the Palestrina Mosaic, BAR Suppl. 12, Oxford 1976, 70-6 with fig. 20.

3. One question which is of concern to A. is that of the original of the Alexander mosaic, on which he first published more than forty years ago. This is not, however, discussed in detail here, and recent studies are referred to only briefly; instead A. refers the reader to his forthcoming study in Römische Mitteilungen 2004, in which he argues for the identification of the painted original as a work commissioned by Seleukos I Nikator.