Gaul

The province of Gallia Narbonensis, in the southern part of Gaul (present-day France), was one of the earliest regions of the Roman Empire to be affected by Greek and Roman culture. Even before the Roman conquest of the late second century BC, there was a significant Greek presence in the region, notably at Massalia (present-day Marseille), a Greek colony founded about 600 BC. The earliest examples of mosaics and other decorated floors in Gaul, dating to the first century BC, are found in this region, beginning with simple types related to the Italian opus signinum and terrazzo. Mosaics composed of tesserae became more prevalent in the late first and early second centuries AD, and it is likely that the technique was introduced by itinerant craftsmen, who established workshops in the region. The development of mosaic styles that followed this early period—specifically, the appearance of the black-and-white style mosaics that were widespread in Italy—reflects the rapidly expanding Roman presence in the region. Local craftsmen soon integrated their own designs and compositions, however, resulting in the distinctive Gallo-Roman style that was characteristic of the workshops operating in the Rhône valley.

The earliest mosaics of this Gallo-Roman type date to the middle of the second century AD. At that time, the main centers of mosaic production in Gaul were located in the upper Rhône valley at Lugdunum (present-day Lyon) and around Vienne, especially in its suburbs of Saint-Romain-en-Gal and Sainte-Colombe, where workshops are thought to have continued production through the early third century AD. These workshops developed the so-called multiple decor design, with individual figures or scenes isolated in an elaborate grid-like framework resembling a coffered ceiling.1 The emblema of the Getty mosaic of Orpheus and the Animals (cat. 3) exemplifies the Gallic multiple decor style, with different figures from the myth of Orpheus inhabiting adjoining hexagons. Notably, however, the surrounding field of black-and-white geometric patterns continues to reflect the influence of Italian traditions (see fig. 8) for the mosaic with its complete border). Another mosaic, also from Vienne, with a central panel depicting the drunkenness of Herakles, displays a more developed form of multiple decor composition. The main scene is surrounded by square panels containing an extraordinary variety of designs that draw upon the extensive decorative repertory of the Rhône workshops.2 In addition to standard mythological subjects, scenes of contemporary Roman life are also characteristic of mosaics in the upper Rhône valley. A number of mosaics depict episodes from daily life, such as farming and hunting, as well as chariot races and other spectacles from the arena.3 Representations of these activities were adapted to the multiple decor design by filling in the compartments with figural groups, often acting in a series of related events.

While the main production centers in Gaul were in the upper Rhône valley, an active mosaic culture, dependent primarily on the workshops of Aix-en-Provence, also existed in the cities farther south.4 The surviving evidence suggests that a more conservative stylistic tradition developed in the south; significantly, the multiple decor style is relatively infrequent there. A mosaic from the rue des Magnans in Aix-en-Provence is a notable exception, in which panels with various geometric patterns surround a scene of the boxing match between Dares and Entellus—the same image depicted on the Getty mosaic (cat. 4).5 The majority of the Aix-en-Provence mosaics, however, are monochrome pavements consisting of white floors outlined by simple black borders. Although fewer in number, examples of black-and-white geometric designs were also seen in this period, reflecting the Italian influence in this part of Gaul as well.6 A few mosaics from this area, found almost exclusively in wealthy villas, include colorful central panels with detailed figural scenes.7

While many mosaics from the upper Rhône valley depict scenes of Roman life, examples from Aix-en-Provence and its vicinity usually illustrate subjects from mythology or literature. Certain themes used in the mosaics from this area are highly original. The combat between Dares and Entellus depicted on the Getty mosaic is an episode from Virgil’s Aeneid (5.362–482) that is relatively unknown outside of southern Gaul.8 Likewise, a second mosaic from the same villa, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, represents a specific scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2.401–530)—Diana discovering the pregnant Callisto—that has no counterpart in known Roman mosaics.9 Both mosaics represent distinctly Roman versions of mythology, and their uncommon themes may indicate local preferences associated with this particular area of Gaul.10

  1. For a general discussion of the features of the Gallo-Roman style, see Lancha 1981, 14–16 (with inventory numbers) and a summary in Dunbabin 1999, 74–78. In addition to the multiple decor style, Lancha identifies two additional characteristics: the use of elaborate floral and vegetal elements, and the use of figural scenes and motifs not present in previous Gallic mosaics.

  2. Lancha 1981, 106–16, no. 306, plates 40–44, dates the mosaic (now in the Museé de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine, Lyon) to the last quarter of the second century AD.

  3. Lancha 1981, 15–16, lists statistics for common mythological themes, such as Orpheus, Dionysos, Herakles, the Seasons, and the Muses. For examples of farming scenes, see Lancha 1981, 208–25, no. 368, plates 107–23. For chariot races, see Lafaye 1909, nos. 712, 785, 1236. For events from the amphitheater, see Lafaye 1909, nos. 1072, 1295, 1611.

  4. Aix has the greatest number of preserved mosaics in Gaul after Lugdunum and Vienne; see Lavagne 2000, 13–14: Aix (129 mosaics), Lyon (156 mosaics), Vienne, Saint-Romain-en-Gal (212 mosaics).

  5. Lavagne 1994, 203–15, dated to the mid-second century AD. The pavement lacks anything like the floral designs or the small figural motifs incorporated into examples from Vienne. Regarding the relationship between the rue des Magnans decoration and Vienne, Henri Lavagne asserts that the rue des Magnans mosaic anticipates the multiple decor style that is fully developed in the Vienne workshops; see Lavagne 2000, 17.

  6. Lavagne 2000, 13–14, provides fifty-five examples of monochrome pavements and fourteen examples of black-and-white designs. Despite the high proportion of monochrome mosaic pavements in the region, expensive pavements in opus sectile were the preferred form of decoration in the numerous luxury Roman villas in this area. Lavagne notes six examples in Aix that, according to him, were made by an Italian workshop, and fifty-five examples total from southeastern Gaul; see Lavagne 2000, 13–14.

  7. Lavagne 2000, 13–14, records fourteen examples with figures, all from Aix.

  8. Examples of the Dares and Entellus mosaic in Gaul are discussed in cat. 4, in the present volume.

  9. Lavagne discusses the scene in the Diana and Callisto mosaic, citing two examples from wall paintings in Pompeii: the House of the Tragic Poet (VI, 8, 3.5) and the House of the Hanging Balcony (VII, 12, 26–27); see Lavagne 2000, 313, no. 916.

  10. The mosaics from Villelaure (approx. twenty miles north of the modern town of Aix-en-Provence) were likely produced by the workshops of Aix-en-Provence. The early history of the discovery and excavation of the nearby site is summarized in “Villelaure: History of the Excavations,” in the present volume.