Italy

The mosaics of Italy first appeared in the late second century BC under the influence of the Hellenistic Greek pictorial tradition, in which tiny pieces of irregular stone were used to create narrative themes in detailed, colorful compositions that imitated the effects of painting.1 The earliest examples of this type, most of which were emblemata, or picture panels, were either introduced to the region by Greek craftsmen or manufactured elsewhere and imported. Found predominantly in the cities around the Bay of Naples and Rome, mosaics in this style, such as the well-known Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii and the Nile Mosaic from Palestrina, both dating to about 100 BC, were considered expensive luxury items, reserved exclusively for the decoration of the wealthiest constructions. Smaller emblemata were usually centerpieces of floors, and they were typically surrounded by plain white tesserae or framed by simple decorative patterns. On some later floors, the figural scene was set in a more elaborate design, such as in the House of the Labyrinth at Pompeii, which features an emblema of Theseus and the Minotaur dating to about 70–60 BC and framed by a black-and-white labyrinth pattern.2

By the end of the first century BC, the production of mosaic pavements in various new Roman styles became widespread throughout Italy. The tremendous expansion in the use of mosaics to decorate both public and private buildings resulted in a number of different types that ranged from colorful figural scenes to predominantly black-and-white geometric and floral patterns.3 The Villa of the Volusii Saturnini at Lucus Feroniae, north of Rome, includes both styles: polychrome mosaics in a phase of the villa dated to about 60–50 BC contrasting with black-and-white pavements from the period of about AD 10–20.4 Black-and-white style mosaics, like the Getty’s Mosaic Floor with Head of Medusa (cat. 1), however, became increasingly common by the late first century AD, especially in Rome and central Italy.5 Complex geometric designs, like the intricate pattern of curvilinear triangles encircling the bust of Medusa in this mosaic, now covered the floors of entire rooms. Stylized vegetal motifs, used in similarly themed compositions, such as the detailed floral pattern that surrounds the central head of Medusa in a mosaic decorating the floor of the triclinium in the House of Bacchus and Ariadne at Ostia, were equally prevalent.6 Although this new decorative style may have served as a less expensive solution to the more costly tesserae required for polychrome mosaics, in the second century AD black-and-white patterned mosaics of extremely high quality were also used in the decoration of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and in the Palazzo Imperiale at Ostia.7

The growing popularity of the black-and-white mosaic style in Italy in the first and second centuries AD had a strong impact on mosaic designs outside of Italy, particularly in the Roman provinces of Gaul and North Africa. The introduction and diffusion of this style in these regions in the first century AD can most likely be attributed to the increasing Roman presence in the region; itinerant craftsmen traveled or settled in the area and established workshops for mosaic production. Around the beginning of the fourth century AD, however, provincial workshops exerted a profound influence in Italy, even in Rome itself, bringing a new preference for large-scale scenes of the hunt or the arena to luxurious Italian villas. The Getty’s fourth-century AD Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt (cat. 2), from a seaside villa near Baiae on the Bay of Naples, exemplifies this new style, which was particularly characteristic of mosaics in North Africa during this period. The North African influence is also evident in the Great Hunt mosaic at Piazza Armerina in Sicily and in a hunting mosaic from the Gardens of Licinius on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, both dating to the early fourth century AD, which in turn derive from the third-century AD hunting mosaics, such as those from Carthage, Thysdrus (present-day El Djem), and the Villa of the Laberii at Oudna.8

  1. This technique, known as opus vermiculatum, appeared as early as the third century BC in Sicily and then spread north throughout Italy. On the origins of these types of pavements, see the discussion in Phillips 1960, 243–62. For a general history of mosaics in Sicily, see von Boeselager 1983.

  2. Strocka 1991.

  3. The earliest black-and-white ornamental mosaics often imitated other types of pavements in motif and composition, and they may have been used as a substitute for the more expensive polychrome mosaics.

  4. Moretti and Sgubini Moretti 1977, plates 35–36, 39–42. The new preferences that begin to appear in mosaics about 20 BC also parallel changes in taste in wall painting: polychromy and three-dimensional decorative motifs disappear and are replaced by flat black-and-white designs and figural styles; see Clarke 1991, 61–63.

  5. On the relationship between the development of black-and-white style mosaics and the architectural spaces they decorated, see Clarke 1979.

  6. House of Bacchus and Ariadne: Clarke 1979, fig. 20.

  7. Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli: Blake 1936, plates 11–14. Palazzo Imperiale at Ostia: Becatti 1961, plates 24, no. 300, and 69, no. 296. Ostia, the port of Rome, provides the most extensive evidence for the development of mosaic pavement types following the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79; many examples date to the second and early third centuries AD. The vast majority of these are black-and-white figural mosaics, often with marine subjects, as in the Baths of Neptune (Clarke 1979, figs. 31–34) and the Baths of the Lighthouse (Clarke 1979, figs. 69–71).

  8. Piazza Armerina: Gentili 1954, 33, fig. 14 (Small Hunt), 36, figs. 17–21 (Corridor of the Hunt); Gentili 1959, figs. 4, 5 (drawings); and Lavin 1963, 244–51, figs. 8, 9 (Corridor of the Hunt), fig. 110 (Small Hunt). Esquiline: Aymard 1937, 42–66, plates 1–3; Lavin 1963, 258, figs. 122–23; and Cima 1998, fig. 9. The Esquiline mosaic is now in the Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini (inv. no. AntCom03636). Thysdrus: Gauckler 1910, 26, no. 64; and Lavin 1963, fig. 80. Carthage: Poinssot and Lantier 1923, 154–58; and Lavin 1963, fig. 79. Oudna: Gauckler 1910, 122–23, no. 362; and Lavin 1963, 230–31, fig. 75.