2. Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt

  • Roman, from near Baiae, Italy, AD 300–400
  • Stone tesserae, 661 cm × 869 cm
  • 72.AH.76.1–.23


This mosaic was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1972 from Jeannette Brun, a Zurich-based antiquities dealer, who reported that it had been in an Italian collection but provided no further information regarding its provenance. Subsequent publications attributed the work on stylistic grounds to a North African atelier.1 Recent archival research, however, indicates that the mosaic was in fact unearthed in June 1901, in a vineyard in the vicinity of Lago di Lucrino, north of Baiae and just west of Naples.2 At the time of its discovery, architects and archaeologists at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples suggested that the mosaic may have decorated the great room of a bath but believed it had little artistic value and recommended against its acquisition by the museum.3 Subsequently, the Italian state authorized the landowner, Schiano Muriello, to sell the mosaic, and it was purchased in March 1906 by Ernesto Osta, a lawyer who intended to use it in the decoration of the monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II in Rome. The mosaic was lifted from the ground, but portions of it remained in situ owing to its poor condition and the difficulty of removing it intact. The lifted mosaic remained in storage in Naples, and in 1925 it was offered to John Marshall, a British art expert and dealer in Rome. By 1929, Osta’s heirs sold it to Rodolfo Follis of Turin. Follis sought ministerial permission to export the mosaic, but the legality of his ownership was questioned.4 Precisely when the mosaic left Italy is unknown. Four other panels from the mosaic (figs. 2–5), which had been clandestinely removed from the site and eventually recovered by Italian authorities, are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

Figure 2: Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt
Figure 3: Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt
Figures 2–4. Panels from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt
Figures 2–4. Panels from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt, Roman, fourth century AD. Found in Baiae, Italy, 1901. Stone tesserae, 115 × 141 cm (top), 69 × 156 cm (center), 116 × 142 cm (bottom). Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, MANN 11474–76


The center of the preserved portion of the mosaic depicts a bear hunt. From the left, three hunters wearing high boots, long-sleeved tunics, and short, belted garments draped diagonally from the left shoulder drive five bears into a large, semicircular net tied to a pair of trees. A fourth hunter appears on a panel now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (fig. 5).5 His outstretched left arm continues onto the left side of the Getty’s part of the mosaic (fig. 6). The others stand in similar poses, with legs bent and arms extended forward. Three hold staffs in their right hands; three are beardless. Two of the figures are accompanied by inscriptions identifying them as Lucius and Minus. A cord in Minus’s left hand suggests that he is tying the net to a tree. The bears, like the hunters, move to the right across different levels of ground. All the bears have open mouths, and two have turned their heads back to the hunters, as if to snarl at them. In addition to the two tall trees that frame the scene, other, abbreviated landscape elements include darker tesserae representing the ground in the lower level and some small plants and clumps of grass above. Cursory shadows are also depicted, as are highlights and shading.

Figure 5–6. Panels from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt
Figure 5. Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt, Roman, fourth century AD. Found in Baiae, Italy, 1901. Stone tesserae, 112 × 40 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, MANN 11477
Figure 6. Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt, Roman, fourth century AD. Found in Baiae, Italy, 1901. Stone tesserae, 194 × 142 cm. Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 72.AH.76.7

The figural scene is bordered by a colorful double guilloche consisting of green, yellow, white, red, and black tesserae. Outside the guilloche, at right, is a long, straight, vertical laurel festoon tied at center by a ribbon. A third, outermost border consists of an exuberant acanthus rinceau inhabited by fruit, armed cupids, and the protomes of real and imaginary animals, including a horse, a panther, and a griffin. The two preserved corners are adorned with large acanthus-enveloped faces (fig. 7), rather like personifications of the Seasons but undifferentiated. On one of the four panels in Naples, a third, smaller face emerges from the acanthus rinceau (fig. 2). This face was likely located beneath and to the left of the hunters, and its almost fully frontal orientation suggests that it may have originally marked the midpoint of the entire mosaic, which must have included at least one additional scene; for while the right side of the bear hunt terminates in a tree and the vertical festoon beyond the double guilloche border, the left side evidently continued beyond the tree between Minus and Lucius. Other large hunt mosaics of the period, such as that from the Gardens of Licinius on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, also include the netting of animals as part of more complex compositions consisting of several different scenes.6

Figure 7. Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt
Figure 7. Panel from Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt, Roman, fourth century AD. Found in Baiae, Italy, 1901. Stone tesserae, 174 × 148 cm. Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 72.AH.76.6

Numerous ancient literary sources note the aristocratic taste for venationes. The emperor Hadrian, who ruled from AD 117 to 138, is reported to have hunted bears in both Greece and Asia Minor, and he is depicted hunting on horseback in a roundel on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The emperor even composed a poem, later inscribed in stone, celebrating his success as a hunter. Bears were found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, however, and were captured to be trained as well as slaughtered. The second-century AD treatise on hunting, Cynegetica, by Pseudo-Oppian, describes in detail one method of netting bears (although not the manner depicted in the Getty mosaic): driving them along a rope hung with colored ribbons and feathers. The letters of the late fourth-century AD consul Symmachus, among other sources, relate efforts to procure bears and various beasts for public entertainment.7 Klaus Werner, who first recognized the Campanian origins of the Getty mosaic, and Maddalena Cima have argued that this theme was a particular favorite of emperors who sponsored spectacles with wild animals in the amphitheater.8

The findspot of the Getty Bear Hunt mosaic has yet to be fully investigated. It was discovered with a marble border and fragments of columns near the so-called Stufe di Nerone, in the Scalandrone neighborhood north of Baiae. These monumental architectural remains have been damaged by the construction of modern streets and overbuilding and, consequently, are not well understood.9 The early twentieth-century archaeologists who saw the Getty mosaic in situ made additional soundings and estimated its full length to be at least twelve meters.10 The unusual shape of the mosaic, with extended corners, suggests that it may have occupied a space between two more or less oval rooms, such as those used for baths or audience halls.11 The determination that this mosaic once decorated a rich senatorial villa or an imperial residence must await further investigation.


Scenes of hunters forcing bears and other animals into nets and traps are depicted on mosaics throughout the Roman Empire, including examples from Carthage, El Kef, Hippo Regius, and Utica in North Africa; Centcelles in Spain; Villelaure (see fig. 14) in France; and Rome (including one from the Esquiline Hill, noted above) and Ravenna in Italy.12 In 1973, Norman Neuerburg suggested a North African origin for the Getty mosaic, although he also noted comparanda for its iconography in mosaics from the city of Rome and elsewhere in Italy.13 A decade later, David H. Ball published the mosaic, believing it to be of Tunisian origin and attributing it to a Carthaginian workshop. He proposed that it depicted bears being captured for display in the amphitheater, and he was particularly interested in the artists’ treatment of space and the possible source of the imagery, which, he believed, derived from illustrated texts of Pseudo-Oppian’s Cynegetica.14 At about the same time as Ball’s study, Mario Pagano also published the mosaic, not knowing that the majority of it had been acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum.15 Working from early reports, archival documents (including a now-lost watercolor), and the four panels in Naples, Pagano compared its composition to that of two mosaics in Sicily—the small hunt mosaic at the imperial villa at Piazza Armerina and another from the Villa del Tellaro, near Heloros—as well as to others in North Africa. He also cited parallels for the populated acanthus rinceau of the border on mosaics in Antioch (Turkey) and Argos (Greece). The signature of the mosaicist T. Senius Felix from Puteoli (present-day Pozzuoli, near Naples) on a large mosaic found at Lillebonne in Gaul, dating to the late third or early fourth century AD, suggests that Puteoli was home to workshops that drew upon designs of North African mosaics to decorate the many splendid villas overlooking the Bay of Naples that belonged to rich senatorial clients.16


The mosaic has been divided into multiple sections, all of which are backed with concrete. Twenty-three panels are in the J. Paul Getty Museum, and four are in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. When the Getty panels were first lifted, in 1906 (a date confirmed by scraps of Italian newspaper still attached to two of them), they were backed with concrete reinforced by iron rebar. Correspondence between Jeannette Brun and Getty Museum officials in the early 1970s indicates that restoration of the panels was a condition of the purchase. The restoration was completed in Zurich by mid-June 1972 with considerable difficulty because of the size and number of panels. The concrete backings were reinforced with additional rebar, which in some cases doubled the thickness of the panels. When the mosaic arrived in Los Angeles, museum officials complained to Brun about several aspects of this treatment, especially the lack of alignment among the panels.17 The panels also seem to have been polished smooth prior to the mosaic’s arrival. The mortar between the tesserae of one of the corner panels depicting a face enveloped in acanthus (fig. 7) was subsequently partially removed.


Gabrici 1901; Vermeule and Neuerburg 1973, 53–54, no. 113; Boriello and D’Ambrosio 1979, 44, no. 12, fig. 33; Pagano 1983–84, 179–87, figs. 28–33; Ball 1984; Werner 1994, 293; Cima 1998, 436–38, fig. 8; Lapatin 2014; Pisapia 2014.

  1. Vermeule and Neuerburg 1973, 53; and Ball 1984. 

  2. Gabrici 1901. See also Boriello and D’Ambrosio 1979, 44; Pagano 1983–84, 179; Werner 1994, 293; Cima 1998, 436–38; and Pisapia 2014. 

  3. Gabrici 1901; and Pisapia 2014. 

  4. Pagano 1983–84, 179–80; and Pisapia 2014. The John Marshall Archive, British School at Rome, id.no.642 (Marshall's card file B.IV.21). 

  5. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, inv. no. 11477. 

  6. Lavin 1963; Toynbee 1973; and Cima 1998. 

  7. IG VII 1828; Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Hadrian 20.13; Dio Cassius, Historia Romana 69.10.2. 

  8. Werner 1994, 292–93; and Cima 1998, 436–38. 

  9. Gabrici 1901; Pagano 1983–84, 179n66; and Pisapia 2014, 113–14. No architectural plan or description of the layout of the building was published at the time the mosaic was unearthed. 

  10. Gabrici 1901. 

  11. Vermeule and Neuerburg 1973, 54. 

  12. Lavin 1963; and Toynbee 1973, 93–100. 

  13. Neuerburg mentions festoons in North Africa, subjects of bear (and other animal) driving in Rome, and peopled scrolls in all regions; see Vermeule and Neuerburg 1973, 53–54. 

  14. Ball 1984. 

  15. When Pagano published the mosaic, he believed it had been lost, known only from records. It seems that for a time both scholars were working independently on the mosaic, unaware that it was the same object. 

  16. Pagano 1983–84, 179–87. 

  17. Correspondence in the files of the antiquities department of the J. Paul Getty Museum; Lapatin 2014.