Roman mosaics decorated luxurious domestic and public buildings across the empire. Intricate patterns and figural compositions were created by setting tesserae — small pieces of stone or glass — into floors and walls. Scenes from mythology, daily life, nature, and spectacles in the arena enlivened interior spaces and reflected the cultural ambitions of wealthy patrons. Introduced by itinerant craftsmen, mosaic techniques and designs spread widely throughout Rome’s provinces, leading to the establishment of local workshops and a variety of regional styles.
Drawn primarily from the Getty Museum’s collection, Roman Mosaics across the Empire at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California, presents the artistry of mosaics as well as the contexts of their discovery across Rome’s ever growing empire — from its center in Italy to provinces in North Africa, southern France, and ancient Syria. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Alexis Belis, assistant curator in the Department of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, about the various kinds of mosaics found within the former Roman Empire.
Leiden, Netherlands is not exactly the first place that comes into mind when you think about ancient history. Even if you are in the city, you would most likely walk past the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) without noticing it. Hidden in an unremarkable building in the historic city center, it’s nothing like entering the magnificent building of the Louvre or the British Museum. Yet, judging the book by its cover would be a huge mistake. Once inside, right in the middle of the entrance hall, you are greeted with an actual Egyptian temple, built c. 2000 years ago, originally dedicated to Isis and later used as a Christian church, transported to the museum stone by stone from Taffeh, Egypt.
Enjoying a privileged and bucolic position on the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus, the ancient Greek city of Dion prospered for thousands of years as a sacred center for the cult of Zeus and as the gateway to Macedonia. Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, now on show at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, N.Y., examines the development and trajectory of Dion, from a small rural settlement to a thriving Roman colony, through the presentation of remarkable archaeological artifacts not seen outside of Greece.
Roman glassware includes some of the finest pieces of art ever produced in antiquity and the very best were valued higher than wares made with precious metals. However, plain glass vessels such as cups, bowls, plates, and bottles were also used as everyday containers, in particular, for storing and serving food, drinks, and perfumes. The Romans also used glass for its decorative qualities and could be incorporated in mosaics and decorative panels in both walls and furniture. The material was also used for windows, to create jewellery, mirrors, game pieces, magnifying glasses, sculpture and, in the form of powder, even as a medicine and toothpaste. The sheer quantity of Roman glass would not be matched until the boom in Venetian glass in the 15th century CE.
Ivory, with its ease of carving and exotic rarity, has been used to make art objects for millennia. True ivory actually refers to only the dentine of elephant tusks but it may also refer to the tusks and teeth of walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal and sperm whales, amongst others. The ancient world acquired its ivory either directly or through trade with Africa and India via the Levant, as attested by the Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck which had ivory as part of its cargo.
In the modern day ivory is, of course, a strictly controlled commodity and its trade and use are illegal if taken from endangered species. In the ancient world, though, ivory could be carved alone or added to metals or wood and used as inlay. The Egyptians buried ivory objects with the dead, the Greeks used it for giant statues such as the ParthenonAthena, and the Romans even burnt it at funerals. Below are just some of the objects made from this precious and fragile material which have survived the centuries.
This month’s sculpture from Hadrian’s Villa is a marble statue of a dancing female figure, thought to be a portrait of Praxilla of Sikyon.
Praxilla was a female poet writing in the mid-fifth century BC. She came from Sikyon, a city situated on a fertile coastal plain beside the Corinthian Gulf in the northeast Peloponnese (see images of the archaeological site here). She wrote, dithyrambs, hymns to the Greek gods as well as drinking songs (skolia). Her skolia were among the most celebrated of her time and were sung at banquets and festivals for over three hundred years.
During a recent trip to Rome, I paid a long overdue visit to the Centrale Montemartini, an annexe of the Capitoline Museums located on the Via Ostiense just beyond Porta San Paolo.
Centrale Montemartini was Rome’s first electrical power station when it opened in 1912, and was later converted into a museum of ancient Roman art in the late 1990s. Like the Tate Modern in London, Centrale Montemartini places art in an industrial setting but, unlike the Tate, the imposing machinery has not been moved out. The engines’ grey mass provides a stark contrast to the white marble and offers a unique backdrop for classical art.
Centrale Montemartini has a collection of about four hundred sculptures, reliefs and mosaics dating from the Republican to the late Imperial era. The works of art, exhibited in chronological order, are part of an outstanding collection of classical sculptures from the excavations carried out in Rome between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The masterpieces were moved here during the reorganisation of the Capitoline Museums in 1997 to create space in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Museo Nuovo. The Montemartini power plant’s outstanding space made it possible to display monumental sculptures and reconstructions of architectural structures, such as the pediment of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus and the huge mosaic of hunting scenes from Santa Bibiana.
The museum is divided into four areas. The atrium on the ground floor has information panels that illustrate the history of the building. They also examine the characteristics of the main machines used inside the plant.
The next room is the Column Room which displays a rich collection from the Republican era. Exhibited here are architectural decorations, a group of sculptures in Peperino tufa (a grey volcanic stone from the Albani Hills), beautiful mosaics with seascapes and a series of portraits dating to the 1st century BCE.
On the second floor, the Engine Room is the largest and most impressive room. Here, a series of exquisite marble statues and rare Greek originals are arranged around two huge diesel engines and a steam turbine.
The Engine Room also houses two sculptures of exceptional artistic quality that were found in 1885 on the Caelian Hill during excavations. The two fragmented pieces were found inside a late-antique wall where they were reused as material construction. The restorers of the 19th century reassembled the two statues. The first one is a statue in basanite of Agrippina the Younger represented in the act of praying. The head is a moulded copy of the statue on display in the Ny Carsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (see image here). The second statue, made in dark grey marble (bigio antico), is known as the Victory of the Symmachi (an aristocratic family of the late Roman Empire). It is considered to be a work dating to the late Republican, most probably representing a dancing woman like the one from Perge in the Antalya Museum (see image here).
A whole gallery of Imperial portraits as well as splendid Roman copies of Greek originals come from a private residence of the 1st century CE and restored in the 2nd and 3rd century CE. The house was brought to light during excavations for the creation of the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Temple of Apollo Sosiano Reconstruction
Occupying the other end of the room is a reconstruction of the pediment of the Temple of Apollo Sosiano, a temple dedicated to Apollo in the Campus Martius, next to the Theatre of Marcellus. The marble sculptures are rare Greek originals (dated to c. 450 – 425 BCE), brought to Rome in the Augustan period to decorate the temple whose remains are still visible today (see images here). The temple’s main pediment was decorated with sculptures narrating the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (Amazonomachy) in which the figures of Hercules, Theseus, Athena and Nike take centre stage.
The cella’s interior walls were decorated with a frieze representing a triumphal procession interpreted as the representation of Octavian’s triple triumph held in 29 BCE and celebrating the Dalmatians wars, the Battle of Actium and the victory over Egypt.
The Boiler Room, named after the huge steam boiler dominating the room, is home to a number of beautiful statues and decorative sculptures that once adorned the gardens of sumptuous imperial residences (Horti Sallustiani, Horti Liciniani, Horti Lamiani, Horti Caesaris). Funerary monuments from the Ostiense Necropolis are also on display in this room.
Among the highlights here are a sculpture group depicting a Satyr and a Nymph, a head of Priapus, a wounded Niobid, a statue of a seated girl and another one of the muse Polyhymnia as well as an exquisite statue in red marble of Marsyas and a large mosaic of a hunting scene.
Centrale Montemartini is definitely one of Rome’s most striking exhibition space. It offers a unique museum experience and it is often so empty that you will likely have the place to yourself.
The museum is located on the Via Ostiense, 106. Take the Metro to Garbatella, cross over the tracks and walk through a car park to the Via Ostiense. You will see the museum across the Via on your left. You can also walk from the Pyramid Metro Station down the Via Ostiense.
Tuesday-Sunday: 9.00 – 19.00;
24 and 31 December: 9.00 – 14.00;
Last admission 1/2 hour before closing time.
Adults € 7,50
Concessions € 6,50 Roman Citizens only (by showing a valid ID):
Adults € 6,50
Concessions € 5,50
Ancient art and archaeological remains have provided archaeologists and historians today with clues to how the ancients practiced their sexuality and their overall attitude toward sex. To the causal observer, it seems the ancients were more open about their sexuality then we are today. In ancient Rome there were artworks in living rooms or studies depicting erotic images of lovers performing various sexual acts and in ancient Mesopotamia mass-produced terracotta plagues would show couples having sex.
The Secret Cabinet
For the Romans, sex was a part of their everyday lives, state affairs, religious rites, myths, even warfare, and featured prominently in their art. One of the most famous collections of erotic art from Roman culture is the artwork featured in the secret cabinet (gabinetto segreto). The secret cabinet collection is now part of the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It is said when King Francis I of Naples visited with his wife and daughter in 1819 he was so shocked by the contents of the collection he had them locked away. A brick wall was even built over the doorway to keep the scenes from corrupting people.
The following are a few select images of the artwork and artifacts found in the secret cabinet collection.