This magnificent geometric carpet mosaic of the second century AD is perfectly preserved and in excellent condition. The eye never tires of admiring its complex and elegant design. This work is also a testament to the unmatched skill of the ancient Roman mosaicist, who exhibits his love of pure pattern, the ability to balance and unify contrasting forms and colors, and the capacity to create the visual illusions that the Romans so loved in their decorative motifs. Surely, carpet patterns are brought to mind when viewing this mosaic, but the artist has transformed the medium of textiles into one of great strength and durability. The apparent complexity of the pattern is something of an illusion as well, for the mosaicist has used a long-established design as the basis of his work. This mosaic is a compelling masterpiece in all regards and signifies the high standards demanded by the Romans for the decoration of their public and private buildings. It is as compelling and vibrant today as it was in its own time, and it makes a statement in any interior setting.
The Mosaic in Detail
Great ingenuity was used in working out the subtle geometry of our mosaic’s intricate design. The mosaic is framed by a triple strand braid or guilloche pattern. This delicately rendered plait design was originally a filling ornament and was later used as a border motif. Here, the artist has cleverly contrasted the running curvilinear form of the guilloche with the rectilinear pattern of the main surface design. The border has a three-dimensional vitality and movement while the primary zone is composed of flat, boldly contrasted colors contained within rectangular forms.
The central zone appears to be composed of a riot of forms and colors, yet it is in fact quite controlled and based upon the long-used running meander pattern. Used to anchor the design as a whole, the running meander and the patterns it creates become clear when it is viewed in isolation. The arrangement of the meanders forms a series of vertical and horizontal I-shapes rendered in red and green respectively. The contrasting directions and use of red and green set up a vibrant figure/ground relationship on the surface. Diamonds and octagons completely fill the remainder of the spatial field and produce a surface of great texture and interest.
The entire mosaic is designed of these intricately related geometric shapes that spring from one another and divide the surface like a kaleidoscope. The audience is meant to view this work from varying vantage points and thereby detect different patterns from different directions. Care is taken to preserve an equalized movement in all directions on the surface so the eye is free to travel over its entirety. The main pattern does not terminate at the border, but seems to extend indefinitely over the surface. This creates movement in the work and establishes an exciting surface for the eye to follow.
The Greeks and Romans loved to decorate their houses, theaters, baths, and public buildings with the permanent and durable medium of mosaic. Mosaic pavements composed of small cubes of glass, marble, ceramic material or precious stones embedded in cement to form an ornamental surface, have survived the centuries with an uncanny freshness in both color and texture. The method of mosaic work employed in our example is opus sectile. In this method the piece was formed of colored cubes of stone, or tesserae, cut to a standard shape and size.
The basic pattern of the running meander is found in other mosaics. The two versions shown here indicate that this design was quite flexible and could be expanded or contracted to suit any need. Only the artist’s imagination limited the details of the design or the addition of other ornamentation. Nevertheless, it is a controlled form that has a certain predictability of outcome.
Our work can be compared to two second century AD mosaics in the ancient city of Ostia (see reference below). Both establish the manner in which the running meander could be adapted by the manipulation of a single motif. A more elaborate example from Tunisia, North Africa, illustrates how drastically additional ornament can change the entire structure of the design and yet another use of the guilloche pattern
Our mosaic is a compelling example of geometric carpet design and exemplifies the aesthetic and decorative choices available in the second century AD. Yet the work also has a very contemporary resonance. It plays on the illusion of expectations to present a “rug” that is based on traditional patterns that still appeal today.
Related Second Century Examples:
Mosaic, Ostia, Italy, Reg. III, Is. XII-XIII, “Casette Tipo,” Becatti, no. 274, fig. 58, p. 139.
Mosaic, Ostia, Italy, Reg. III, Is. IX, “House of the Muse,” Becatti, no. 239, Tav. CCXXV.
Mosaic, Djebel Oust, Tunisia, room 23, (in situ), Le decor, pl.189a
M. Fendri, 'Evolution chronologique et stylistique d’un ensemble de mosaiques dans une station thermale a Djebel Oust (Tunisie)', in Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Sciences Humaines. La Mosaique Greco-Romaine, Paris 1963, pp. 161-173.
A. Ovadiah, Geometric and Floral Patterns in Ancient Mosaics, (Rome, 1980).
K. Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).
Private Collection, Belgium, 1970s.
Published: Hali: The International Magazine of Antique Carpet and Textile Art, Vol. 73, February/March 1994, p.71.
Christie's New York, 8 June 2012, lot 257.