Greek and Roman Mosaics

Review by Lisa Anne Auerbach

 

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I’m always a sucker for the masses of little things that together form something larger than the sum of their parts. The knit stitches of a sweater, completely useless in single form: endlessly captivating. The English language—who cares about just one letter, separated from the flock? A person without a community, what a bore. A pixel on its own? Please. From the mouth of Gibby Haynes: “the catfood, the little bits of crayons, the melted pieces, the loving friends, all the things you wish you had.” Yes, all the things I wish I had, too. Especially the little bits of crayons.

 

Greek and Roman Mosaics is full of mind-blowing photographs of images constructed from little bits of stone and glass. The tesserae create undulating fabrics, flowing manes on lions and goddesses, and the delicate reflectivity of a metallic object. Predating Photoshop by thousands of years, the irregularly shaped pixels were often photographic in the way they rendered light and shadow and more permanent to this earth than fleeting computer files and crumbling paper.

 

For the reader unfamiliar with the breadth of ancient mosaic, this book contains some exciting treats. A trompe l’oeil floor, from the second century B.C. has a border showing the remains of a big dinner party. The shells of edible crustaceans, the tails from fish, bones, a blackberry, a nut, and stems of grapes are lovingly detailed and given subtle drop shadows on the white surface. The celebration, forever cast in stone, lives on, in a way that few parties do.

 

Images of masks and props against colorful backgrounds appear oddly modern, despite their provenance. In one, a woman’s head with an open mouth and plaintive expression floats above what appears to be a couch or couch-like rock. A tree grows nearby, and below, a tiger tugs at an object that looks like a mini trampoline or perhaps a drum or maybe even a koi pond. In another, an angry mask appears next to a broken jug and a musical instrument. These discreet and disturbing surrealist-like images appear in their own frames, surrounded by vines and 8 pointed stars.

Killing rendered in tile is surprisingly gory. An altercation between centaurs and tigers, dating back to the second century, shows rivulets of blood torn into flesh of the woman half of a cloven-hoofed beast. A tiger, caught in the act, claws still sunken into the the soft peach hip, is surprised by a second centaur, up on his back legs, threatening to hurl a large stone at the hungry beast. Nightmares are made of images like these.

 

Images of brutality spice up this heavy tome. Bloody dances of life and death, skeletons and warriors are not the entire picture, though there are plenty of hunters and soldiers to choose from. Beasts abound, and although most of these are wild animals, some appear to be domestic kittens. The prevalence of Christianity is pleasantly low. The photographs include many close-ups. The reader is treated to the details of how rock can be orchestrated to look like silk or water. Eye opening and seductive.

 

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Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello, Greek and Roman Mosaics, (Abbeville Press, 2012)
 
Images: Cover and interior from Greek and Roman Mosaics

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