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Roman Mosaics

The art of ancient roman mosaics was actually derived through southern Italy from Greece and developed to a high standard. The Greeks most likely learned of this art from the Orient around the same time in which Rome was founded, around (8th Century BC).

In the beginning mosaic work was limited to the laying of coloured pebbles in a more or less uniform manner. By breaking the pebbles a flatter surface can be achieved, by the fourth century BC the individual pieces were further refined to the cubes we are now accustomed to. In the second century BC coloured mosaics reached their technical perfection in central Italy.

At their height of popularity, mosaics rivaled painting in terms of the end artistic results. The level of detail and finesse achieved was spectacular and the amount of work required to achieve high standards and quality could make their cost quite prohibitive. The major benefit of course, was the higher durability and vibrancy of colour, so much so that in many cases there would be little left of an excavated villa, but usually the mosaic on the floor may well be close to intact.

A decorative pattern on a shop floor would most likely be two tone (black and white). The pieces were called tessellae or tesserae and usually their size could differ even within the same mosaic. Faster techniques implied larger, more simple, patterns and of course, larger pieces. The white tesserae would mainly be made of (white) marble, whilst the black would be of basalt – the exact same volcanic lava rock used in the construction of Roman roads such as the Appian way.

Here we have some roman mosaics done by some of our clients, they use our special ceramic mosaic tiles:

The shape and size of the tesserae depended on the shapes to be depicted within the mosaic artwork. A simplistic geometric pattern comprised of essentially straight lines and rectangular forms would generally require tesserae of square or rectangular pieces. More complex patterns or images naturally required the shape of the pieces to vary so that they can be laid out in order to follow the image they described rather than cut across it.

Complexity was at its height when the image of the mosaic was done in colours. The tesserae would not only have to describe the form but also the pattern of different tonal/colour shades within this form. The finest of effects could be achieved with the smallest of tesserae in much the same way that a computer screen can provide a more or less perfect image according to the number and size of the pixels per square inch that it is capable of displaying. In the most detailed works this could require as many as 300 tesserae per square inch (50 per square centimeter) and countless numbers of different coloured marbles, stones and glass, each piece being hand cut on site.

The range and variety of colours available depended on the range of marbles and coloured stones available in the area. Coloured glass paste was also generally used as a material and was employed, together with marble, in works of higher prestige. Often the materials used were recycled from previous works, especially in later periods of the roman empire when the cost of marbles and loss of power made them difficult to obtain.

We can therefore imagine the vast range of effects, labour, technqiue and cost required in order to produce a single mosaic. It is difficult to categorise the style of mosaic work as clearly as what has been done with paintings. Linear and abstract techniques were often evolved in parallel with different styles of figurative colour work. In the Roman provinces of northern Africa, mosaics were created in every sense similar to an intricate painting of “the fourth style“. Intricate small and detailed leaves, animals, portraits and figures all interwoven into a “carpet” of marble.

At the poorer end of the scale mosaics were used almost as tiling. Small terracotta tiles of various geometric shapes such as squares and diamonds would be laid down to create an overall pattern and only a number of these would have a single marble tessera inserted into them. This required little if any true “mosaic” work to be done in order to achieve a satisfactory and durable patterned surface. Roman mosaics will always be remembered for the intricate patterns and elegant shapes and designs.