Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vespasian's birthplace, and scene of his death, discovered in Italy

In the year that sees the bimillennial anniversary of the birth of the Emperor Vespasian, it is very exciting to think his country palace in the town of his birth may have been discovered. Vespasian is the emperor best known for the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or Colosseum, in Rome, but he was of relatively humble origin and came from a village called Falacrinae in modern Lazio.
Archaeological teams from the British School at Rome and the University of Perugia have excavated part of a large villa with baths and colonnades at a place they believe to be ancient Falacrinae. The existence of the villa is known from literary sources but until recently no traces had been found of the emperor’s birthplace.
The excavations revealed an ancient cemetery, a chapel of (probable) medieval origin and the villa. The villa is notable for the paving of what appears to be the principal room. The pavement is made up of polychrome marbles quarried in North Africa of the most precious quality. It seems as though the walls of the room were also lined with marble. Two other rooms are decorated with very fine mosaics, and the general luxury of the villa, plus its age, seem to point to an imperial residence.
Dig Director Professor Coarelli signals caution since there is no absolute evidence, such as an inscription, but considers that the dating, the quality of the environment, the place and the outstanding decoration of the villa, all point to the fact that it may be a residence of the Flavian dynasty.
Suetonius tells us that every summer Vespasian retired to his country villa near Rieti, and it was there that he died of an intestinal inflammation. On 23 June of 79, Vespasian knew he was dying and asked to be helped to stand as he believed "an emperor should die on his feet".  His last words were said to be “oh dear, I think I am becoming a god”: a good example of his reputation for being down to earth and a great wit. We don’t really know that much about the details of his 10 year administration of the Empire, apart from the fact that he turned his attention to fiscal matters, including the famous tax on public toilets (a wonderful story I may have to retell another day!).
Professor Coarelli hopes that the villa and the surrounding excavations will throw light on how a large residence like this affected the surrounding rural community in these relatively early days of the empire. I will aim to follow the story here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A New View of the Alexander Mosaic

A Canadian scholar has come up with a theory about the wear patterns on the famous Alexander mosaic. In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Martin Beckmann of the University of Western Ontario suggested that the wear patterns allow us to reconstruct exactly how ancient Romans viewed the mosaic.

The Alexander mosaic, now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples but originally from the floor of the exedra of the House of the Faun in Pompeii, is one of the most famous extant ancient mosaics. The mosaic, which measures 19’ x 10’ was a copy of a Hellenistic painting showing Alexander facing the Persian King Darius in battle (probably the Battle of Issus) which was executed around 300BC. The mosaic itself, which features the “opus vermiculatum” technique was made around 100 BC from circa 4 million tesserae.
Several areas of the mosaic were repaired in antiquity (around 100AD) with mortar, and in particular a large piece of the mosaic around the figure of Alexander was repaired as seen in the image. Beckmann’s theory is that the main patterns of wear, as annotated below (1,2,a,b and c), show where the Romans stood to look at the mosaic with the owner of the house acting as a tour guide.
“Once the visitors had entered the room - we might imagine a group of dinner-guests led by their host -  the tour would begin with Darius and his Persians. The host would have stood above Darius' horses (1), explained why the great king was fleeing, and pointed out the artistic novelties in the lower portion of the mosaic. The guests would have milled about at the foot of the mosaic, taking in the overall scene, and then briefly concentrated themselves around the figures of the two doomed Persians (a - b). Then the host moved to the left and stationed himself in the area above the figure pair composed of Alexander and the unfortunate Persian he is spearing (2). The guests marched right onto the mosaic and crowded around the image of the Macedonian king, standing right on top of his body (c), being careful however not to step on his head or that of his horse. The guests arranged themselves in a semicircle, so as to leave a line of sight open between them and their host, who was also able to see Alexander's head from his vantage point above."
Hmm, I’m afraid I just don’t agree with this explanation. A Roman exedra was a large, elegant room usually located off the garden used for formal entertainments and dinner parties. In the case of the House of the Faun, the exedra is between two peristyle gardens and would have been used as a place where the hosts could relax and entertain special guests. Given its location in the house, as a sort of meeting place, or axis, it would be strange if there were not at least some furniture for the guests to relax and dine and I think it is entirely possible that moving furniture caused the damage. In Roman villas it was more common for rooms to have a plain or geometric floor mosaic with a small pictorial element or ‘emblema’ of opus vermiculatum in the middle and this would mean that furniture would usually be on the larger, more stable, tesserae, rather than on the opus vermiculatum. The opus vermiculatum section would be quite fragile because the tesserae are small. Since in this case the opus vermiculatum covers the whole floor, the furniture would have to be placed on it, and could have caused damage.
I think that Beckmann’s theory also falls down on a practical level: the repaired areas where people are supposed to have milled around to look at the Persians (a and b) don’t seem big enough to equal where they all stood to look at Alexander (c). I also think that to view Alexander properly, you would have stood to the right of him to look him in the face full on (he is shown in a right facing profile) rather than to the left and below. Surely the best vantage point for viewing the mosaic (even if we are prepared to consider that this was viewed as a piece of ‘art’, which is another debate which could be held) would be in the middle of the bottom edge of the view of the battle, under the black horse’s head. To stand so far to the left upsets the balance of the composition as intended by the original painter, and would not be a natural vantage point at all.
So, comments please….. what do you think?