Monday, January 16, 2012

A Good Head for Mosaics (Testa Robusta per Mosaico)

Hmmm, I can really think of no finer way to welcome you guys back after an excessively long blogging hiatus than to bore you all with a tale of woe and accompanying vacation photos. I've been super busy with my real job, artworks, and my (I'm trying my hand writing phone apps believe it or not). Don't laugh if you look at my website yet, it's very much a work in progress. Now here's your popcorn, and the story begins...

In September while boarding the train from FCO airport in Rome to the center of the city after a long flight from Dallas, I noticed that the overhead luggage rack for my suitcase was missing several crossbar supports, creating a large hole. Because there were not many places left in the car, I carefully wedged my suitcase up on the edge rails and the few bars that were actually there. Sitting down directly underneath the hole area (so no one else might accidently get struck with a falling suitcase), I resolved to keep an eye on it and be ready with quick hands to grab if it were to fall.

Unfortunately for me, a nice lady and her mid-twenties attractive daughter sat down next to me and we all struck up a conversation. Gravity took its course, and that coupled with my lack of baggage-related attention resulted in a surprise crushing blow to the forehead. At the time, I was thinking 'That's odd, my whole head moved back because of this crushing blow.' I still smile when I think of hearing all the normally reserved Italians in the train car simultaneously gasp at the horrific site. I laughed it off but I was worried about the possibilities of concussion because people in the street on the way to my hotel were saying things like 'cattivo bruschi' and such.

So, I resolved to just stay awake after putting my bag away at my hotel and took the train from Pyramide to Ostia Antica (which in all honesty, I was planning to do anyway). I had been to Pompeii and other archaeological sites around Europe, but had never made the time for this super close one even though I'd been to Rome several times.

I only had a day to cover so much ground, so I ran. I ran like Forrest Gump that day until there were enormous blisters on my little toes in spite of my comfortable hiking boots.

Ostia Antica was a treasure hunt maze of in-situ mosaics! The archaeological area covers a few square miles with so many uncovered and partially buried insulae, or city block areas with houses and shops.

Mosaics were not just reserved for the numerous public areas like baths and forums (the ancient equivalents of water parks and shopping malls, I guess), but many obscure ones were to be found in various houses scattered across the large archaeological area.

Below is an obscure mosaic from a small shop in the western part of the city. I think these look like leather working tools from the time, or maybe just meat tenderizing? It’s fun for me to try to understand what the artists were thinking back then when they placed the tesserae. That’s one of the reasons I like the ancient works so much because you can see the brush strokes in an ancient fresco or the choices about andamento from thousands of years ago and it’s like you are standing there right behind the artist from a different time, understanding how life was or how it was imagined.

I'm happy to report many of the mosaics were geometric in nature. I've been on a geometric mosaic kick lately with my triclinium background and it was great to see through the eyes of long gone artisans. Some of these forms were not covered in the usual mosaic history books.
Here’s what I’ve been calling a ‘sparse flower geometric’ from a house in the far north part of the site.

Check out the ‘meander-lozenge combo bordered by other meander and guilloche’ that can be seen near the entrance…

And below is a captivating but simple geometric from a home in the southwestern part of Ostia.

Occasionally, the driven visitor is rewarded with a random sectile work. The pavement below was especially interesting to me because of the ‘reused’ pieces of border carved marble in some of the triangle pieces (easy to see above the numidian yellow square at lower left).

The owner of this villa within the city must have been keen on the army because of all the shields?

Most of the mosaics left within ancient Ostia are monochrome, but even without colored tesserae, there is a world of information locked into these stone relics.
Here is the map of the area. The far reaches of Regione III and Regione I have some ‘off the normal path’ semi buried mosaics in hard to reach houses because of the overgrown brush, etc.

Speaking of semi-buried, sometimes the archaeological superintendents will place big mats covered with sand over some of the endangered and more important mosaics to help preserve them. Maybe I could have bribed some of these hard working archaeologists restoring a pavement near the Capitolinum monument to lift off one of the covers? Well, I did put some money in their tip jar.

In my opinion, Ostia is an underrated site for mosaics and is a wonderful mirror to the past and being an armchair archaeologist, I’m very glad to have visited.
Probably the best source of information if you are interested in visiting Ostia Antica is


  1. Welcome back. Those really are beautifully preserved pieces (literally). Did you take the photos to be sure you weren't imagining them after your head injury?

    I've just noticed you're background blog photo is a bit like mine, only all organised.

    And better. Much, much better.

  2. Welcome back! You were wise to take a blogging break...And those photos are amazing.

    I think I may need a blog break soon (or at least a break from some of my blogs - but which?).

  3. The whole way through that I was waiting for either, a) I passed out cold in a fountain (concussion aftermath) or b) "That case to the head knocked some sense back into me, I'd lost in 1989!"

    Poor Tex!

    Awesome photos though. You might as well just move to Italy at this stage, no?

  4. I wish PBS would hurry up and give you a TV show. I love the artisan marvels you point out during your travels. Welcome back, Eric!

  5. Too bad about your train experience. Cool mosaics!

  6. Only been to Rome once, but loved it. If you're after non-geometric mosaics maybe I can create you one? I'm kidding, I don't know how I could avoid all forms of geometry...

    Re apps give me a shout if're your stuck, want to run some ideas through or simply want to rant!

  7. Wonderfully told story about traveling and mosaics! Lol