Saturday, March 5, 2011

Archeology in Sicily: Bikini Girls and other Floor Puzzles

In the huge Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, a girl is can be seen through the corridor....................not one, but the room has 10 of these bikini girls engaged in some athletic activities. They are made of pieces of finely cut stone, set into mortar for a smooth finish on the floor. Mark Schara took these photos of the largest series of floor mosaics in the Roman Empire.

Their games include the discus throw, weight lifting and ball tossing. One with a palm and crown may be a winner.

From the mosaics in ancient Sicily we can trace the art of stone floor mosaics, backwards. Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Amerina, covered by a landslide in the 13th century but now uncovered, has the largest group of extant mosaics from the Roman world. The cut marble stones decorated floors, not walls, of the palace. It is not known who built or owned the huge villa in the early 4th century, but it may be connected to the emperors, or gladiators in the late Roman Empire. There are several mosaics of giant figures and animals, representing diverse subjects like the Labors of Hercules, hunting and children fishing. One of the most surprising subjects is a group of young women, bikini girls. The floors of the entire villa are covered with remarkable picture puzzles.

Also at Villa Romana del Casale is the Room of Fishing Cupids. The children appear quite young and have curious markings on their faces .

At nearby Morgantina, three excavated homes have floor mosaics from the 3rd century BCE, some 500 years earlier than the Villa in Piazza Armerina. Above is a mosaic in the House of Ganymede, perhaps the earliest mosaic cut into cubes. Ganymede is being abducted by Zeus' eagle, and the Greek key pattern in the border creates an optical illusion of shifting perspective patterns.

Although we normally associate mosaics with the Byzantine wall mosaics in churches, the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans used them extensively. From Hellenistic times, three homes with mosaics have been excavated in Morgantina. Of special note is a mosaic in the House of Ganymede, made of marble and very finely executed, suggesting the wealth of central Sicily before the Roman takeover in 211 BCE. The House of Ganymede may, in fact, have the earliest mosaics found to be cut into squarish tesserae, the standard "tesselated" form for Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The best guess for a date is 250 BCE. It may copy a painting.
An animal mosaic from the Punic island of Mozia is the earliest known floor mosaic, perhaps from the early 4th century BCE. Composed of only gray, black and white pebbles, it was made before the famous pebble mosaics of Pella, Greece, from about 300 BCE.
The oldest known floor mosaic is in Mozia, the small Punic island adjacent to Marsala, Sicily, which was conquered by Greeks in 397 BCE. In the House of the Mosaic, there is a floor carpet of real and imagined animals composed of black, white and gray pebbles. It lacks color and looks rough compared to later mosaics of both pebble and cut stone. Its border patterns -- the Greek key, palmettes and waves -- definitely look Greek. Does it come from shortly after the Greek conquest of 397 BCE? or even earlier?