Roman mosaics are an art form that was, like much of Roman art, inherited from the Greeks before them. According to Maria Milani, the Greeks may have themselves inherited the art from the Orient with whom they traded. Growing from a relatively simple art of black-and-white pebbles loosely arranged in a pattern, the art grew to impressive trompe l'oeil patterns that reached all the way into England at the height of the Roman Empire.
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Early Roman Use
Even early Roman mosaics used coloured pieces of stone, called "tesserae," that were introduced to them by the ancient Greeks. In this early period, mosaics were primarily used to decorate floors within homes and the areas around pools and fountains. Tiziana Mondini says "the first most outstanding examples of these mosaics were situated in the dining rooms of the homes where simple terra cotta could not be used because it was not sufficiently decorative." Sometimes a more detailed part of the floor would be made elsewhere and then transported to the site.
Mosaics were most often made up of tesserae, small squares of glass or marble similar to what we're used to today, and glued into place using a variety of glues. The Joy of Shards site states, "By 200 B.C., specially manufactured pieces were being used to give extra detail and range of colour to the work. Using small tesserae, sometimes only a few millimetres in size, meant that mosaics could imitate paintings." As the art progressed, various mosaic styles began to be recognised, depending upon how the tesserae were used.
Types of Mosaics
Mondini identifies three major classifications for mosaic work depending on the tesserae used and the way in which it was used. "Opus tesselatum" is the term used to refer to mosaics created with mostly 1-cm-square manufactured coloured pieces that are a combination of stone, enamel and glass paste. "Opus vermiculatum" used the same type of tesserae, except the pieces were cut to irregular shapes and sizes so as to more accurately depict the figures involved. "Opus sectile" is a technique where the natural colour of stones or marble is used to create the design.
Mosaics developed from the floor to the wall, opening up new and more reflective materials such as glass. Joy of Shards provides an example piece found in Herculaneum, Italy. It depicts Neptune with Amphitrite and thus represents one of the most popular themes in Roman mosaics. Other popular themes for mosaics found in Italy include domestic scenes and geometric designs.
Roman-styled mosaics dating back to the fourth century discovered in Britain tend to follow typical iconographic standards. These include gods, heroes and myths. Many of the gods have been incorrectly identified, according to Roger Ling, because of one of three reasons. There was the imperfect understanding and talent of the original artisan creating the mosaic, the imperfect nature in which the mosaic has been preserved, and/or the inability of the more modern-day historian making records of already destroyed mosaics to provide full records. Generally, a comparison of Italian and British mosaics shows a significant reduction in quality of materials, craftsmanship and cultural understanding.
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