Academic References to Roman Mosaics
This page is where you will find the references that I have come across for ancient and contemporary sources on Roman mosaics. They will be listed under subject headings, I will only be putting verifiable references up.
If you feel there are any discrepancies then get in touch .
Please let me know if you have any references you wish to share
Disclaimer; I only use extracts that I can verify, in line with copyright whole articles are not posted except where the authors permission is gained. Whatever you read here I always advise that you check the primary source.
1. Pliny the Elder on the Greek mosaicist, Sosus. Sosus, (2nd century BC) is the only mosaicist we have any reference to in literature of the time.“Pavements are an invention of the Greeks, who also practised the art of painting them, till they were superseded by mosaics. In this last branch of art, the highest excellence has been attained by Sosus, who laid, at Pergamus, the mosaic pavement known as the “Asarotos œcos;”from the fact that he there represented, in small squares of different colours, the remnants of a banquet lying upon the pavement, and other things which are usually swept away with the broom, they having all the appearance of being left there by accident. There is a dove also, greatly admired, in the act of drinking, and throwing the shadow of its head upon the water; while other birds are to be seen sunning and pluming themselves, on the margin of a drinking-bowl.”
Pliny, The Natural History, book 36 , chapter 60, The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855
2. Edict of Diocletian (in Latin Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium) 301AD, (see link below also for complete translation). Prices were set for trades and goods by the Emperor Diocletian in an effort to control inflation. How widely it was taken up we don’t know. The prices for those involved in mosaic work were set out as below;
- Pictor Imaginarius — ‘Painter of images’ we can assume they created the first picture. 175 sesterces per day.
- Pictor Parietarius — The artist who was able to transfer the painting in large scale onto the floor or wall. 75 sesterces per day.
- Musearius — The mosaicist, 50–60 sesterces per day. Note the term tessellarius was also used, Farneti states that toward the end of the 4th century CE the Codex Theodosianus has the musearius making wall mosaics and the tessellarius floor ones.
- Lapidarius Structor — unskilled stone cutter
- Calcis Coctor — most likely a slave who prepared the mortar etc
Farneti, M. (1993). Technical — Historical Glossary of Mosaic Art. Ravenna: Longo Editore Ravenna. p83–84.
3. Edict of Diocletion, a new English translation of the Edict of Diocletion on the academia.edu website. Useful if you want to compare the wages of a mosaicist against other trades.
Inscriptions in mosaic
1. Found as part of a mosaic found at The Old Diakonikon-Baptistry, Mount Nebo, Jordan and dates to A.D. 530. The inscription (translated from Greek) reads, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, remember the clerics and monks and (all the) others who (rest) here (in peace). Lord remember Soel, Kaium and Elias, the mosaicists and their own family’ cited in ‘The Mosaics of Jordan’, 1997, American Centre of Oriental Publications, Michele Piccirillo.
2. Found at a church near Antioch, possibly the church of the martyrium of St Babylas, AD 387. The inscription in mosaic, reads, ‘Under the most holy bishop Flavian, the most honourable Eusebius being in charge of the administration of the church, Dorys the priest has paved this whole exedra with mosaic’. Cited in, Antioch Mosaics, a corpus, 2000, A Turizm Yayinlari, Istanbul, Cimok, F. (ed). This though may just be refering to the priest who commissioned the mosaic.
1. Bruni, M. G., 2009. The Monumental Villa at Palazzi di Casignana and the Roman Elite in Calabria (Italy) during the Fourth Century AD. Ph.D. USA: UC Berkeley.
‘…it can be said with some confidence that all the floors that decorate the Villa at Palazzi di Casignana find close parallels more or less in some part of the Empire or other. This, in turn, would confirm that the mosaic workshops (officinae) all over the Roman world used copy-books (whatever form they took), which contained a collection of motifs and patterns that circulated widely among mosaicists. These craftsmen did not create a wholly original floor but most likely drew their designs from a shared repertoire while creating personal variations of popular patterns.’
For the full piece go to http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2jf6g36f#page-3
2. Jones, P (2013). Veni, Vidi, Vici. London: Atlantic Press. p214.
‘Only one contract survives for laying a mosaic. It instructs ‘for the flower, follow the design provided by the royal palace’. No other reference is given to this in the book.
Lichtenberger, A Raja, R. (2017). Mosaicists at work: the organisation of mosaic production in Early Islamic Jerash. Antiquity. 91 Issue 358, p.1005.
As no studio has yet been excavated, it is generally assumed that mosaic workshops were mobile, and that mosaicists worked where the mosaics were laid.
Contemporary writers on geometric design
- Paper entitled ‘Using Key Diagrams to Design and Construct Roman Geometric Mosaics.’ by Bernard Parzysz.
Abstract; The complexity shown by some geometrical patterns of Roman mosaics and the high quality of their realization lead to think that for such patterns, unlike scenes with human or animal figures, a model of the general pattern was certainly not sufficient to guide the setting up; in order to answer this question one is led to conjecture the existence of diagrams (key diagrams) with which the craftsman, by looking at them, is able to identify (and/or remember) the geometrical structure of a basic element of the general pattern, as well as a way for constructing it — and possibly the whole pavement — with his usual instruments. This hypothesis is applied to some patterns which were well spread over the Roman world. The present study aims at showing how a given key diagram can apply to varied patterns and, conversely, how the making of a given complex pattern can rely on several articulated key diagrams.
Parzysz, B. (2009). Using Key Diagrams to Design and Construct Roman Geometric Mosaics. NEXUS NETWORK JOURNAL. 11 (2), 273–287.
1. BBC. (2014). The Story of the Roman Empire. [Online Video]. 18 April 2014. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BZ-O9Wuo. (go to 21:53)
The link above takes you through to a BBC documentry on the Roman Empire (on Youtube). In one section, on tools found in a quarry, one of the hammer heads looks the closest i’ve seen to a type that could be used to cut tesserae in the same way we work now. All the other hammers I’ve seen found in stoneworking sites have been what’s known as scabbing hammers, pointed at both ends. Look at the hammer which is the third one away from the camera, although it has a normal, blunt end it does have a flat end too.
There are two arguments against this though;
1. Would they have been cutting tesserae in one of the quarries or waiting to get the material from building sites/sculptures workshops?
2. The quarry there is Carrara, white marble whereas I’ve always been told that an off white (ie Botticino) is used in mosaic work as pure white has a very ‘flat’ look to it whereas something like Botticino, with its different shades ahs more depth. Something to look into.
Speed of work
Penn Museum. (2010). The Roman City of Zeugma (Turkey) Conservation Project. [Online Video]. 30 November 2010. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X86xDggIjMs. [Accessed: 5 July 2016].
Go to 51.00 and listen to Roberto Nardi discuss the speed of work, one person can lay roughly 1 square metre (3' x 3') a day. So five teams, five sqm done per day. There is no reason to talk in terms of years of work for these mosaics.
Methods of Work
Kosinka J. (1991). T H E CONSERVATION OF THE ORPHEUS MOSAIC AT PAPHOS, CYPRUS. Burbank, California: The J. Paul Getty Trust. 21.
‘In the course of the detachment operation, the preparatory layers underlying the Orpheus mosaic were recorded. Of particular note are fragments, approximately 2cm x 1cm, found beneath levels 2 and 3; these show tracings of red colouring material and were probably part of the preparatory design drawing (sinopia) to define the spaces of the mosaic floor. Another fragment, found between levels 3 and 4, shows evidence of freshly incised rectilinear lines.’ (Kosinka J. 1991)
Centro di Conservazione Archeologica. (2012). The Conservation of the Roman town of Zeugma 2000–2004. [Online Video]. 13 March. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUJ7PHCNOVs. [Accessed: 01 May 2014].
‘In some cases, on the backs of the tesserae and the removed mortar, we find the sinopia, a fresco design painted on the setting bed as a guide for the mosaicists. This provides valuable information on ancient trechniques.’ (starting at 09:30 minutes).
Prefabrication (including use of the Reverse technique)
Clarke J.R. (1991). The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. . London, England: The University of California Press,. 25, (Clarke is citing Cotton & Metraux, ‘The San Rocco Villa at Francolise, I will update this when I receive a copy of this book).
‘Excavation of a mosaic floor of 50–30 B.C. from the Roman Villa at Francolise revealed that a repeated element — a polychrome hexagon — was prefabricated on a bench or in a workshop and transferred on cloth or wood into the penultimate cement layer. Preparation of this cement layer (called the nucleus) included impressing laying out lines to determine the hexagonal border surronding the prefabricated hexagons, dividing these laying out lines into a regular grid so that the hexagons could be regularly spaced, and adding guidelines for the actual laying of the tesserae of the borders. In the case of complex designs of 40–30 B.C. in the Villa at Settefinestre a line snapped in the wet penultimate mortar layer was then painted in red and yellow to guide the mosaicists.’
Working methods found as a result of restoration work
Houix, B. (2009). In Nîmes, restoration of a Roman mosaic. Available: http://www.inrap.fr/preventive-archaeology/Events/Last-discoveries/p-2138-lg1-In-Nimes-restoration-of-a-Roman-mosaic.htm. Last accessed 26th May 2015.
‘A levelling embankment supported a bed of pebbles (statumen) on which a first concrete covering (rudus) was poured, then lime mortar and terracotta debris were added. Restoration work has revealed trowel imprints used for spreading these concrete coverings, and even the print of a nailed sole. The ground surface (opus tesselatum), consists of tesserae, measuring on average 3 to 15 mm, fixed in a lime mixture. A preparatory design was made on the still humid nucleus. During restoration, traces of cords were found corresponding to the outline of the central panel. Rare event, traces of pigments were also found (preparatory design of a bird?), opening the possibility of preliminary intervention of a painter outlining the motif in the humid lime.’
Methods of work — Sinopia
Piovesan, R. (2014). Characterising the unique polychrome sinopia under the Lod Mosaic, Israel: pigments and painting technique. Journal of Archaeological Science. 6, 68–74.
A PDF of the full article is available on the internet.
Abstract; A sinopia, usually a monochrome preparatory drawing made on a mortar substrate, was used in the Graeco-Roman world either as a base for frescoes or to facilitate the application of coloured mosaic tesserae on walls or floors. In 2009, during the detachment of the Lod Mosaic (Israel), an unexpected and, for the Classical Roman era, a unique, polychrome sinopia was revealed under one of the floor panels. The palette of colours includes red and yellow ochre, green earth, carbon black and the valuable red pigment cinnabar, all applied with the fresco technique, as attested by microstratigraphy.
Methods of work — Finishing
1. Glassman, G. (2007). Restoring the Parthenon. Available: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/parthenon/rest-nf.html Last accessed 3rd October 2014.
‘To level a new surface, the team’s masons again turn to an age-old technique. They sprinkle sand onto the surface, then use a metal smoothing plate to work out imperfections. The plate is an ancient invention, its modern counterpart based on stone plates found on the Acropolis. Korres believes that those early plates could grind to a precision of one-twentieth of a millimeter’.
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©Lawrence Payne 2016