"What goes around comes around"

By Zografia Welch

Anyone who has visited a gift shop in the last few years could not help but notice a variety of colorful items made of tile and glass chips or cubes - an art form known as mosaic. From table tops to picture frames, bathroom tiles, scarves, shirts, jewelry or murals, mosaic is the latest fad. In Europe mosaics were extensively used for many centuries, particularly for the decoration of churches. But in North America the art of mosaic is a less known art form and this may lead the casual observer to think of it as "new". In fact, it is a very old technique which was widely used in the ancient Greek and Roman world exclusively for the decoration of floors and, to a lesser extent, walls as well.

The early decorative mosaics of Greece were made of smooth natural pebbles that were set close together into a fine layer of mortar to form a pre-determined pattern. In the earliest known examples from the late 5th century BC the motifs were fairly simple, consisting of multiple geometric borders and occasionally animal figures. But as time went on and mosaicists became more skilled, floor mosaics started to resemble luxurious carpets. Often elaborate floral motifs, framed by floral and geometric borders, covered the entire floor surface and looked no different than the decorative area rugs that we use in our homes today. By the end of the 4th century BC mosaic artists had perfected their craft to such an extent that they were both able and eager to produce with bits of stone the type of representations that contemporary fresco artists were producing with paint. So the picture- panel was transposed from the wall to the floor.

The concept of placing a picture on the floor where people would walk on seams very strange to us, particularly as a lot of the "pictures" depicted gods and goddesses. To the Greeks and Romans however the floor surface was much more than just a surface to be walked on. Decorated with beautiful mosaics the floor surface acquired a life of its own and became a piece of art; a show piece to be admired by owner and guest alike. Most ancient mosaics were found in houses and country villas and were designed with a particular room in mind. In such cases the motifs that were chosen often reflected the function of the room. For example, the god Dionysus, who among other things was the god of wine, was a popular and appropriate theme in the decoration of dining rooms. In the ancient Greek house the dining room was by far the most important room and its importance was emphasized by its decoration. Hence the beautiful floor mosaics along with the wall paintings, the elaborate dining couches, and the fine pottery that was produced exclusively for the symposium, helped to create a luxurious environment.

Floor mosaics however served more than one purpose. For not only they created a floor surface pleasing to look at, but they also created a surface that was highly serviceable. Since much of the debris of the meal ended up on the floor, dining room floors had to be swept and washed frequently. The Greek banquet consisted of two parts: the meal and the symposium (literally the time after the meal when men drank together). But before the symposium could begin, all traces of the main meal that preceded it had to be removed, just as the unpleasant results of excessive drinking had to be washed away at the end of the symposium. An earth packed floor would have made this impossible. But a mosaic pavement, when properly laid, sealed off the floor surface and allowed the frequent use of water.

When the pebble technique reached its highest level of sophistication at the end of the 4th century BC mosaicists started to experiment with different techniques and materials. For example, a number of mosaics at this time were made with irregular marble chips, which closely resemble many modern creations. Natural pebbles, stone chips and pieces of red clay were also mixed to create a variety in texture. But gradually a new technique, the tessellated technique, emerged. Here instead of natural pebbles or irregular chips, roughly square cubes (tesserae) of natural stones, marble, granite, baked clay and even glass were used. The size of the tesserae varied from one mosaic to the next, but in the finest examples they could be as small as one millimeter square.

Fig 1. A fine example of the tessellated technique from Greece. Here twenty nine tesserae were used for the pupil of the tiger's left eye alone.

This promoted the creation of extremely fine quality mosaics and enabled mosaicists to imitate painted prototypes more closely than ever before. But it also provided an extra dimension to the use of mosaics, as the wealthy patrons realized that they could use these fine "pictures on the floor" to put across specific messages. (This aspect will be discussed in the next issue of the Labyrinth)

The making of a mosaic is very labor intensive. In antiquity a lot of the preparatory work, such as cutting down all the tesserae to a specific size, was done by slaves. There is no doubt that the high cost of labor and the fact that mosaics designed for floor or wall decoration cannot be transported easily, hindered their production in modern times. It is difficult to find modern mosaics that display the same quality and detail as many ancient mosaics did, although Italian workshops try to remain as close as possible to the ancient tradition. For the most part modern mosaics are abstract compositions.

Fig. 2 Mosaic workshop in Italy

But even in their abstract or semi-abstract form their varied bright colors and ragged texture makes them very appealing and pleasing to the eye, which accounts for their popularity in our modern society. Moreover, the adaptability of mosaic to the decoration of smaller, transportable items, such as pretty plates or bits of jewelry, has made this beautiful ancient art form accessible to all and brought it to the forefront once again.

Fig. 3 Mosaic pendant made of computer chips.