Getty Villa Exhibit: Roman Mosaics Across The Empire

Nov 28, 2017 by Dorian Richard

For anyone interested in Roman art and history, a visit to the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA with its amazing antique collection and a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean is a must. Now until January 8, there is an additional incentive to visit this unique museum: their special exhibit focused on Roman mosaics.

Displayed in a facility inspired by the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum the mosaics can be admired in a gorgeous environment similar to the one they used to be part of.


Roman mosaics first appeared in the late 2nd century BC They were mainly inspired by earlier Greek mosaic which often depicted mythological scenes. Their popularity grew quickly and within a century mosaics decorated lavish residences and public buildings across all of the Roman Empire. Intricate patterns and scenes ranging from everyday life to arena fights were created by setting small pieces of stone or glass, called tesserae, into floors and walls. Itinerant craftsmen spread their knowledge across the Empire, leading to a variety of regional styles. The mosaics in the Getty exhibit date from the 2nd through the 6th centuries AD, and come from such widespread places as Italy, North Africa, Southern France, Turkey, and Syria.

Here are three particularly captivating examples to whet your appetite:


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(Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt Roman, from near Baiae, Italy, AD 300–400 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California)

One of the most stunning mosaics depicting a bear hunt may have decorated a room in a seaside villa. Because of the odd shape of the mosaic, it has been suggested that it decorated a room between two oval rooms, an arrangement found in some Roman baths. However, it is more likely that the full mosaic was originally rectangular, decorating a rectangular room, and that when it was removed in the early 20th century they simply cut out the mosaic around the decorated area. It was unearthed in June 1901, in a vineyard in the vicinity of Lago di Lucrino in Baiae, just west of Naples. The full original is believed to have been at least 40 feet long. The theme was a popular one as the aristocratic taste for Venationes (staged hunts of wild animals) was well documented. One of the theories is that the bears depicted were captured for later display in an arena.

“The patron who commissioned the mosaic may have financed an event in the arena that involved hunting or animal combats” says Alexis M. Belis, Author of The Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum and Assistant Curator in the Department of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Wealthy Romans frequently sponsored these spectacles to display their own financial generosity and social status. They also funded the capturing of the animals, and the two hunters in the mosaic identified by inscriptions — Lucius and Minus — were likely in the service of the patron” added Alexis.


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(Mosaic Fragment with Peacock Facing Left, 5th — 6th century The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of William Wahler)

Even during Roman times, peacocks had a special significance. As the sacred animal of Juno, goddess of marriage and protector of the state, they were often kept in temples dedicated to her and associated with immortality and apotheosis (elevation to divine status). The peacock mosaic decorated the floor of a Syrian church. “Because of this religious symbolism, peacocks remained important in Christian iconography, and usually took a prominent position in church mosaics” says Alexis. “Peacocks were often paired in a symmetrical arrangement that distinguished them from other animals. This peacock is one of two that originally faced each other on either side of an image of a tree or vessel” added Alexis.


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(Mosaic Floor from Villelaure with Diana and Callisto Surrounded by Hunt Scenes, 3rd century Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Phil Berg Collection)

This mosaic was discovered in Villelaure, France in an ancient type of residence referred to as a Villa Rustica, or countryside villa. Diana, the goddess of the hunt was another popular subject. Here she is represented with Callisto who was later transformed into a bear by a jealous Juno. Callisto was almost killed by her son during a hunt but was saved by being sent to the stars instead. Thus was born Ursa Major, known as the Great Bear constellation.

When asked about this stunning piece, Alexis said “The myth of Diana and Callisto is especially prominent in the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Since the mosaic likely decorated a dining room or reception area, the owner of the villa may have chosen this subject as a way of showing off his awareness of Roman literature and culture to his guests.” “The hunting scenes in the frieze surrounding the central image also allude to elite leisure activities and entertainment — appropriate themes for a wealthy countryside villa” added Alexis.

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(Mosaic of a Lion Attacking an Onager, late 2nd century The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California)

For those not fortunate enough to see the exhibit, the Getty published an online catalog which can be viewed for free: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Take a peek, you’ll discover many additional masterpieces created by these amazing ancient craftsmen.

Thousands of years later our mosaicists still use the same techniques that brought these wonderful pieces to life and take the same pride in their work. Some of their artworks depict scenes inspired by similar historic pieces but they also incorporate modern themes and designs that keep this ancient tradition vibrant and ever-evolving. Stop on by to take a look at their modern mosaic masterworks.

We hope you enjoyed this escape into the distant past and that you will join us again next week to meet one of our talented artists.

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