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Musīvum Opus

Mosaic. The term mosaic is usually derived from a post-classical word musivum (μουσεῖον), occurring in Spartianus (Vit. Pescenn. 6, pictum de musivo), and St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, xvi. 8, hominum genera musivo picta). It is the art of arranging small cubes or tesserae of marble, coloured stone, terra-cotta, glass, or some other artificial substance, so as to produce an ornamental pattern or picture, and to provide a durable form of decoration for walls and pavements. The only mosaic hitherto found in Greece Proper is that discovered in 1829, in the floor of the east portico of the temple of Zeus, at Olympia, possibly little later than the first half of the fourth century B.C. It is formed of rough round pebbles of various colours from the bed of the Alpheus, and it represents Tritons of graceful design surrounded by a tasteful border of palmettes and meandering lines.

The earliest mosaics mentioned in literature are those made for the ship of Hiero II., about the middle of the third century, with scenes from the Iliad, which took 300 skilled workmen a whole year to execute (Athenaeus, 206 d). To the same age belongs the only artist in mosaic whose name is recorded in literature, Sosus of Pergamun, famous as the inventor of a kind of mosaic called the ἀσάρωτον (the “unswept” floor), in which the floor of a room is inlaid with representations of fruits, fishes, and fragments of food that have fallen from the table (Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 184; cf. Statius, Silvae i. 3, 36). Mosaics of this type have been found not only at Pompeii, but also at Aquileia and in Algiers (see p. 825). According to Pliny , the original design by Sosus included a remarkable representation of a dove drinking and casting the shadow of its head on the water beneath, while several other doves were to be seen sunning themselves on the rim of the bowl. The best-known copy of this is that called “The Capitoline Doves,” found at Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli. It is entirely composed of cubes of marble, without any admixture of coloured glass.

The art of reproducing paintings in mosaic probably originated in Egypt, and thence found its

The Capitoline Doves. (Rome, Capitoline Museum.)

way to Greece and Italy. It is doubtless connected in its origin with the brick-work and tiling of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In fact, just as wallpaintings were first suggested by tapestries, so mosaic work is a natural development from carpets. All these arts, indeed, were closely related, and the subjects of paintings are also used by the makers of mosaic. One of the finest pieces of mosaic at Pompeii, signed by Dioscorides of Samos, reproduces a wall-painting found in the same city. The largest mosaic picture of Roman workmanship is that executed for the temple of Fortune at Praenesté, restored by Sulla (Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 189). This was discovered in 1640, and is generally supposed to represent a popular fête on the occasion of an inundation of the Nile. It probably belongs to the time of Hadrian.

Among the mosaics of Pompeii the most famous is that identified as the “Battle of Issus,” possibly a copy of the painting of the same subject by a female artist, Helena, “daughter of Timon the Egyptian,” which was placed in the Temple of Peace in the time of Vespasian (Photius, Bibl. p. 482). It represents the critical moment when Alexander is charging, bare-headed, in the thick of the fray, and has just transfixed with his lance one of the leaders of the Persians; while Darius, with his lofty tiara and red chlamys, is extending his right hand in an attitude of alarm and despair. In the mosaic itself the lower border represents a river, apparently the Nile, with a crocodile, hippopotamus, ichneumon, ibis, etc., thus confirming the con

Threshold in Mosaic. (Pompeii.)

jecture as to the Egyptian origin of the design. See illustrations, pp. 296 and 890.

Mosaics bearing the artist's name are seldom found. The two finest of this class are those from Pompeii inscribed with the name of Dioscorides of Samos. One of these represents four masked figures playing on various instruments. The work is composed of very small pieces of glass, of the most beautiful colours and in various shades. (See Dyer's Pompeii, p. 276). Another of similar construction portrays a rehearsal for a satyric drama. The ground is black, the drapery mainly white, but the robe of the flute-player is bordered with purple, the lips are a bright red, and the flutes and ornaments coloured like gold. The finest mosaic of the early part of the second century A.D. is the highly pictorial centaur-mosaic now at Berlin, found at the Villa of Hadrian (Baumeister's Denkmäler, fig. 941). The most celebrated works of a later date include that in the Thermae of Caracalla, with numerous gladiatorial figures of colossal size and ungraceful drawing (ib. fig. 174); and that of the Roman villa at Nennig, near Trèves. The dimensions of the latter are fifty feet by thirtythree, and the design includes several groups of figures enclosed in a square or hexagonal framework of tessellated marble (ib. figs. 1001-2343). Among the mosaics in the British Museum are an Amphitrité and Tritons, with Dionysus, Meleager, and Atalanta, all from Halicarnassus, and of Roman times, since figures of Dido and Aeneas were found in the same villa (Newton's Travels and Discoveries, ii. 76). Among mosaics still preserved in England may be mentioned those at Woodchester, Bignor, and Brading.

Mosaic pavements are known by different names descriptive of certain varieties of structure.


A pavimentum sectile is composed of thin plates of coloured marble of various sizes, cut (secta) into slices of regular form and arranged in an ornamental geometrical pattern including triangles, hexagons, etc. ( Vit. vii. 1, 3, 4; Caes. 46 fin.).


The epithet tessellatum describes a pavement of the same general kind, but made up of regular square dies (tesserae, tessellae, tesserulae), forming rectangular designs.


Vermiculatum is applied to a design formed of small pieces of marble in various colours, arranged so as to imitate the object represented with a high degree of pictorial effect. The dies are of different shapes, so as to allow of their following the wavy contours of the outline of the object. The name owes its origin to the fact that the general effect of such an arrangement resembles the contortions of a cluster of worms (vermes). (Cf. Pliny, H. N. xxxv. 2; and Lucilius, quoted in Cicero's Orator, 149.)


The term lithostrotum (Varro, R. R. iii. 2.4; 1.10; Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 189) was probably applied to a pavement made of small pieces of stone or marble of natural colours, and distinguished from those of coloured glass or some other artificial composition. Mosaics of glass were used to decorate ceilings.

The gilt tesserae used in Christian mosaics for the background of the pictures were formed by applying to a cube of earthenware two thin plates of glass with a film of gold-leaf between them, and vitrifying the whole in a furnace. It was this discovery that led to the extensive application of mosaic for the decoration of the walls, and more particularly the apses, of Christian churches. After the ninth century the art of working in mosaic ceased for a while in Rome and in Italy in general, to be revived at a later date in the church of S. Cyprian at Murano (1109) and the basilica of St. Mark's at Venice (in and after the eleventh century), and afterwards at Rome itself. In Sicily, the mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in the Royal Palace at Palermo were finished in 1143, while those of the cathedral at Monreale were begun in 1172.

The reader is referred to Marquardt, Das Privatleben der Römer, 625-632; Blümner's Technologie, iii. 323-343; Von Rohden on Mosaik in Baumeister's Denkmäler; Gerspach, La Mosaïque (1883); and Morgan, Romano-British Mosaic Pavements (1886).

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 7.1
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 35.2
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