Object in focus: Mosaic Niche
This beautifully intricate mosaic once decorated a niche, or vault, in a Roman villa in Baiae, Italy. It dates to approximately AD50-70 and came to the museum as a gift from Mr Murray Marks in 1910; prior to that it had been part of the collection of the Hon. A. G. J. Ponsonby, MP.
The mosaic consists of a plaster background that has been covered with coloured squares, or tesserae, of glass and other materials including Egyptian blue, marble and other types of stone, bordered with shells. The niche may have held a small statue to which the mosaic provides an idyllic garden background with three birds coming to land and a colourful peacock already resting at the bottom. The presence of the peacock, an expensive bird and status symbol, indicates that the person who commissioned the mosaic was taking the opportunity to make a statement about his wealth and position.
The mosaic is a significant part of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Greek and Roman galleries; not only it is the only Roman mosaic in our collection, but it also survives in a very good condition if we take into account the exposed nature of roman wall mosaics.
Wall and Vault Mosaics
While floor mosaics are found across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire and can be seen as an identifying feature of Roman culture, wall and vault mosaics are not so closely connected to them as might be imagined. Rather than being a natural development from floor mosaics, they actually developed independently and are more akin to wall paintings, although sharing certain techniques and materials with their floor counterparts. The Romans saw floor mosaics as so distinct from wall and vault mosaics that they had different terms, with the technique of floor mosaics known as tesselatum and that of wall and vault mosaics as opus musivum.
Vault mosaics developed from nymph grottoes, natural cave-like structures that were sacred to the nymphs. In honour of the nymphs, the grottoes were decorated with shells and pumice and when natural grottoes were not available artificial ones were constructed, often in association with sources of water, whether natural springs or man made fountains. As glass became increasingly common with the building of glass factories in Italy under Augustus, glass tesserae were introduced allowing more sophisticated decoration to develop. The inclusion of glass also contrasts with floor mosaics, which were largely constructed of stone tesserae, and it therefore provides a way of helping to identify whether tesserae found at an excavation belong to a floor or wall. Given the position and function of wall mosaics they were able to take advantage of the potential that glass had for providing bright colours and reflecting light to produce a dazzling effect, as can be seen in the mosaic’s eye catching appearance in the Greece and Rome galleries.
Written by Claire Whitbread,
Roman Society Museum bursary student, August 2012
Object number: GR.159.1910