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May 2017

The Alexander Mosaic: Originality, Copies, and Displays

Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issos, floor mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE, perhaps by Philoxenos or Eretria or Helen of Egypt. Entire panel 8'10" x 17' (2.7 x 5.2 m). National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issos (or possibly Battle of Gaugamela), floor mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE, perhaps by Philoxenos or Eretria or Helen of Egypt. Entire panel 8’10” x 17′ (2.7 x 5.2 m). National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Yesterday one of my students gave a presentation on the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii. The student mentioned having a chance to visit the House of the Faun when he was younger, and showed the class an image of his younger self at the site. The House of the Faun is most important surviving house from Pompeii, and originally it was so large that it comprised a whole city block!

Today, the Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun is a copy and the original mosaic is located in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The original mosaic was discovered at the House of the Faun in 1831; it was located on the floor of the exedra, which is a rectangular room off of the first peristyle court. This indicates that guests would have seen this mosaic when they came to visit with the owner of the house in the exedra space. In order to better preserve the Alexander mosaic, it was moved to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in 1843.

Alexander Mosaic display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

Alexander Mosaic display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

My student’s presentation reminded me of a lecture that Dr. Diana Kleiner gave on Pompeii, in which she discussed the Alexander mosaic (see 47:10 – 54:00 of this video clip). In her lecture, Diana Kleiner expressly points out how the museum displays the mosaic on the wall, which is inaccurate to the original placement of the floor mosaic. I can see her point, especially since the museum display tries to replicate the exedra of the House of the Faun (where the mosaic originally appeared). However, I also don’t mind that the mosaic currently is on the wall, because it can also serve as a reminder of how the original mosaic itself is a copy of a now-lost Greek wall painting from the beginning of the Hellenistic period in Ancient Greece (probably from c. 310 BCE, which is just a few years after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE).

Alexander Mosaic replica, c. 2003-2005. House of the Faun, Pompeii. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

Alexander mosaic replica, c. 2003-2005. House of the Faun, Pompeii. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

A copy of the Alexander mosaic was placed in the House of the Faun in 2005. The process of creating this replica was daunting, since the large mosaic is comprised of over two million pieces of tesserae.1 The project took 16,000 hours of work and cost $216,000.So, in essence, this replica is a modern copy of a Roman copy of an original Greek painting.

Detail of Alexander the Great mosaic, 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE.

Detail of original Alexander the Great mosaic, 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE.

Both the mosaic replica and the original mosaic are impressive in their own right. Diana Kleiner makes a good point in her lecture, too, about how the original Alexander mosaic is perhaps even more impressive than the original painting, since illusionism and foreshortening appear with small pieces of stone instead of pigment (see 50:11-51:19). It is unsure whether this floor mosaic was created by a Roman or Greek artist, but the translation of the imagery into mosaic form shows a high level of technique and precision!3

1 Ada Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic: Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1. 

2 Marco Merola, “Alexander, Piece by Piece,” from Archaeology Magazine 59, no 1 (2006). Available online at: http://archive.archaeology.org/0601/abstracts/mosaic.html

3 It is possible that this mosaic was created by a Greek artist who worked in the Roman empire in the 1st century. We know of other Greek artists who created mosaics for the Romans. For example, in the 2nd century a Greek mosaicist named Herakleitos worked in Rome and created “The Unswept Floor” mosaic that is currently in the Museo Gregoriano Profano (Musei Vaticani). This mosaic is signed by Herakleitos: ΗΡΑΚΛΙΤΟΣ ΗΡΓΑΣΑΤΟ

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Etruscan Terracotta Sculptures and Vent Holes

Apollo from the Temple of Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terra-cotta, 5'10"

Rear view of “Apollo” from the Temple of Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terra-cotta, 5’10”

I’ve been thinking about the statues from the Temple of Menerva (also spelled Menrva) at the ancient Etruscan city of Veii this week. Tonight I found a cool image that shows the back of the “Apollo” statue. This image shows two intentional holes that created so that the terracotta would be properly ventilated during the firing process. One hole appears just about where the shoulder blades should be, and another is seen at the base of the decorative support between Apollo’s legs.

Drawing of the Temple at Veii with figures (from L-R): Turms (Mercury), Hercle (Hercules), Aplu (Apollo) and Letun (Diana) on the ridgepole of the roof

Drawing of the Temple at Veii with four specific figures (from L-R): Turms (Mercury), Hercle (Hercules), Aplu (Apollo) and Letun (Diana) on the ridgepole of the roof

The Apollo sculpture comes from a group of four figures that would have decorated the ridgepole of the Temple of Minerva at Veii (although many other figures would have also been included along the roof of the temple, as shown in a reconstruction model). This group of figures would have referenced the third labor of Hercules, in which he is sent to capture the sacred deer with the golden horns: the Golden Hind. This deer is sacred to Diana (Apollo’s sister), and Apollo is struggling with Hercules over the deer. For more of the story, see the Smarthistory video and article on the topic.

The figure of Diana has been ruined and lost over time, and today only the head of Mercury and a little bit of the body remain. However, a good portion of the Hercules figure exists today, although it is not in as good of condition as the Apollo.2 A back view of the Hercules sculpture reveals that it has similar vent holes (between the shoulders and at the bottom of the sculpture). I assume that the holes in the deer’s body are were created for ventilation purposes.

Figures of Hercules (left) and Apollo (right) from Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terracotta

Figures of Hercules (left) and Apollo (right) from Veii, c. 510-500 BCE. Terracotta

Despite that terracotta doesn’t preserve extremely well, I’m glad that we have enough authentic Etruscan terracotta pieces to enjoy today (complete with authentic ventilation holes) to help us know more about the Etruscan people. Although a venting hole may seem like an insignificant technical detail, it actually can help us identify authentic works of art. For example, the Etruscans’ use of ventilation holes helped to identify later forgeries that were created in the Etruscan style. In the early part of the 20th century, three such forgeries were created by Alfredo Fioravanti and Riccardo Riccardi (with the exception of the Colossal Warrior, which was made with the help of some of Riccardo’s family members after Riccardo’s death). These forgeries were of terracotta warriors; they were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed together for the first time in 1933.

Heroic-Size warrior (left), Colossal Head (center) and "Old" Warrior (right), c. 1915. The Colossal Head is 4.5 feet (137 cm), the "Old warrior is 6.6 feet (202 cm).

The Colossal or Heroic warrior (left), Colossal Head (center) and “Old” Warrior (right), c. 1915. The Colossal warrior is approximately 8 feet tall (about 243 cm), The Colossal Head is 4.5 feet (137 cm), the “Old warrior is 6.6 feet (202 cm).

But in 1961, the Met had to admit that they had purchased works of art that were fakes. One of the tell-tale signs that these warriors were not Etruscan has to do with the vents: each warrior only had one vent, unlike the Etruscan works of art that are fired as a single unit with multiple vents (as shown in the Apollo and Hercules sculptures).3 This indicates that the large forgeries were fired separately and then reassembled. The modern day forgers did not have a kiln large enough to fire these large-scale objects! If they had taken the time to build such a kiln (and in turn create the proper number of ventilation holes), I wonder if it would have taken experts longer to determine that these sculptures were forgeries!

1 Edward Storer, “The Apollo of Veii” in Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts 2, no. 13 (June 1922): 238-239. Storer explains that the figure was fired as a single unit and that the terra-cotta is about an inch and a quarter thick. Article is available online at: http://bluemountain.princeton.edu/bluemtn/cgi-bin/bluemtn?a=d&d=bmtnaap192206-01.2.19&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-#

2 Another well-preserved figure that decorated the roof of the Temple of Veii exists today, although it is separate from this group of four figures that relate to the Golden Hind myth. This additional figure is of Latona (Leto), a goddess with the child Apollo.

3 The fragments of the figures also did not align properly, which also indicated that they had been fired separately. Experts also became concerned when they discovered that the glazes contained chemicals that were not in use during the Etruscan era. For more information see the online articles “Tracking the Etruscan Warriors” and “The Case of the Etruscan Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

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“Harvester Vase” Fragments and Forms

Harvester Vase rhyton, c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

Harvester Vase rhyton, c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite. Diameter 4.5″ (11.3 cm). Archaeological Museum, Iraklion, Crete.

Last week I introduced my ancient art students to the Harvester Vase, and some aspects of our discussion have caused me to do some further research on this vessel. This is a Minoan work of art which comes from Hagia Triada; it is thought to perhaps represent harvesters or sowers in some type of religious procession.1  Even though only fragments of the original vase remain, it is likely that the Harvester Vase had a hole at the bottom (in addition to the wider “filler” opening at the top), so that liquid could “flow through [it] like a funnel.”This small hole at the bottom could be covered by the hand of whoever was carrying the vessel during a ritual or procession, and then the hand easily could be moved away to dispense the liquid libation or offering.

Only the upper portion of the vase (and part of the lid) are original pieces; they have been mounted together to give a semblance of the original body of the vase. This appearance has been determined by comparing the steatite fragments to other similarly-shaped Minoan vases (see one such example HERE). Sir Arthur Evans suggested that the relief on this vase may have been covered with gold leaf.3 No gold traces of gold have been found on the Harvester Vase, but other Minoan vases have been discovered since with traces of gold leaf.4

"Unrolled" image of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession

“Unrolled” image of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession. c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

Harvester Vase detail

Harvester Vase detail, c. 1500 BCE.

This vase is quite small, being only 4.5″ (11.3 cm) in diameter. However, there are so many details to notice in this small space, which make the artistry and craftsmanship all the move impressive to me. Recently I’ve found a few things that I haven’t noticed before. One thing that I realized is that many of the participants have one fist raised to their chests, which is a gesture that has been connected with ritual (see above).Barry P. C. Molloy also points out that this gesture is found in figurines of boxers that are located on Minoan peak sanctuaries, and could be associated with physical combat and warriors.Given the context that the Harvester Vase is also a rhyton (used for libations and religious ceremonies), the association of the clenched fist with ritual makes more sense to me.

Another thing that I noticed recently was the clothing and the hair styles of the figures. Most of them are bald, wearing a cap or headband, and are bare-chested (sometimes exhibiting a keen attention to musculature and anatomy on part of the sculptor). However, the three figures who are singing (behind the man who is playing the sistrum) are wearing long robes, unlike the rest of the bare-chested marchers. Of course, these men still seem less significant than the large priest-like figure who seemingly marches in front of the procession, who has long hair and wears an elaborate tasseled garment.

Detail of Harvester Vase

Harvester Vase detail, c. 1500 BCE.

Detail of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession. c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

John Forsdykh argues that the one exception to the solemn procession is a man who has turned backwards to shout at a man who is stooping or stumbling. Forsdyke explains, “That man is usually said to be one of the harvesters who is fallen down in his drunkenness; but he has no forked implement and there is no reason to suppose that he is drunk.”7 Forsdyke, however provides no explanation for why the man is stooping. I’m not entirely convinced of the shouting exchange between the turned man and the stooping man either, since they are directly placed over the same vertical axis and there isn’t even a suggestion of eye contact between the two figures. Could the turned man be shouting orders or directions to the solemn, closed-mouth harvesters who stand directly next to him instead?

Perhaps we would get a better suggestion of what was happening in this vignette if we were able to see the whole vase. Maybe we would also get a better indication of why one of the men is either stooping or stumbling – did something on the ground trip him? Other people have also considered how our understanding of this vase is limited due to its incomplete state, too. For example, tn the early 20th century, a father and son artistic team (Emile Gilliéron Sr. and Emile Gilliéron Jr.) set out to to create an object which imagined the original appearance of the Harvester Vase. The Gilliérons specialized in creating reconstructions of antiquities for sale and were able to profit over the cultural interest in Minoan art following Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations. Unfortunately, though, I can only find one image of this Gilliéron vase (see below,) and it doesn’t include the scene with the stooping man, so I don’t know how they interpreted this vignette in the overall scene.

The Gillierons' restored version of the "Harvesters' Vase," early 20th century.

The Gillierons’ restored version of the “Harvesters’ Vase,” early 20th century.

I like this image of the Gilliéron restoration, though, because I like being prompted to think about the legs of the figures who would have been energetically marching in the procession. I’m even reminded how some of the curves and angles are made for practical purposes (such as how the tilt of the priest’s kilt is likely due to a raised leg in motion). It is common today to discuss how the Harvester Vase depicts a sense of dynamic energy and movement, but it’s easy to forget that the sense of movement that is only a portion of what would have been seen on the intact vase in antiquity!

1 For a synopsis on interpretations of the vase in relation to harvesting or sowing, see Wendy Logue, “Set in Stone: The Role of Relief-Carved Stone Vessels in Neopalation Minoan Elite Propaganda,” in The Annual of the British School at Athens 99, (2004): 165-166. Logue mentions that the long poles carried by the marchers were interpreted by Müller as harvesting tools for fruit in trees (such as olives), whereas Forsdyke proposed that this was a ritual that took place before sowing.

2 Barbara M. Soper, Ancient Rhytons, The Old World Archaeologist (Journal of the Old World Archaeological Study Unit) 24, no 3 (July 2004): 1. Available online: http://www.owasu.org/articles/rhytons.pdf

3  Peter Warren, Minoan Stone Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. Available online HERE.

4 Ibid.

5 Logue, p. 166.

6 Barry P. C. Molloy, “Martial Minoans? War As Social Process, Practice and Event in Bronze Age Crete,” from The Annual of the British School at Athens 107 (2012): 110.

7 John Forsdyke, “The ‘Harvester’ Vase of Hagia Triada,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17, no. 1/2 (1954): 2.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.