Artistry of Roman Mosaics at Getty Villa


The Getty Museum’s extensive collection of mosaics from various Mediterranean areas of the Roman empire has not been on display for some time. However, the new Roman Mosaics Across the Empire exhibit starting today, March 30, at the Getty Villa illustrates the vast reach of Roman influence, the artistry of the intricate mosaics and local nuances in the works from Gaul (Southern France) in the West to Syria in the East.

Hardwood floors may be in vogue now, but in ancient Roman times colorful mosaics were a standard way of decorating floors (and walls) to show wealth and luxury, whether in homes or important public buildings like the baths and temples. They depicted scenes from mythology, elements of daily life, local nature, and sporting events, such as boxing.

“This exhibition presents the largest and most impressive mosaics in the museum’s collection,“ according to the J. Paul Getty Museum’s director Timothy Potts, who noted that some are on view for the first time and others that have not been displayed for a decade. The exhibit includes 12 of the 21 pieces in their collection, along with some loans.

At the exhibit’s opening, Potts also commented that mosaics as a medium are not studied with the attention they deserve. So, this exhibit offers a rare Southern California opportunity to find out more about the work.

The Roman Mosaics Across the Empire exhibition displays the works in original contexts and by regions. Different rooms focus on the areas that are now Naples, Italy; Southern Turkey/Syria; Tunisia and Southern France.

One of the largest works depicts a bear hunt and was discovered in a vineyard near Naples in 1901. More than 20 panels measuring over 28-feet in length of the mosaic were acquired by the Getty Museum in 1971. According to assistant curator Alexis Belis, only half is on display because of its 16,000-pound weight, which made it too heavy for the floor to support. The walls around the substantial piece on the floor show images from the borders, two corner panels, and even adjoining images that have since been recovered and are in a Naples museum.


Another Getty Villa room shows works from the eastern end of the Roman Empire. This includes a mosaic dated to approximately AD 400 excavated from Antioch (currently Antakya, Turkey) in the 1930s. It shows birds nibbling on greenery and a rabbit eating grapes. This part of the exhibition also includes several animal-adorned church mosaics from Syria, including two striking works showing peacocks.

The section on the Gaul Region illustrates that area’s distinct artistic style that featured individual figures in a grid-like framework. Two mosaics from Villelaure, France, show the patron’s awareness of Roman literature. The first, on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shows Diana and Callisto in a scene from Metamorphoses by Ovid. The other depicts the boxing match in Aeneid by Virgil.

The Getty show also highlights the Bulla Regia archaeological site in Tunisia and work being done by the Getty Conservation Institute, Tunisia’s Institut National du Patrimoine along with the World Monuments Fund. Components of the effort include in situ conservation of the House of the Hunt, a private residence unearthed on the site, as well as a conservation plan for the nearly 400 hundred mosaics found there over the past century.

The J. Paul Getty Trust operates a variety of programs focused on art research, conservation, appreciation and more, including exhibitions in two locations: the Getty Center in West Los Angeles and the Getty Villa off Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. The Getty Villa will be displaying the artistry of the Roman Empire’s mosaics through Sept. 12, 2016. Admission is free but tickets are required for admission.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Exhibit preview March 29, 2016
The J. Paul Getty Museum: Roman Mosaics Across the Empire
Photo of Peacock Mosaics from Syria by Dyanne Weiss
Photo of Bear Hunt Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

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