Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, Villa Reconstruction

This post relates to the mosaic made for the Roman Villa reconstruction at Wroxeter. Details of the programme are currently on the Channel 4 website here

If you’re not in the UK you can’t watch the programmes but you can go on the virtual tour. To see the mosaic click on ‘Triclineum’, click and hold and then move your mouse to move the picture round and you will be able to see some of the mosaic.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day – The Mosaic

What did I think of it? First things first, I think the guy who was responsible; Kevin was set up to fail. I would have been very surprised if he had pulled it off. Mosaic work, Roman or Contemporary is easy to learn, it’s not rocket science. You draw a line, put your adhesive on the line then put your tiles tesserae (tiles) on the adhesive. That’s it, how good you get is down to how many you do. To make a Roman mosaic floor of that size takes careful planning and experience, having someone looking over his shoulder would have made all the difference.

When you have a project that makes much of its authenticity and use of original methods and materials then it must expect to be reviewed by others with experience in those fields. You only need to look at the comments on the website to see how people take at face value what they see in these programmes.  Here then are the main points that I feel need highlighting, (with the caveat that we only see the final edited programme and I am looking at images from the programme and from the website, I’ve not been there in person);

  1. The materials, coloured clay was used for parts of mosaics in Britain, notably the red is cut up roof tile, pottery pieces. They made extensive use of local stone. Clay is not strong enough as a floor surface and if you colour it the colour needs to be part of the entire piece. Just colouring the outside doesn’t work as this will be worn away. He did though do very well in producing that amount of tesserae for the mosaic.
  2. The method, there is absolutely no hard evidence to say they prefabricated the mosaics on cloth. Cloth at that time would have been very valuable and not something to use for this sort of thing. We do have hard evidence that they scored marks/guidelines in the surface of the floor and set the tesserae direct.
  3. The Rules, andamento, whatever you want to call it. The Romans used a set of rules in every mosaic they made, that’s the reason you see a line of the background colour tesserae around every figure. This borderline rule is also seen in geometric mosaics. In parts of this mosaic you can see some attempt at a borderline but mostly it’s not apparent. These rules are why you can criticise a Roman mosaic but not contemporary mosaics. In modern works there are no rules.
  4. The central motif, a bull’s head had the background made using what looked to be white Carrara marble. This is a pure white marble (it appears slightly grey on the programme which is how it appears when it is wet). When we talk of a white background we mean off white. Pure white is very rarely seen in a Roman mosaic as it is a very ‘flat’ colour. The stone of choice is something like Botticino, a marble with a very slight shade variance. It is this variance which gives the impression of depth.

It’s a real shame this ended up like this. I do not hold, as has been said that there are examples of Roman mosaics that are this rough. If there are I’ve not seen them. As I mentioned right at the start the chap who landed this job did not appear to have any real professional back up so you cannot hold him responsible. You only have to look at the example of the timber framing, the carpenter had problems with it and rightly or wrongly (in my opinion wrongly) he was removed from the project. And then they got in a professional timber framing company to do the rest. If they had had a professional guiding him for that part of the project maybe they would have pointed out earlier that it’s a job that is not possible for one man using hand tools.

It’s not being precious about this work but I think we owe it to the original craftsmen to make a bit more effort if we’re going to make these reconstructions.


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