What makes a Roman floor mosaic? Why is it different to Contemporary work?

October 7, 2010

The following is my professional opinion, and is what I work to here.
If you look at a mosaic which is labelled as ‘Roman’ what is it about it that makes this distinction? Well there are 2 stages to this;
1. The use of the Rules
2. The use of cut stone tesserae of slightly differing sizes.
1. The use of the Rules or Andamento, these govern the way in which the patterns and forms are set. The borderline of background tesserae used around figures is the most easily spotted. Without the application of this rule to a figural mosaic it will become a piece of modern work (and I don’t know of any figure mosaic from Antiquity which was set without this).
Take this to its extreme and you can have 2 people copying a Roman pattern. A 10 year old child using pieces of coloured card next to an artist creating a mosaic using stone tiles (tesserae) and Pozzolan (Roman cement) but without applying any of the Rules and the child would have the most authentic Roman mosaic.
2. Once you are applying the Rules the next stage it to use stone. Some floor mosaics had pieces of coloured glass in them, some (particularly in Roman Britain) utilised cut up roof tile or pottery for the red colours but 99% of the material used was natural stone.
There is a skill to matching colours particularly in figural/portrait work but the main skill you need to acquire is to be able to with tesserae that may be all of the same average size but every piece is slightly different in its overall size, (please refer to my article on backgrounds).
So, 2 areas, the first is you need to apply the Rules in setting your mosaic, next you need to be able to use individually cut tesserae. Using wholly machine cut stone cubes (i.e. every face is 10mm x 10mm) is a different thing all together and it is very difficult to lose the straight edges.

Lawrence Payne



Roman Mosaics, What is Their Relevance to Contemporary Mosaic Work?

March 7, 2010

What is the relevance of Roman mosaics to Contemporary work, is there anything to be gained by studying them?
To answer that we need to look at what it is that makes them so unique in Art History.
Roman mosaicists were all trained to follow what is sometimes refered to as Andamento or what I call ‘The Rules’. There were about 8 rules which applied to the way in which the stones (tesserae) were set, the most obvious of these being the Borderline rule. This is the line of tesserae you see around any figure, animal or human and are the same colour as the background tesserae. This rule can also be seen used in geometric mosaics. The object is, where 2 colours meet, to avoid 2 lines of triangles being set against each other. This creates a sharp line which disrupts the ‘flow’ of the tesserae. By setting a line of background tesserae around the figure then you pull away the triangular tesserae  which fill the gaps where you have horizontal lines meeting a diagonal line. 

In just one example we see how they were aware of how to avoid certain disruptive effects in the way the tesserae were set.
Now apply this to modern mosaic work, if you wish to create a sharp line then with the knowledge of this rule you know what the visual effect if you break it.