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What Is a Roman Mosaic?

Seashells were one of the varied items used in Roman mosaics.
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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 June 2014
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Most people who love art would be horrified to know that a beautiful piece of artwork had been trampled on by dirty shoes or bare feet, but that was exactly what was done to one type of ancient art, the Roman mosaic. Many of the colorful and intricate designs on mosaics were installed on floors in homes or public places, although they have also been discovered on ceilings and walls. The Roman mosaic was created by skilled craftsmen who often worked in teams, with the most skilled worker creating or mapping out the design. The least skilled person worked on the plain white spaces that surround the mosaic design’s colorful details.

A Roman mosaic can be a simple geometric pattern or much more complicated, such as the Roman mosaics that depict gods and goddesses or other themes. The larger image depicted in a Roman mosaic is constructed of many small and differently colored pieces that were arranged precisely to make the desired picture. Roman artists used a variety of materials when making mosaics, including glass, gold leaf, seashells, pebbles and tiles, which were often made of terra cotta.

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Many ancient Roman mosaics have held up well over the centuries, especially the ones that were designed specifically to be walked on. Others, created as a decorative surface or adornment, have also survived to modern times. Some types of Roman mosaic had a job to do; for instance, a mosaic might have been installed on a shop’s wall to indicate what was sold there, such as fish. A public bath might have been adorned with a seahorse mosaic. Some mosaics were put at tomb sites, including tombs at the Vatican.

The small pieces that were carefully placed to create a mosaic are called tesserae. The pieces were varying sizes, even within the same design. Roman artists could create a mosaic faster if they used larger tesserae. Many of these creations were made for wealthy members of society, who could afford to pay for the amount of labor and skill that was required.

Roman craftsmen began to create mosaics after Greek artisans made their way to Italy, bringing the design form with them. The Romans spread the art form throughout their empire, as far away as the British Isles, where some examples remain to this day. In England, for example, a Roman mosaic was discovered in 1960, but later buried under a parking lot. Recognized as a valuable find, the mosaic has become the main attraction at a new museum, The Novium.

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