Why Roman mosaics, what is the fascination in them? I don't really know myself. I had been working as a nurse and something rekindled an interest in classical history that I had had when a child. I started reading books again on Greece and Rome and watching whatever came up on the tv.
Then one night I was watching one on the mosaics found at Zeugma in Turkey. There was one particular scene where they had brushed away the final layer of dirt from one mosaic and were wiping it over with water. The colours of the stone became bright again for the first time in nearly 2,000 years and the whole piece came back to life (this was later named the mosaic of Pasiphae and Daedalus). I knew then I had to know how this work was done, it was just so very clear, the path was set.
In April of 2002 I got a place on a short course at the Mosaic Art School in Ravenna run my Luciana Notturni, one of the few master restorers in the world and, at that time, the only school teaching the skills for creating copies of ancient classical mosaics. I returned there on a further two occasions to ensure I had taken in as much as I could.
At the school I was taught The Rules, the way of setting the tesserae that every Roman mosaicist applied and which can be seen in every mosaic across the Roman world. We used a process called the Ravenna Method, a way to make piece for piece copies. You match the shape and size of each individual tesserae to the originals and match colours as closely as possible. This is a way that teaches to a lot as you are literally being guided by their hands to make a copy as close as possible to the original. What I kept wanting to know though was, what did they see when they started their work? With the bare floor in front of them how did they begin and then continue for each floor?
I learnt about the evidence of etched lines and sinopia (painted lines) and took to heart what Luciana taught me on my first week at the school;
'Mosaics are easy, there are no advanced techniques, how good you get is down to how many you do'.
So I worked, I cut, I practiced; figures, patterns, always looking for good photos to use to copy from. I stopped doing piece for piece work and just used templates to copy from, trying to work out how to complete the mosaics from the barest of outlines. The more I did the more I began to build a picture in my head of what the mosaic was, what I wanted it to be.
One day I read of a mosaic that was lifted from a site and they found guidelines underneath that were for a bird. For some reason they switched what the mosaic was going to be and, without guidelines the mosaicist set the figure. To me it seemed obvious that the mosaicist had become that familiar with his craft that he was able to work freehand.
I began to notice other discrepancies with figures, some seemed to be disproportioned, even misshapen. These were small things that you would not really notice until you looked carefully. How could this be if they had the guidelines worked out before setting? It was the same with the geometric patterns, some of those were out of sync with the rest. Once again I asked myself, if they had the pattern etched or used sinopia how could this have occured?
By that time I had done a lot of these mosaics (though nowhere near as much as any Roman mosaicist!) and sometimes I was finding it quicker to ignore the drawing out I had done and go with the picture in my head. With the geometric patterns I found I was just looking for certain points and once I had established where they needed to be the rest of the pattern fell into place.
From all this I made a change not just in the way I worked but in the way I looked at the work. On the wall in my workshop I wrote a quote from a Japanese Zen monk called Basho,
'Do not seek to copy the ancients, instead seek what they sought'.
This made so much sense to me and it is a quote that continue to inspire me to this day. It is about trying to see the work and create what they would create.
I started to work in a much freer way but still seeing it as a job, a craft rather than an art. Am I 100% correct? I don't know, but it makes sense to me from spending so long doing this work. I do know that you have to work in a certain way so you can continue on a mosaic for the entire day and still maintain the same standard at the end of the day as at the beginning. From this came my Method of Work, a set of principles that I use and teach alongside the Rules.
Even after 16 years of doing this I continue to look at the ancient mosaics for those small details that can tell us so much about those workers and give us a glimpse into their world.
I hope you have found this interesting enough to prompt you to look a little closer and to draw your own conclusions. Thank you for your time!
PS If you would like to see the program on the Zeugma mosaics then here is the link. If you want to jump to 33:30 and that is the part that started it all off for me. Even after all this time it still moves me. https://youtu.be/HkluUBePzNc