The use of mosaics is one of the hallmarks of finer homes and businesses of the Greco-Roman world. Mosaics are made by laying small stones called tesserae into a matrix of mortar. Mosaics were most commonly used as floor surfaces, although they were sometimes used on walls as well, especially in the later periods. Floor mosaics were often relatively simple geometric designs, sometimes using just a few colors.
Mosaic floor at the House of Geometric Mosaics at Pompeii, 1st century AD; photo by Todd Bolen.
Sometimes, if the owner could afford it, mosaic floors depicted other things, such as scenes from mythology, historical events, or other things. Sometimes an owner would commission a mosaic of a dog at an entrance to the house. One is even accompanied by a brief inscription, “Beware of the dog!”
Mosaic of a dog, with the inscription, “Beware of the dog!” From the House of the Tragic Poet at Pompeii, 1st century AD; photo by Todd Bolen.
The small stones or tessarae used in the typical floor mosaic were about an inch square, or roughly the size of playing dice. One of the finest mosaics ever found comes from the so-called Villa of Cicero near Pompeii. It depicts three street musicians wearing masks, each playing an instrument (double flute, finger cymbals, and a hand drum) while a youth looks on from the left side.
Mosaic of street musicians, from the Villa of Cicero at Pompeii, 1st century AD; photo by Kris Udd.
What makes this mosaic one of the finest of the Roman world is not only its beautiful use of shape, color, and action, but also its size. The entire mosaic measures about 16 x 17 inches and is made with minute tesserae, in a technique called opus vermiculatum. None of the stones are larger than 1/10th of an inch on a side, about the size of the end of a wooden matchstick. Many of the finer details are made with tesserae smaller than 1 mm (0.04 in) on a side.
Detail of the mosaic of the street musicians showing the minute size of the tesserae; photo by Kris Udd.
It is little wonder that the artist who created this wonderful scene signed his work. At the upper left corner is the inscription, “Dioskourides of Samos made it” (Gk. ΔΙΟΣΚΟΥΡΙΔΗΣ ΣΑΜΙΟΣ ΕΠΟΙΗΣΕ).
Signature of the mosaicist on the street musicians mosaic; photo by Kris Udd
This is not the only mosaic from this area that was made with such tiny tesserae. The mosaic below depicts a scene in which a male figure, perhaps representing a water god, pours out water from an amphora. The mosaic was recovered from Herculaneum. Although not so fine as the mosaic of the street musicians, it is also made of tiny tesserae and is a masterpiece of mosaic art.
Opus vermiculatum mosaic with a personification of the waters, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD; photo by Kris Udd.
These mosaics were photographed at the Naples Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.