Sunday, October 25, 2020

Opus sectile mosaic techniques restored in the Renaissance as pietre dure

 The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida will open its newly renovated galleries to the public on October 27.  Among the items now on display include a 3400 pound carved marble sarcophagus probably from Roman Syria featuring a reclining couple surrounded by Erotes and smaller animal figures.  The piece is on loan from a private collection.  The museum also displays a 2200-year-old bronze head of Dionysus, also on long-term loan to the museum from a private collector.

The newly designed "Jade Room"  features jade, serpentine and obsidian works including masks, figurines, and a segmented crown from the  Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica.

Although not ancient, a piece I found particularly interesting is a 17th century pietre dure commissioned by the Medici family that was once part of the decor of a Medici villa outside Florence, Italy.  Pietre dure is an intricate process in which colored marbles and other stones are cut into thin sheets and assembled on a support to create a decorative composition. The technique reminded me very much of the 4th century CE Roman opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by the nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline Hill that I saw at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. 

 Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design. The earliest examples have been found in Egypt and Asia Minor. The floor of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, built during late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE featured a opus sectile floor. Hadrian's Villa, 2nd century CE, featured opus sectile floor inlays as well. Fragments of a vegetal design from the 2nd century CE, resembling portions of the Medici work, were found in the villa of Lucius Verus in Acquatraversa.  

The popularity of opus sectile decoration continued in Rome through the 6th century CE, and decorated floors in a number of Byzantine churches. Particularly remarkable are a series of fourth-century CE panels in glass opus sectile, found in a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece.  Excavated in the 1960s, these mosaics include scenes of famous authors like Homer and Plato, scenes of Nilotic landscapes, harbor-front cities and geometric panels. 

For more information on the St. Petersburg, Florida exhibit:

Medici family-commissioned 17th century pietre dure at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg Florida, courtesy of the museum.

Opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus at the Palazzo Massimo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen. 

Opus sectile representing the head of the god "Sol", Roman, early 3rd century CE from the Mithraeum discovered under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome now in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jean-Pol Grandmont.

Glass opus sectile mosaic of a temple scene from a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece 500 CE at the Isthmia Archaeological Museum courtesy of Jona Lendering,

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