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Ancient Roman Mosaics and Frescoes

Rome, Italy

While Roman buildings were solid, no-nonsense designs, they were also beautifully decorated. Mosaics were a Roman forté and a favorite art form, and frescoes give a delightful and often intimate peek at Roman lives.

Complete Video Script

[58, art and artifacts mostly from National Archaeological Museum, Naples; Capitoline Museums, Rome; Vatican Museums, Rome] While we often think of Roman art as grandiose, it was also intimate, especially when it decorated ancient homes. The wealthy covered their floors in what became a Roman specialty — mosaics. These are made from thousands of small colorful stone tiles laboriously pressed into wet cement.

[59] The Romans took mosaic-making to the level of fine art. At first glance these pictures look like paintings, but they're actually exquisite micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny, pixel-like chips of stone and glass. Notice the natural poses, shading, perspective. This is the Roman realism that would inspire Renaissance artists over a thousand years later in Florence.

[60, KoKo Mosaico workshop, Ravenna, Italy] And this art form is timeless. From ancient times until modern, artists have made delightful mosaics. The art of mosaic-making is still alive and well. The process is much the same today as in ancient Roman times. Minerals are baked into glass to make a rainbow of colors. The colored glass and gold leaf pieces are broken with a hammer, then artfully set in wet cement. The results: beautiful today as they were in the days of Caesar.

[61, Paintings and statues mostly from Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome; Capitoline Museums, Rome; National Archaeological Museum, Naples; Pompeii Archaeological Park; Ostia Antica Archaeological Park] Romans also decorated their homes with colorful frescoes, giving them a creative outlet to celebrate things they valued. They added depth — believable 3-D — to make it more realistic…again, typical of the artistic skills that would be lost with the fall of Rome and not rediscovered until the Renaissance, centuries later. These delightful surviving frescoes bring color to our image of daily life back then. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living in parallel with the gods, so these domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology. And this painted garden — once wallpapering a Roman villa — showed an appreciation for nature while creating an atmosphere of serenity.

[62] In their everyday lives, Romans enjoyed the finer things. From exquisite jewelry to this delicate golden hairnet, we can only marvel at lifestyles of the rich and Roman. [63] While centuries earlier, the Greeks idealized — with each goddess a classic beauty — the Romans added their own characteristic twist: realism…more down-to-earth, showing an intimate side of everyday Roman life. They decorated their homes with often-whimsical statues and fountains.