Saturday, June 1, 2013

Mosaic Masterpieces - Treasures of Roman North Africa

Triton in his Sea Chariot

For a writer of historical fiction, and for an historian, the museum is the place to go for research.

Not only can you learn a lot about people and places, you can also come face to face with the possessions of the people and places about which you are writing. You can interact with the items that decorated and served long-ago worlds – Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Carthage and Rome etc. etc.

In a museum, culture is frozen in time as a sort of gift to future generations, a window to peer through and better understand those who went before us.

I’ve been to a lot of museums in my travels, large and small, great and not-so-great. But there was
Hall of the old Bardo Museum
always something to be learned, something to take away with me that I could use in my writing.

This post, I wanted to touch on a particularly wonderful museum that I visited in Tunisia – The Bardo Museum in Tunis.

When I went to Tunisia to do research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, visiting Punic and Roman sites on the fringes of the Sahara was one of the biggest thrills of my travels.

When our 4x4 left the desert behind, I was disappointed to be back in the city. Tunis held none of the allure of the southern desert or the fertile green hills of central Tunisia. There were no ruined temples or amphitheatres, no mosaics or ancient streets as open to the sky, unsuffocated by modernity.

Ulysses on his Voyage
We pulled up outside a rather unassuming building and were told this was the ‘famous’ Bardo Museum. I probably rolled my eyes, remembered swaying palms and Saharan sand beneath my feet. I dreaded the dark building before me after so much perceived freedom.

I was so wrong. When we entered the Bardo, my eyes fell upon some of the most magnificent artistic creations I have ever seen.

The walls and floors were absolutely covered with myriad mosaics of such colour, such intricacy – I thought the images would jump right out at me.

And they were tucked away in this little museum that, up until that point, I had never heard mentioned
The 'Days' of the Week
by anyone at university or elsewhere.

I decided this week to look back over some of the photos I took at the museum and enjoyed revisiting those moments when I locked eyes with a tesseraed Triton or the striking statue of a Roman woman.

When I looked at the website for the Bardo Museum, I found that they have moved to a completely new, more spacious building. Here is the link where you can also take a virtual tour of the new Bardo.

The new museum is stunning but for me the mosaics still take centre stage.

A Hunting Scene (left) and
the Nine Muses (right)
What is amazing about these creations is that they were what decorated the homes of the people who inhabited the period about which I was writing.

The visual that these mosaics provided for me and my written world was priceless.

Suddenly, my characters’ homes no longer contained shabby dirt or terra cotta floors, or even plain marble. Triclinii, peristylii and atrii came to life with the mythological and natural scenes that decorated Roman homes.

But these mosaics at the Bardo, and elsewhere, do not only depict the religious or fanciful aspects of belief.

A Gladiator and a Lion in the Arena
More importantly to our knowledge, they depict the everyday activities of people ages ago. We see people hunting, fishing, tilling and bringing in the harvest. We see images of the food they ate, the sports they watched and the heroes they worshiped.

These mosaics tell us so much about a world that would otherwise be lost to us. Thanks to these masterpieces, we know more about the buildings they decorated and the importance placed upon particular rooms within private homes, public and religious spaces.

Champion Chariot Horses
When I stepped out of the Bardo Museum into the setting sunlight on a Tunis street, I felt as though I had been a guest at sumptuous banquet in someone’s home, far off on the edge of the Empire. This was not some flee-infested frontier region. No.

The Roman provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia yielded not only the oil, grain and garum upon which the Empire depended, but also artistic treasures that have left a mark on time.

At the Bardo Museum, you can walk among these treasured mosaics with many silent, sentinel statues as your fellow guests.

If you ever get the chance to visit this place, do so. You will not regret it, and the memory of what you see will linger with you for years to come. 
Gallery Statue

Floor to Ceiling Displays

The Poet Virgil

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