The impact of the size of this monumental mosaic is reinforced by the superb polychromatic sense conveyed by its tesserae which contribute to its very lively character. That polychromatic effect is further enhanced by the innovative depiction of cast shadows. The composition is divided into the two principal zones consisting of a square panel in the center surrounded on all sides by a framing element in the form of a frieze in which smaller figures are involved in activities associated with viniculture.
One’s attention is immediately arrested by the magnificent central rectangle; its visual impact is affected by the use of tesserae of myriad colors which contributes to its polychromatic explosion of visual effects. The composition is designed as two vignettes, artfully divided by the compositional use of the grape vine. On the right, two men stand face to face. The bearded figure on the right, who is wearing a short, gray-colored tunic, holds a charger onto which his companion places a bunch of grapes. His white tunic is masterfully ornamented. This group is captioned, under their feet, in Greek with the phrase, kaloi karpoi, the beautiful fruit.
The larger vignette depicts a second pair of figures, oriented at a ninety degree angle to the vignette just described. The larger of the two figures in this vignette is seated on a bough around which two vines are intertwined. He is shown wearing a short tunic, held in place at the right shoulder by a round fibula, or safety pin. There is a Greek inscription below this figure, eikarios, happy. He extends his left hand toward a figure wearing a red tunic, who presents him with vessel filled with wine.
Whereas some would interpret the seated figure as either a personification of the spirit of an individual who is “happy” because of the wine being offered in the covered vessel, others would see this individual as the owner of the villa and its vineyards. Whereas both interpretations may have merit, they overlook the fact that this composition, with its two pairs of figures, is in fact a mirror image of a subject attested in Room 27 of the Roman Imperial Villa at Casale, outside of Piazza Armerina, in Sicily. This mosaic depicts the famous episode in Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus and his men are trapped within the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant Cyclops. Odysseus, the undisputed master of all stratagems, concocts a plan whereby he offers wine to Polyphemus, who, never experiencing this delightful gift of Dionysos before in his life, becomes intoxicated and eventually passes out. Odysseus and his companions are then able to blind this giant and make their escape by clinging to the bellies of his flock.
The owner of the mosaic under discussion and the mosaicist must have collaborated on the choice of the subject matter and must have consciously referred to a now lost Hellenistic original of this particular episode of The Odyssey. The caption, Happy, beneath the seated figure in this vignette of the central panel alludes not to any individual figure, but to the felicitous state imparted to the drinker by the wine, which offers release from any number of circumstances, both real and imagined.
The mosaic now takes on added importance because it is the second, after the mosaic at Casale, known monumental reflection of what must be a now lost Hellenistic original painting. The transmission of this lost original may have been due to the use of pattern books, whose use is again suggested by the elements of the vignettes in this mosaic’s frieze with their reliance on Erotes which frame this central panel.
The design of that frieze framing the central panel is complex. It is divided into vignettes.
One begins with the frieze beneath the central rectangular panel. The leftmost female figure is doubtless to be identified as a Maenad, one of the many female celebrants of the rites of Dionysos who, intoxicated by the god’s wine, roam the rural mountainsides of the land in ecstatic frenzy. Her saffron-colored shawl falls around her legs, revealing her nude body which is wrapped in a floral garland and complements the ivy crown around her head. She holds a tambourine in her hands.
She is surrounded by two Erotes who appear to be flirting with her. The first of these, to the right, is nude except for a long, red mantle which is wrapped around his upper torso. In his right hand he is holding a thyrsus, the floral emblem associated with the rites of Dionysos. His head is crowned with a floral wreath. This figure moves to the right and turns his head backward, casting his gaze on the Maenad, while he grabs her by the hair. His companion, holding a thyrsus and a basket, is clothed in a white tunic, its pleats artfully depicted in red....
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