Saturday, 28 June 2014

A mosaic montage part 2 - Bignor Roman villa

This is the second of three posts looking at the mosaics at some of the sites I visited on a recent trip to southern England.  The first was about Fishbourne Palace and can be seen here.  This time, its Bignor Roman villa in the spotlight.

Bignor is an independently managed site, fascinatingly still owned and operated by the descendants of the man who discovered the villa in 1811 - George Tupper, who began showing visitors around the site as early as 1814.  Bignor, then, is as old a heritage attraction as you'll find anywhere.

The development of the site is fairly typical for this type of rural complex.  There is some evidence of later 1st Century occupation, but the first substantial stone building on the site wasn't constructed until the 3rd Century.  This was rebuilt and expanded upon during the later 3rd and 4th Centuries until it reached its peak as a full courtyard villa -  a central garden enclosed by suites of rooms on all sides.

The first mosaic that George Tupper discovered was one of the finest in the entire complex, and one of two tessellated pavements that Bignor is now most famous for - the Ganymede pavement.  Believed to be the floor of a dining room, the pavement features a roundel with the boy Ganymede being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle (more of that story in a moment), with a hexagonal piscina to the side, itself surrounded by 6 maenads.

Ganymede was a Trojan shepherd who, because of his beauty, was abducted by Jupiter to become the cup bearer of the gods.  Jupiter did this in the form of an eagle (just one of Jupiter's many animal disguises), and the scene here shows Ganymede being lifted away, and he almost seems to be waving goodbye to his mortal life.  Ganymede has become a symbol for homosexual love, particularly that between an older man and a younger boy - something rather prevalent in the classical world.  The reference to drinking and merriment is continued with the inclusion of the dancing maenads around the piscina - they were the female followers of Bacchus, god of wine and revelry.  The subject of the mosaic would definitely suggest that the room was intended to be used for eating, drinking and the entertaining of guests.

Ganymede is a common and easily identifiable character in classical art.  Just for the sake of it, here he is in a photo I took at Naples Museum, sharing an intimate gaze with Jupiter.

Bignor's other superstar mosaic is the 'Venus and the Gladiators' pavement, probably the floor of a winter dining room, built as it was over a hypocaust.  

The collapse of the main section of the mosaic, which provides a wonderful view of the hypocaust structure, has sadly made it difficult to interpret the floor as a whole, as the crucial central image has been completely lost.

The mosaic contains a great variety of imagery, but it is the apse at one end that gives it its name, bearing as it does a portrait of a female in a roundel, with a long panel beneath featuring cupids acting as gladiators.  The female portrait is most commonly associated with Venus, but the identification is not entirely secure, and definite attributes of the goddess are lacking.  It remains a possibility that the figure is in fact mortal.

The panel with the cupids stands as one of the most recognisable and characterful elements of any surviving mosaic in Britain.  A series of scenes portray the story of a gladiatorial contest between a retiarius (a net man) and a heavily armoured secutor. The final scene shows that the secutor emerged the victor.

Aside from these two outstanding keynotes, the villa possesses a wonderful array of other pavements, including one that may possibly bear a maker's name (the letters 'TER' above a dolphin perhaps being short for Terentius) and an amazingly long corridor mosaic, currently the longest on display in Britain (though the now lost corridor from Greetwell villa, just east of Lincoln is just one that is believed from drawings to have been even longer).

Away from the main building, though originally part of another wing of the house, can be seen the slight remains of the bath house and yet another mosaic, this time a Medusa with wonderfully wavy snakes in her hair.  As this was situated in the changing rooms, I wonder if people avoided treading on her to avoid bad luck?

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