Nile mosaic (Barberini mosaic) from the Sanctuary of Fortuna at Praeneste, Italy. Dated to the last quarter of the second century BCE.
After today’s lecture, I did a little digging on the Nile mosaics from Praeneste(modern Palestrina, Italy). The most famous, for both its size and its quality, is the Barberini mosaic, pictured here. It is so called because it was removed from the complex in the 17th century by the Barberini family (and has suffered subsequently!). It was located in a complex of structures behind the forum at Praeneste and below the terraces of the great Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia.
View of the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, Italy. The sanctuary dates to the second century BCE.
The mosaic was on the apse, the curved ceiling, at one end of a hall in this lower complex of the Sanctuary. The apse is described by Dunbabin as ‘grotto-like’ (1999: 49), and “in its original setting, water seeping through the rock would have covered the surface [of the mosaic], enhancing the effect of fluidity” (Dunbabin 1999: 50-51). How cool is that, that the very materiality of the mosaic’s presentation was self-referential?
The composition of the mosaic is not just a highlight of scenes from Egyptian life, but even reflects contemporary conventions of displaying the cardinal directions from a birds’-eye view, with south at the top as was the custom in ancient maps (Meyboom 1995: 43). While a varying number of interpretations of the mosaic have been set forth (and you can read about them in more detail in the sources I’ve provided, below), it is generally agreed that there are two distinct parts to the mosaic: the upper part depicting (surprise!) Upper Egypt and the Nile’s origins in the heartland of Africa, and the lower part various scenes of Lower Egypt and the Delta.
In the upper part a mountainous landscape is populated by Ethiopians hunting, and by a variety of exotic animals, most identified by their names in Greek. In the lower half, the water spreads out widely to suggest the NIle at the time of its annual flood, celebrated in Egypt with great festivities. Islands above the surface of the water support various buildings, among them a typical Egyptian temple, its entrance flanked by pylons, and a temple in Greek style, with white-robed priests, obelisks, and a round well probably meant for a Nilometer… the water between is full of boats: the small curved boats of the peasants made of bundles of papyrus, and larger merchant-ships, while a hunting party in a more luxurious vessel attacks a group of crocodiles and hippopotamus… Finally two scenes at the bottom show an open-air drinking party beside the water under a pergola [projecting roof or arbor], suggesting the luxurious life of the Delta, and a temple in its enclosure among trees. In front of the temple, under an awning, a group of soldiers assembles, while to one side a procession of priests approaches through a kiosk, carrying a sacred object (Dunbabin 1999: 50).
Detail of the top center of the Barberini mosaic: Pygmies fighting cranes, and two fantastic animals (including the nabous, a word, transcribed by Pliny and translated as the Ethiopian term for giraffe, otherwise known only to this mosaic.)
Detail of the bottom left of the Barberini mosaic, depicting a drinking party next to the waters of the Nile in the Delta, under a pergola, a projecting roof or arbor.
The mosaic depicts a different form of Nilometer than the one I showed you in Wednesday’s lecture: this one, being round, resembles other Nilometers that have been discovered archaeologically.
Detail of the round well probably meant for a Nilometer in the scenes from Lower Egypt in the Barberini mosaic.
Excavated round Nilometer, dating to the New Kingdom.
If you want to read up more on the Barberini/Nile Mosaic, I’d start here:
If you have access to artstor.org (which you should, through the Rockefeller Library), you can find good detail images of the mosaic.
NOTA BENE: If you want to pursue the notion of Egypt as a watery place, I encourage you to check out the recent article “Searching for the Venice of the Nile
” from the New Scientist,
which describes archaeologist Angus Graham and the Egypt Exploration Society of London’s recent attempts to uncover whether the Karnak temple complex was really on an island in the middle of the Nile, instead of situated on the riverbank as previously assumed. They are asking questions such as “If the waterways existed, did they operate all year round or just during flood season? Were they also used to transport supplies, including the immense stones used to build the temples?” to make sense of the landscape as a whole, including both sides of the Nile and the relationship with the ancient capital at Thebes.