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Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: In baseball, in soccer, sometimes sports announcers will look for the turning point of the game. And the scene that we're looking at-- a battle, not sport-- in fact, one of the most important battles in ancient history-- is at that particular turning point, the moment when the great ruler of Persia turns and flees under the onslaught of the great Greek general Alexander. BETH HARRIS: Darius, the king of the Persians, has just ordered his troops to retreat. STEVEN ZUCKER: So there's tremendous tension at this moment because we have this reversal of momentum. We can feel, still, the momentum that is moving in from the right because we can still see the Persian guards' spears facing towards the Greeks. But just at that moment, one of the largest objects in this mosaic, the chariot, is being spun around. And the tension and the torsion that's required for that is creating this tremendous sense of dynamism. BETH HARRIS: On the ground, we see the wounded and the dying. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of my favorite details is the reflection of one of the Persian soldiers in his own shield. BETH HARRIS: He's looking at himself fallen in battle, perhaps about to die. I think my favorite part is the horse that's part of the team leading Darius's chariot. Almost all four hoofs are off the ground. As it's being pulled toward the left, its head turns to the right. STEVEN ZUCKER: There is this almost frenetic quality to this image. BETH HARRIS: And you have a sense of confidence when you look at Alexander's face as he heads toward Darius. Darius looks fearful as he gestures toward Alexander. It looks to me as though Darius is almost pleading for the lives of his soldiers. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, there is a look both of surprise and worry and of seeking compassion. I think that that's exactly right. Alexander is known ultimately for his compassion, at least towards Darius's family. BETH HARRIS: And Alexander is the great Greek general, the founder of an enormous empire. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, that's right. He not only unifies Greece, but he will then move south into Egypt. He moves east into Persia, and he gets to the Indus Valley itself. So he puts under Greece's control an enormous area of the known world. And all of these details are rendered in tiny pieces of stone and glass. BETH HARRIS: So we're looking at a mosaic that we think is based on an ancient Greek painting. We hope it's based on an ancient Greek painting because almost nothing of ancient Greek painting survives. And Pliny talked about how amazing Greek painting was. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, it's true. When we think of Greek art, we think of Greek sculpture. We might think of Greek architecture. Perhaps we think of Greek vase painting. But you're absolutely right. In the ancient world, literature tells us that what the Greeks did better than anything was wall painting. We just don't have any. BETH HARRIS: So maybe this gives us some idea. STEVEN ZUCKER: But I do find it really interesting that the mosaic is almost empty at the top and is so much weighted down towards the bottom. Especially when we remember that this was based on a painting that would have been on a wall. And so this was intended to be seen vertically, at least initially. At least, that's our best guess. BETH HARRIS: Art historians link this mosaic to a literary description of an ancient Greek painting by an artist named Philoxenos. And in this literary source by Pliny, Philoxenos is said to have created a painting of the Battle of Alexander and Darius. STEVEN ZUCKER: But here's the problem. There were probably lots of paintings of that subject. BETH HARRIS: And we know for certain that there, for example, was a woman artist who painted this subject in ancient Greece, as well. STEVEN ZUCKER: This was an incredibly important confrontation between these two generals, between these two civilizations. I'm sure there were many more. BETH HARRIS: But this is what we have, and this is what was found. And we have it because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in '79, which preserved under a layer of volcanic ash the city of Pompeii. STEVEN ZUCKER: Including this mosaic. BETH HARRIS: This was found on the floor between two peristyles, that is, between two open courtyards that were surrounded by columns in the largest and most elaborately decorated mansion in Pompeii, often called the House of the Faun after a bronze sculpture of a faun that was found there. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the mosaic itself is of extraordinary quality. And so it's not surprising that we find it in such a lavish environment as the House of the Faun. There are apparently a million and a half pieces of stone and glass that make up this mosaic. BETH HARRIS: And the quality is not just in the fineness of the materials, but in the incredible naturalism of what we see here, which is what the ancient Greeks were known for. We have forms that, even with these tiny pieces of stone, we have a sense of modeling, of the use of light and dark to create a sense of three-dimensional forms. If we look at the horses or the faces of the figures, we see the turn of the face, the anatomy of the body. STEVEN ZUCKER: And look at the foreshortening of the animals-- for instance, of the horses. BETH HARRIS: That ancient Greek knowledge of the human body, of how it moves through space, is so clear here. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course, all of this speaks to the Romans' regard for the achievement of ancient Greek art. BETH HARRIS: Sometimes it seems as though everyone in Pompeii wanted to imitate the ancient Greeks, to own copies of ancient Greek sculptures, ancient Greek paintings. There was a real mania, as in Rome itself, for ancient Greek culture.