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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:49

Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey from Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli

Video transcript

the ancient Roman Emperor Hadrian built a lavish villa near Tivoli and in the dining room there was a floor mosaic and we're looking at a fragment of that which shows two centaurs and three large cats and it's made of tiny pieces of natural stone that must have taken an enormous amount of patience to create especially if you consider that this is a small fragment of a very large floor mosaic these are tiny pieces of testimony and they're put together so that they really do create a sense of an image that can be read really clearly even though these are pieces of stone in fact these kinds of mosaics might give us an indication of what Greek painting looked like since so little Greek painting has come down to us we know from written accounts that the Greeks believed that their painting was their greatest art we generally think of ancient Greek sculpture or ancient Greek architecture or perhaps a vase painting but all of that according to the Greeks themselves paled in comparison to the work that they did on walls and yet and almost none of that survives so the mosaics are really valuable in giving us a sense of what the Greeks had been able to achieve what I love about this mosaic is the drama we have a scent or a mythical creature that's half man half horse and he's involved in this battle against these three wild cats and he raises his arms and is about to hurl a rock down at a tiger who's attacked another Center behind him is another Wildcat who's been felled probably a lion you'll notice that the center while he's about to hurl a rock the tiger down to his left looks up and a leopard who's about to attack him so we really have a sense of a split second in time it's true in fact if you look at the glances it's really interesting our eye first goes from the center to the tiger and we noticed that Tiger has just felled another Center the Tiger looks back at the center but the santoor doesn't look at the tiger the Centaurs eyes have been caught by the leopard he knows he's about to throw the large boulder which tells us about the strength of centaurs but also realizes that he's in real danger from that Leopard so this is kind of triangulation of the glances of the figures so that Center that we see in the center really expresses the physical strength but also a sense of worry and concern you know it's interesting my guess is that the Greeks and later the Romans might have identified more of the center then that the Wildcats usually when we see centaurs they're in battle with Greeks and the Greeks are those that we feel sympathy for that is they are the fully civilized whereas the Centaurs who are still half wild are the aggressors here that's reversed and our sympathy goes to the center or because of their human qualities even if they are still half of nature you know the Greeks and later the Romans really saw themselves as separate from the chaos of nature and here the center represents a kind of brutality but nothing compared to those cats and I think that's beautifully expressed by the emotion that we see in the centaurs face we really read that as a complex human emotion of worry and fear but also strength and yet the animals have no emotional depth and so I think you're right we were meant to identify with that figure of a cent or even though he's half animal and you'll notice the draped over his arm he's actually got the pelt of the leopard so there may be good reason for the leopards to be annoyed so you said that this might give us an idea of what ancient Greek painting looked like and in this mosaic we see what we see an ancient Greek sculpture which does survive and that is an interesting human anatomy and naturalism in fact if you look at the rendering of the center which is obviously an impossible creature it is so beautifully rendered that we almost believe that it's possible anatomically look at the way for instance the abdomen moves into the chest of the horse and we can imagine the way the backbone of both the animals sort of allied and become one there really is the sense of believability even in this impossible creature and we have a very realistic illusion of a rocky landscape for these figures to occupy the figure of the Fallen center on the left and the Fallen lion on the right are foreshortened helping to create this illusion of space look at the beautiful foreshortening in the still upright centre and the way in which the horses render sort of going back in space it's really we done and the fact that it's done in stone makes it even more impressive really a remarkable achievement and I would love to have seen this in its greater context in Hadrian's dining room in his palace