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

Video transcript
(lighthearted music) Man: 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. Woman: It's made of tiny pieces of natural stone that must have taken an enormous amount of patience to create. Man: Especially if you consider that this is a small fragment of the very large floor mosaic. These are tiny pieces of [tessoroy], 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 thing of ancient Greek sculpture or ancient Greek architecture, or perhaps of 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, almost none of that survives. So, the mosaic's really valuable in giving us the sense of what the Greeks had been able to achieve. Woman: What I love about this mosaic is the drama. We have a centaur, 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 centaur. Behind him is another wild cat who's been felled. Man: Probably a lion. Woman: You'll notice that the centaur, while he's about to hurl a rock at the tiger down to his left, looks up at a leopard who's about to attack him. We really have a sense of a split second in time. Man: It's true, in fact, if you look at the glances, it's really interesting, our eye first goes from the centaur to the tiger, and we notice the tiger has just felled another centaur. The tiger looks back at the centaur, but the centaur doesn't look at the tiger; the centaur's 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. This is triangulation of the glances of the figures. Woman: That centaur that we see in the center really expresses physical strength, but also a sense of worry and concern. Man: It's interesting, my guess is that the Greeks, and later the Romans, might have identified more with the centaur than the wild cats. 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 centaur because of their human qualities, even if they are still half of nature. The Greeks, and later the Romans, really saw themselves as separate from the chaos of nature, and here the centaur represents a brutality, but nothing compared to those cats. Woman: I think that's beautifully expressed by the emotion that we see in this centaur's 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. I thin you're right, we're meant to identify with that figure of a centaur, even though he's half animal. Man: You'll notice that draped over his arm he's actually got the pelt of a leopard; so there may be good reason for the leopards to be annoyed. Woman: 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 in ancient Greek sculpture, which does survive; and that is an interesting human anatomy and naturalism. Man: In fact, if you look at the rendering of the centaur, 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 that the backbone of both the animals allied and become one. There really is this sense of believability, even in this impossible creature. Woman: We have a very realistic illusion of a rocky landscape for these figures to occupy. The figure of the fallen centaur on the left, and the fallen lion on the right, are foreshortened, helping to create this illusion of space. Man: Look at the beautiful foreshortening in the still upright centaur, and the way in which the horse is rendered, sort of going back in space. It's really beautifully done, and the fact that it's done in stone makes it even more impressive. Woman: It's a really remarkable achievement. Man: I would love to have seen this in its greater context, in Hadrian's dining room in his palace. (lighthearted music)