AIA Lecture: Art, Archaeology, and Advanced Technology: The Alexander Mosaic at Pompeii

John Dobbins
Swallow Hall 101

John Dobbins (Professor, Emeritus, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia)  specializes in ancient Roman art, archaeology, architecture and urbanism. Since the 1990s he has been the Director of the Pompeii Forum Project, an internationally known interdisciplinary project that has been rewriting the history of the forum in Pompeii.  His 2007 co-edited book, The World of Pompeii, treats all aspects of Pompeian life.  Many of his specialized articles pertain to the forum at Pompeii.  Professor Dobbins is also a student of the houses and mosaics of Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), the capital of the Roman province of Syria.  His chapter in Antioch: The Lost Ancient City deals with domestic architecture and mosaic pavements. For more information about his work click here

ABSTRACT: The Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii is perhaps the most famous mosaic that has survived from antiquity.  In its present location in the National Museum in Naples it is mounted on a wall, well lighted, and easy to see.  This lecture addresses the ancient viewing conditions that existed in the House of the Faun.  The mosaic was located in an impressive space, the Alexander exedra, that was framed by Corinthian pilasters and screened by two Corinthian columns on pedestals.  We begin with two fundamental questions: (1) How visible was the Alexander exedra? ; (2) How well could a person see the mosaic?  This second question is crucial.  The pavement is famous for its detail.  Surely looking at the mosaic and seeing the detail was part of the desired effect, part of the discovery, and part of the pleasure.  In order to recognize that the mosaic is a tour de force of craftsmanship a viewer needed to see it.

The current condition of the House of the Faun does not permit us to address the two questions just asked.  Enter advanced technology!  Working with the speaker on these issues is Ethan Gruber who made a 3D model of the house that included a lighting package set for the year 100 BCE, the generally accepted approximate date for the mosaic.  The model reveals that the columns of the first peristyle almost completely obscured the features of the Alexander exedra.  This is anomalous because in Roman architecture important spaces are typically announced in clear and prominent ways.  Regarding lighting, the model reveals that the high sun at the summer solstice could not have penetrated the portico and would not have entered the exedra.  The low sun at the winter solstice was no better.  Bright light entered the exedra and illuminated the Alexander Mosaic, but four columns of the peristyle and two of the exedra cast six long dark shadows across the mosaic.  The resulting intense chiaroscuro renders the mosaic nearly illegible.

The remainder of the presentation solves this double conundrum, but this abstract does not want to reveal those details!

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

John J. Dobbins and Ethan Gruber, “Modeling Hypotheses in Pompeian Archaeology:

The House of the Faun,” in F. Contreras, et al. eds., Fusion of Cultures.  Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, Granada, Spain, April 2010 (Archaeopress, Oxford, 2013) 77-84.

Marco Merola, “Alexander, Piece by Piece,” Archaeology 59:1 January/February 2006 discusses the copy of the Alexander Mosaic that was installed in the House of the Faun.

Ada Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic: stories of victory and defeat, Cambridge, 1997.

Reception at 5:00pm 

Lecture at 5:30pm

This lecture is cohosted by the Central Missouri AIA society and the Department of Ancient Mediterranean Studies.  Free and open to the public.