My mother was desperate to see the Bardo museum. Naively, I used to think it was something to do with Brigitte Bardot; not so! She made two thwarted attempts to visit the museum at great cost. Why the fascination in the Bardo Museum, Tunisia? It contains the largest collection of mosaics in the world including the famous mosaic representing Virgil, the poet.
Just before she died, I bought a book on the Bardo hoping to find out why she so wanted to visit; her interest was in mosaic hunting scenes. Indeed this is a wonderful repository of images but since the rather dreadful attack on tourists in the museum in 2015, I suspect their footfall has dwindled. That aside, what excites me is the range of colours of the marble found in these mosaics. Not all the mosaics in the Museum are from Tunis of course. Have you visited this museum?
For this post, I want to focus on one detailed area of the Ulysses mosaic found in the House of Ulysses. This depicts part of the story of the Odyssey. This one was found in Dougga, 60 miles inland from the sea, situated in the wheat-growing belt. Although the settlement of Dougga is much older; the mosaic is 4th century. Dougga was taken over by the Romans; there was a building boom and families competed to commission grand building projects. The whole mosaic shows three different methods of fishing; can you think of three different types that would be used in ancient times? I can only imagine that the commissioner of the piece must have a lot of connections with the sea.
Now, let’s unravel this piece. There is a lot going on in this mosaic. We have a wooden boat with a design of a figure head embedded within the structure. The prow of the boat seems to show a squid impaled by spears. Inside the boat are people and we also can see people in the sea too. Are they people?
We have Bacchus in the middle of the boat wearing a blue tunic or dress; this isn’t the portrayal of Bacchus, god of the grape harvest, we are familiar with. (The Romans and Greeks confusingly had different names for the same god; he is also called Dionysus) What a pity Bacchus has lost his head; what it does do though is let us look and search to decipher the story. At his feet is a big cat of some sort eating or attacking something. I believe the cat is a leopard as Bacchus is often represented with that animal. What is the leopard doing though?
Pirates have attacked the boat and Bacchus has expelled them in to the water, the figures form a serpentine composition to the main subject. The men (pirates) are metamorphosed in to dolphins. The water is changing their body. Once in the water the tesserae turn blue. (blue in marble mosaics is often lapis lazuli) The leopard has caught the pirate by the feet, as he dives in to the water, the head and the rest of his body has transformed already.
Who is the large man to the right? He is the companion to Bacchus, Silenus; a satyr often depicted with beard and cloven feet. He has eaten well and is over seeing the scene but seems to be touching Bacchus or reaching for more food – it looks like a speared lobster?
What attracted me to this piece rather than the more popular Ulysses mosaic, was the octopus. At first glance you see that it is out of the water, but the scholar, Chris Knutson states that the zigzag forms are a crude representation of waves. The octopus has tiny little eyes with different coloured marble. The andamento roughly follows the muscles of the figures to help the viewer understand the scene. Then you have this bold pattern on the rim of the boat; this helps the viewer understand the differentiation of activity. Imagine if that wasn’t there, it would be hard to decipher. Do you see another animal in the boat? What do you think it is?