Guess who's coming to dinner

skull and Level
Skull and Level, a spectacular memento mori from Pompeii, 1st century, Naples Museum.
This and the skeletons below are thought to be emblema, the central panels of decorative mosaic flooring
found in Roman dining rooms.

An interpretation of the Skull and Level is animated at the very beginning of the opening credits
to HBO's Rome from a few years ago

know thyself mosaic
skeleton with scythe, the inscription "gnothi seauton"— know thyself—is in Greek.
Roman, circa 1st century.
Interestingly, the skeleton reclines very much like a Roman dinner guest.
carpe diem mosaic, naples museum
skeleton with wine jugs, Naples Museum — a two-for-one carpe diem and memento mori.
Love this guy.
restored fragment of unswept floor from Aquileia. image: mosaico ravenna
More mosaics, more unswept floor:
The previous post introduced the asaroton or unswept floor decoration that cropped up periodically in ancient Roman dining rooms. The debris-strewn look— trompe l'oeil
mosaic food scraps, fish heads and the occasional animal gnawing on banquet remnants— remained a popular conceit for centuries. Explaining this motif as a sort of display of wealth (as it commonly seems to be in my cursory investigations) seems rather facile to me. If bourgeois ostentation is the goal why not simply create a mosaic larder heaped with edible riches that guests can trample on their way in to eating even more bounty?

A reader, Mosaicos La Pasera, commented:
I recall reading about the unswept floors in an article that explained the remnants of food on the floor represented and offering to the ancestors within the household.
There may be the germ of something there. I read somewhere about the GREEKS who didnt sweep crumbs because they were "offerings" for the fallen (heroes/warriors). Also there was a type of Roman slave whose specific task was to sweep the food detritus on the floor, but I cant now find reference to it. Perhaps the asaroton was a way of venerating ancestors, fallen heroes and the like without, you know, making the place reek. Although I have yet to find a backstory that rings true on this, one thing is certain—the Ancients definitely had a way with wit and whimsy. 

Memento mori: Another, mordant, take on Roman home decor: the memento mori. The term of course refers to that broad theme of art which crossed many genres, the purpose of which was to nag people "remember you will die." I associated the motif more with the self-denying, bummer obsession of medieval to early 19th century Christianity, but evidently it turns up rather jauntily in pagan times. These mosaics are thought to be the emblema or central panels from decorative flooring in Roman dining rooms.

The "Skull and Level" at top is absolutely riveting both in its look as well as complexity of symbolism. As described on the web site of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence:
....its naturalistic depiction of a skull and the tools of a mason, expresses allegorically the transience of life and the impending nature of death. It is the libella, the level, from which hangs the plumb-line—the instrument that serves to control the levelling of a construction- that symbolises all equality. From its ends hang in perfect equilibrium the symbols of power: the sceptre and royal purple on the left, and on the right, the sack and the stick, symbols of poverty...
Note that the skull sits atop a wheel (of Fortune!) and a butterfly, signifying the soul...
---> WOW. //

Also, take a look at an early post of mine on memento mori in fashion advertising.


unswept and unwelcome

Trompe l'oeil debris was a popular Roman and Hellenistic mosaic theme for dining rooms floors.
Discarded fish and fruit: fragment of
an asaraton, or unswept floor mosaic from Aquileia.
detail of a 5th century floor mosaic of a Roman triclinium (dining room) which itself features
an unswept floor mosaic
the entire banquet scene shows the asaraton floor design — or does it?
Mosaic on display at Chateau de Boudry
asaroton signed by Heraklitos, from Vigna Lupi, Rome, 2nd century, in the Vatican Museum
photo by magistrahf
detail of Heraklitos mosaic above, Vatican Museum
mouse and walnut— look at the shadows!
chicken foot on the floor!

"Have" (a variant of "Ave" meaning “Hail”) is a charming mosaic greeting at the entrance to
the House of the Faun, Pompeii
Much more common, it seems, was the Cave Canem/Beware of the Dog entry hall mosaic
A popular sort of "unwelcome mat".
This well-known example is from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.
(or asarotos oikos, "unswept room") is a great term I discovered regarding ancient Roman and Hellenistic mosaic work. The word is Greek but it was a common Roman genre in which the floor of the triclinium, or dining room, would be decorated with food scraps seemingly cast onto the ground from the very dining tables at which guests would be seated. The realistically modelled debris included fish bones, snails, shrimp heads, fruit rinds, nutshells, and the occasional vermin.

The fascinating room scene
at top is believed to be from a 5th century dining room floor. It shows an actual dinner in progress with an asaroton floor design in the room—OR does it show a dinner with a very messy bunch of people who have actually thrown their food on the floor? Its quite a "meta" take on the style.

The first explanation of the asaroton comes from Pliny (c.77-79 AD) describing a notable work in Pergamon, probably from the 2nd century BC:

The most famous in that genre was Sosos who laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or unswept room, because on the pavement were represented the débris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tesserae of many colours. - Pliny, Natural History
So from the 2nd century BC they were still doing the unswept thing in the 5th century AD. Obviously interior design trends cycled more slowly then.

Just about everyone is familiar with the cave canem dog mosaic shown above, from Pompeii. I hadnt realized how commonplace these snarling decorative canines were. I also hadnt realized that the dogs one was to cave are thought to be the Molossus, an ancient breed now extinct. The dogs were eponymously named for the Molossians, a tribal people from Northwestern Greece and what is now lower Albania. Molossian shepherds of Epirus in the mountains of northwestern Greece were renowned for vicious hounds which were used to guard their flocks and for hunting. The Molossus is considered to be the ancestor of today's Mastiff-type dogs and ostensibly contributed to the development of powerful modern breeds such as the St. Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Rottweiler, Great Dane, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog... I have to say I'm a little dubious because these mosaic doggies seem rather too sleek and jackal-like to be "vicious guard hounds."

The Ancients had quite a sense of humor—who knows maybe these are the equivalent of pink garden flamingos. //

See next mosaic post on memento mori at (or under) the table.


age 12-14: a playlist

REPOST with updates:
In a burst of self-revelatory earnestness I will begin by admitting that until very recently I didn't listen to music that often. I'm not sure why. Many people come home at the end of a day and reflexively turn on the stereo (or load the files), I turn on the tv or look at my email in silence. Occasionally I'd get in a phase where I'd check out some new jangly, folky noodlings online... but then that passed. But lately I've been thinking about songs I haven't heard in years...

There was a certain span of time–junior high/high school–when music was more than important to me, it was desperately
critical. It was one of the first ways I found to define myself. From the day I brought a Sex Pistols fan magazine with me to 7th grade English class I discovered I was not like everybody else. Not in a “shocking” Heather Has Two Mommies way, or in an obvious Black Boy way, but, in that Bay City Rollers moment of a tiny private school in an upper middle class neighborhood in a stultifying outer borough, I felt undeniably 'other'. I may not have looked all that different (this was before I cut my hair and discovered black, a go-to color for the next 25 years or so) but this studious only child of two teachers from Queens identified with rebellion in Thatcherite England! I understood 'the dole' and 'council housing' — literally, if not socio-economically. I wanted spikey hair and bondage pants and Doc Martens. Even if I hadn't been completely at a loss as to where one would find bondage pants in Forest Hills in 1979, they would likely have caused a problem with the dress code at my school. America didn't understand me! and Queens was beyond the borders of civilization. I didn't belong here. I developed a barely concealed disdain for, and dismay at, all that was around me.
I cherish that and carry it with me to this day.

I spent a while unearthing the songs that meant something when
I was (I am convinced) the only kid in Kew Gardens, Queens, listening to, in no particular order:

Wire Dot Dash  (audio only)
I utterly fell in love with this singer's voice

Sex Pistols Sod Save the Queen
Rotten was a brilliantly drawn character–
feral, Dickensian. I never got tired of him.

Sex Pistols Holidays in the Sun
Trying to find really decent footage of them is like looking for videos of Big Foot.
Live in Dallas 1978.

Stiff Little Fingers Alternative Ulster
Never got into the band, just loved this song. Music to kick chairs by. 
Gang of Four Damaged Goods
   (audio only)
Essence Rare
is better but I couldn't find a clip. Though they're British, their sound, in retrospect, reminds me of NY art scene music.

Clash Tommy Gun (audio only)

this is where I came in-- second album. Then I got the first, both US and UK versions. I stopped with London Calling.

The Undertones Jimmy, Jimmy 
I saw them when they opened for the Clash at the Palladium, when this cover photo was taken. Impressed? I had to go with my 20-something year old cousin as a chaperone because nobody I knew was interested...

Undertones Jump Boys (audio only)


Jacques-Henri Lartigue, liberating moments

Gerda at Hendaye, 1937
Bichonnade leaping, 1905 (taken when Lartigue was 11)
Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, 1911
Zissou (Lartigue's brother), 1911
Zissou in his ZYX 24, 1910
Renee with driving goggles, 1930-31
Lartigue's first wife Bibi at Marseilles, 1928. It looks like she's on her mobile.
my cat Zizi, June, 1904
Above, below and bottom, the exquisite Renee Perle, Lartigue's Romanian muse/girlfriend
Sala, Biarritz, August, 1918

Suzy Vernon, 1926
Reneé, Eden Roc, August, 1931
Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894–1986) was born near Paris into a wealthy and cultured family—the younger of two sons of a financier. He began taking photographs in 1901 at age 7 when his father gave him his own camera— a less than child-friendly 13 x 18" affair on a wooden tripod. "I know very well that many, many things are going to ask me to have their pictures taken," JH wrote in his journal at the time, "and I will take them all!"

For years his subject matter was his own life and the almost impossibly gilded and giddy activities in it. He photographed his friends and family leaping, tumbling, and careering on soapbox racers, he documented automobile races, the beach, flying machines, and devastatingly elegant women. He was able to effortlessly seize a moment— capture liberation.
World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi occupation of France, and so on), yet he does not focus on such conflicts. On the contrary; he seeks to portray innocence, spontaneity and the joy of being alive.

More Information: http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=11&int_new=45484#.UCEbVERXtuU[/url]
Copyright © artdaily.org

World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi occupation of France, and so on), yet he does not focus on such conflicts. On the contrary; he seeks to portray innocence, spontaneity and the joy of being alive.

More Information: http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=11&int_new=45484#.UCEbVERXtuU[/url]
Copyright © artdaily.org
Lartigue did not serve in World War I— he was in art school for painting at the time— and he never had to sell or exhibit any of his work to make a living. He was photographing at a time of social and political shattering: world war, Russian revolution, rise of Nazism -yet his images exist in another plane altogether: luminous, fleeting, buoyant, "madcap." One could conceivably find him, and his world, insufferable, hermetically removed and frivolous but somehow I dont feel that at all. He was self-taught, a skilled hobbyist actually. He photographed 'what he loved at that moment' and in that way he was an amateur in the truest sense.//
Lartigue was virtually unknown professionally, or in the US at all, until 1963, when he was already 69 years old. With an exhibition at MOMA and article in Life magazine that year came a flood of books, commissions and recognition...by then visual sensibility had caught up with Lartigue's photography.//

The director Wes Anderson is a fan and has incorporated a note of Lartigue fantasy, as well as actual Lartigue photos, in his films.


seen around town

Brassai, Kiki and her accordionist, c early 1930s
Thanks to Sabato for the ID on this image:
"Dans un bar de Pigalle en 1938 un "apache" et sa protégée." © Émile Savitry courtesy Sophie Malexis  
A lot earlier than I thought. she's pretty racy!
William Glackens, Aperitif, 1927
Nan Goldin, Kathleen at Bowery Bar, 1995
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927
John Sloan, McSorley's back room, 1912
Robert Doisneau, Mlle Anita, 1951
William Glackens, Chez Mouquin, 1906
Anders Petersen, at Cafe Lehmitz (series), 1967-70
John Sloan, Saturday at Renganeschi's, 1912
Hopper, Soir Bleu, 1914
Degas, Absinthe Drinkers, 1876

Nancy Cunard in 1928
Otto Dix, To Beauty (self-portrait in a brothel), 1922
Thanks to Willc for identifying this painting.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...