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Floor Mosaic with Personification of a Female Sea Divinity

Roman art

This mosaic, displayed in Room 7 with two others with marine subjects, seems to have been part of the elaborate floor of a Roman villa found in the eighteenth century on the Borghese estate at Castell’Arcione, on Via Tiburtina. It depicts a female face, rendered in bright hues, on a black background. Plant elements are interspersed among the short locks of hair, which hang down on the neck. The left part of the face, which is turned slightly to the right, seems to be in shadow. The absence of distinguishing characteristics makes it difficult to identify the figure: it could be a personification of a season, or a divinity from a marine thiasos, like a Nereid. The black background and irregular size of the tesserae suggest that the mosaic dates to the third century CE.

Object details

III secolo d.C.
marble tesserae
105 x 105 cm; tesserae 0,5-6

According to Blake, this mosaic might have come from the same location as the mosaics in Room 5, which were found on the Borghese estate at Castell’Arcione in the eighteenth century (Blake 1940, p. 117; Visconti, Lamberti 1796, p. 38). Documented for the first time in the villa by Visconti (1796, p. 74). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • Interventi nel collo, nei capelli, nella corona vegetale intorno al capo e sul fondo nero. La cornice è moderna.
  • 1989 Consorzio ARKE'


This mosaic depicts the face of a young woman against a black background. Her head is slightly turned to the right, and her hair, described with red, brown, green and grey tesserae, is parted in the middle and arranged in short, unruly locks that hang down on her neck, extending beyond it. Plant elements, which can be interpreted as reeds, are interspersed throughout her hair. Her complexion is lively in hue and highlighted with a combination of red and yellow tesserae, with pink cheeks. The left side of her face seems to be slightly in shadow, expressed with tesserae in a darker hue. Her features are well defined, with tidy brown eyebrows, her gaze turned to the right and a slightly open, full mouth.

A lack of clear attributes makes it difficult to identify the figure. According to Marion Elizabeth Blake, it is a portrayal of a water nymph with reeds in her hair (Blake 1940, p. 107), while Raissa Calza instead saw it as a personification of a season (Calza 1957, p. 19, no. 219). Two other emblemata in Room 7 depict sea divinities and seem to have come from the same location, suggesting that this figure was also part of the marine thiasos and probably a Nereid. Nereids, the numerous daughters of the god Nereus, were portrayed as young, benevolent sea maidens. Blake held that the three panels were part of a single, complex mosaic, along with the two of fishing scenes inserted into the floor in Room 5 (Blake 1940, p. 117). The latter decorated a Roman villa found in the eighteenth century on the Borghese estate at Castell’Arcione, on Via Tiburtina (Visconti, Lamberti 1796, p. 38; Mari 1983, pp. 250–251, 258-260; Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 345). The three panels with sea divinities were inserted into the floor of the Sala Egizia when the residence underwent a major renovation in the eighteenth century, a project led by the architect Antonio Asprucci (Visconti, Lamberti 1796, p. 74). According to the archaeologist, the black background and irregular size of the tesserae suggest that the panel was influenced by Hellenistic mosaics, which first began to spread in Italy in the third century CE, the period to which the Borghese mosaic can be dated.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • L. Lamberti, E.Q. Visconti, Sculture del palazzo della Villa Borghese detta Pinciana, II, Roma 1796, p.74.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p.117.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p.22.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 923.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p.26.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 43.
  • G. Giusti, La Galerie Borghèse et la Ville Humbert Première à Rome, Roma 1904, p.32.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1935, p. 17.
  • M. E. Blake, Mosaics of the Late Empire in Rome and Vicinity, “Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome”, 1940, pp. 107, tav. 23, 2.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 21.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 19, n. 219.
  • W. Helbig, H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (4°Edizione), a cura di H. Speier, II, Tübingen 1966, p. 743, n. 1993 (Parlasca).
  • P. Arizzoli Clèmentel, Charles Percier et la salle égyp1enne de la Ville Borghese, in G. Brunel, Piranése et les francais. Colloques tenus a la Ville Mèdicis 12 -14 mai 1976, Roma 1978, pp. 1 – 32.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e la Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 20.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 102,fig. a p. 93.
  • Z. Mari, Forma Italiae, Regio I Volumen XVII, Tibur, Pars Tertia, Firenze 1983, pp. 250-251, n. 290; pp. 258-260.
  • E. Moscetti, Proposta di un Parco archeologico-naturale in Guidonia Montecelio, in “Atti e memorie della Società Tiburtina di Storia e Arte, 2, vol. LXIV, 1991, pp. 139-179, in particolare p. 163, n. 46.
  • K. Werner, Mosaiken aus Rom. Polychrome Mosaikpavimente und Emblemata aus Rom und Umgebung, Würzburg 1994, p. 225, K 95.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese: la collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 247-248, n. 238.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008531, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.