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Floor Mosaic with Personification of a Sea Divinity

Roman art

This mosaic, displayed in the floor of Room 7 along with two similar ones of sea divinities, seems to be from a vast mosaic floor that would have decorated a room in a large Roman villa discovered in the eighteenth century on the Borghese estate at Castell’Arcione, along Via Tiburtina. The figure, which is heavily restored, is difficult to interpret: it might be a figure from the marine thiasos or a depiction of Nereus. It portrays the face of an older man, his head encircled by a garland of leaves. His short locks of hair merge with his thick beard, which is divided in two at the bottom. The figure’s melancholic, resigned expression is emphasised by the shape of his eyes and grim look. Based on stylistic analysis, the emblema might date to the third century.

Object details

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

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 an older bearded man against a black background within a modern frame. He has greyish-blond hair and wears a garland of grey-green leaves on his head, similar in hue to the colouring of his beard, which is divided into two large locks at the bottom. His face is worn, with hollow cheeks, a flat nose and slightly open mouth. His eyes, which are slightly slanted downward, seem to have a sad expression. The portrait seems to express the melancholic sadness of old age. The fragmentary nature of the mosaic, which has also been heavily restored, makes it different to interpret. The presence in Room 7 of two other emblemata with sea divinities from the same site suggests that the mosaic portrays a figure from the marine thiasos or Nereus. The god is in fact depicted in the sources as an old sage. In Hesiod, we read: ‘And Sea begat Nereus, the eldest of his children, who is true and lies not’ (Hesiod, Theogony 233–235).

According to Marion Elizabeth Blake, the three mosaics were part of a large floor decoration along with two fishing scenes now in the floor of 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 room when the residence underwent a major renovation in the late eighteenth century, a project led by the architect Antonio Asprucci (Visconti, Lamberti 1796, p. 74). Blake also advanced the theory, based largely on the use of a black, contrasting background and the irregular size of the tesserae, that the panels recall Hellenistic mosaic production, which first came to Italy in the third century CE, the period to which we can date the mosaic (Blake 1940, p. 107).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • E. Q. Visconti, L. Lamberti, 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.