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Mosaico pavimentale con gladiatori e cacciatori

Roman art

This polychrome mosaic panel depicts two different scenes. In the first, on the left, seven men face a large bull; six are fallen, wounded in the clash, while the seventh, also wounded, has taken hold of the animal. On the right, two warriors clash with a group of animals that includes a bull, an ostrich, an elk and a deer. The man in the foreground runs a spear through a lion. The figures’ clothing is highly detailed, and the action takes place against a white background. This mosaic, found along with four others of similar size and two smaller ones, must have originally decorated the floor of a cryptoporticus in a suburban villa that was excavated in 1834 in the Borghese estate at Torrenova, along Via Casilina. The excavations were carried out for the prince Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. The panels depict hunting scenes (venationes) and gladiator combat (munera), in keeping with the custom of displaying self-celebratory imagery in the domus. Numerous studies have dated the mosaic to between the third and fourth centuries CE.

Object details

3rd-4th century A.D.
marble tesserae
5681 x 2156 cm

Unearthed in 1834 during excavations in a hamlet of Torrenova, along Via Casilina. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • XIX secolo- zone bianche di fondo lungo i lati della composizione e in alto a sinistra dove alcune figure sono rimaste mutilate.
  • 1908 R. Lazzari
  • 1926 C. Fossi
  • 1960 P. Saltelli
  • 1989 Consorzio ARKE'
  • 2020/2021 Istituto Centrale del Restauro: progetto scientifico di diagnostica e di restauro.


This mosaic, along with four others of similar size and two smaller ones, came from a large villa discovered on the Borghese estate in a hamlet in Torrenova, in an area called Vermicino-Quarto della Giostra, on Via Casilina. The excavations were carried out in 1834 for the prince Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. According to Luigi Canina, it ‘was used to ennoble the floor in a cryptoporticus or a closed portico, arranged along one side of the innermost peristyle of the above-mentioned ancient villa. The mosaic covered an area measuring about 140 palmi long and 12 wide, and the room seems to have been built for this express purpose. Two thirds of the mosaic were found in good condition, and the remaining part was missing. It was divided into five panels framed by a meander motif, also mosaic in two simple hues’ (Canina 1834, pp. 193–194).

The mosaics therefore must have decorated a cryptoporticus, originally about forty-five metres long, that ran around the peristyle of a suburban villa in ancient Rome. All that remains of the original mosaic is the portion with figures, measuring a total of 27.9 metres long, while the meander frames are lost. The composition is presented as a single narrative frieze, showing multiple moments of a single episode. The final scenes of gladiator combat, munera, and the hunt, venationes, are shown against a white background, and the names of many of the figures are indicated alongside them.

The mosaics, divided into rectangular panels and removed using the strappo method, were sent to Rome and kept, until 1839, in the Casino dell’Orologio, where they were restored by Gaetano Ruspi and Filippo Scaccia (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, busta 347, fascicolo 6). They were then moved to the Salone, where Giuseppe Santalmassi made drawings and engravings of them. The restoration did not affect the uniformity of the scene, and the small lacunae, probably caused by the detachment, are for the most part found in the white background. There are, however, a few figures with some losses.

The present panel, displayed in the middle of the Salone, depicts two distinct scenes against a white background, with brown strips representing the ground upon which the action takes place and shading lending depth to the figures. In one scene, a group of fallen, wounded men are attacked by a bull; in the other, a hunt, two hunters are clashing with a group of animals. In the scene on the left, seven figures, arranged on parallel planes, surround a bull held by a bleeding man. The figures are shown in the midst of falling or having already fallen and wear green tunics with black clavi. On the right, the venator Sabatius, wearing a tunic decorated with orbiculi, clashes with a large brown bull. Behind the animal we see an ostrich and an elk; below it, a male deer has fallen to the ground. In the foreground, a second venator runs a lion through with a spear. Two further figures, one beneath the belly of the lion and one behind Sabatius, only the sleeve of whom survives, are difficult to interpret.

Numerous studies have been devoted to the Borghese mosaic since its discovery. In an article published by Luigi Canina in 1834, the scholar advanced the theory that the floor mosaic had already been discovered in the seventeenth century. According to Canina, the name of the location, Quatro della Giostra, derived from the term used at the time for combat against animals. Luigi Rocchetti, who published one of the first exhaustive studies on the mosaics in 1961, noted that the hunters in the present panel are portrayed in a more summary way compared to the more detailed, portrait-like rendering of the gladiators in the other panels, raising doubts about the unity of the work. As for the clothing, Rocchetti notes that the punched orbiculi decorating the tunic of the hunter clashing with the lion are similar to those of the wild boar hunter in a mosaic in Piazza Armerina from the fourth century CE. The scholar also observes that the curly hair of the hunter Sabatius and that of one of the fallen men in the group on the left, in single locks, is almost identical to that of the figures in the largitio relief on the Arch of Constantine. Turning to epigraphy, he notes that the handling of some of the letters, like the ‘A’, with a horizontal stroke that sticks out on the right, confirms the dating between the third and fourth centuries. Onomastic analysis points to the same period: the cult of Sabatius, a god of Thracian origin, was widespread in Rome in the third century CE, along with that of Dea Caelestis, as attested in numerous surviving epigraphs (Guarducci 1946-1948, pp. 11–25; Cordischi 1990, pp. 193–200). Finally, the scholar advanced the theory that two different artisans worked on the mosaic, thus explaining the discrepancies between the gladiator and hunting scenes.

The theme of gladiator combat in mosaics spread through the provinces of the Roman Empire in isolated images in panels within complex decorative compositions and, in Africa, in more complicated programmes treated as a narrative frieze. In Italy, examples are rare and for the most part concentrated in homes from the late Antonine period, when the domus became a site for the self-celebration of the dominus, or master of the house, extolling his prestige and virtues. In the Satyricon, Petronius writes of frescoes with gladiator scenes in the home of the freedman Trimalchio, and so already in the first century CE.

There are numerous exemplars in Rome from private contexts. One example is a polychrome mosaic with hunting scenes found on the Aventine Hill and dated to the fourth century CE. The mosaic, structured as a single episode, would have decorated a state room in a domus (Blake 1940, p. 118, pl. 30).

The emblema type is represented by two mosaics unearthed on Via Appia and now in the archaeological museum of Madrid. All that remains of the first, discovered in 1720 near the church of Quo Vadis, are two polychrome pictures of quadrigas, while the figures of the gladiators are known only through two paintings in the Eton collection. These fragments must have been from a large floor decoration divided into squares, inside a space in a funerary monument. The second, of which all that remains are two polychrome figured emblemata, must have decorated the walls of the baths in a vast building discovered in 1670 in the Orto del Carciofolo, outside Porta Capena.

In the absence of information about the context in which it was discovered, save for Luigi Canina’s publication, the Borghese mosaic can be dated to between the third and fourth centuries CE, based primarily on stylistic analysis.

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008368, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020