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“OPUS TESSELATUM” AND “OPUS SECTILE”: THE MOSAIC OF THE ROMAN DOMUS IN VIA VARRONE IN ASTI

There are several attestations to the existance of some Roman Domus that the ancient town of Asti passed down to us. These Domus in the Roman Age were the urban residences used by wealthy citizens, who chose for their houses still enviable comfort. The luxuries were combined with richly decorated locations: in fact the rooms could be embellished with frescoes on the walls and sometimes on the ceiling, while floors were covered with different and very pregiate techniques: “cocciopesto”, that means crock fragments, terracotta tiles, refined marble coverings called sectilia, mosaics. This last typology specifically is an image created pulling together small tiles of several materials, such as marble, stone, glass paste and shells, arranged to create particular figures.

Among the domus brought to light in Asti there is one which stands out for the rarity of its mosaic carpet: the Roman Domus located in Via Varrone. This house dates back to the I century A.D. and it is preserved in the basement of what later became the seat of a home for the elderly titled to Canuto Borelli, a famous painter from Asti.

The mosaic carpet of Asti measures 3 metres by 1,70 metres; it has a white background enriched with images of fishes, small branches and an inserting of round, rectangular and rhomboid figures in coloured marbles; moreover the figures in the middle are delimitated by a herringbone pattern and a plait frame.

This is a rare example in Piedmont of the use of two techniques applied by the Romans: the “opus tesselatum”, obtained using very small size tiles in stone and coloured marble, cut in a regular way, ad the “opus sectile”, an inlay created with polychrome marbles and semi-precious stones.

Mosaic art: the technique

If it is known that the Romans made extensive use of mosaic, little is known about the origins of this word and establishing with precision its provenance is not easy. In fact, man has always decorated in the most various ways both architectures and furnishings using colors and naturally coloured stones. The evidences of decorated floors inside buildings are already visible in a very ancient age in the Mediterranean area, but in Greece during the Classical Age and later among the Romans this technique will see greater diffusion and refining. Excluding the mistery of the name, there are more certain information about perfomance and technique, thanks to the many archeological finds and written attestations passed down to us. Plinio il Vecchio (a Roman writer lived in the I century A.D.) and Vitruvio (a Roman writer of architectural treatisers from the I century B.C.) explain that in order to create this kind of decorations it was necessary to arrange in sequence three different layers:

    • the “statumen”, a dry stone layer made of pebbles or lithic material of medium or big dimensions, put edgeways if possible, in order to guarantee water draining
    • the “rudus”, made of splinters of stone, lime and sand
    • the “nucleus”, a layer of cement composed of cocciopesto (crock fragments) and lime

After having finished the setting of these three layers, another one in cement was added; at last the tiles could be put on it, following a preparatory drawing. However, the archeological findings often show waivers to Vitruvio’s rudiments, very probably had to needs of customers, useful materials availability and geomorphologic features of the place.

Contemporary mosaic

Nowadays this ancient and refined technique is still used and, also thanks to the variety of new materials and colors available today, it represents an increasingly popular artistic expression, used for many contests and purposes as a mean to spread social and cultural messages.

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