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Roman floor mosaics with violent scenes pack a punch at Getty Villa

Combat. Conflict. Life or death skirmishes. Brawling.

Judging from the admittedly small sample of nearly a dozen fragments of floor mosaics, several quite large, in a new exhibition at the Getty Villa, ancient Romans across the sprawling empire were pretty obsessed with the bloody violence necessary to sustaining their imperial position around the vast expanse of the Mediterranean.

One floor mosaic shows three hunters with staffs herding five fearsome bears into a giant net strung up between two trees. The beasts turn, growl and gnash their teeth.

Another displays the moment when a muscled and victorious boxer, having just taken out his equally muscled human opponent, lays flat a great horned bull — just in case anyone doubted his superior strength and power. A gash by the staggered bull's eye tells the tale, echoing the blood running from the vanquished boxer's head.

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A third features a lion chomping on the back of an onager — a wild ass — that has just been felled. The cat's big claws make a gory mess of things. The onager swivels his anguished head and meets the lion's ferocious gaze, while blood streams on the ground in a cluster of zigzag lines like jagged bolts of lightning.

Is it any wonder Roman soldiers applied the name onager to the mechanical catapult they used for besieging walled compounds? The recoil when the war machine was sprung reminded them of the wild beast's violent kick.

Here's the odd thing: Most of these rough and tumble floor mosaics of brutal combat were made as decorative embellishments for the lavish villas of the wealthy elite — an entrance hall, say, or a dining room. A couple were designed for more public sites, such as the baths that were part of regular leisure rituals and social contact.

Call it "conflict chic" — combative subject matter handsomely rendered in elaborate, expensive styles.

Mural-painted walls are one thing, but a durable stone floor is quite another. A mosaic, composed of thousands of small bits of hand-set stone and glass, is not easy to make. Nor is it inexpensive, nor easy to change.

At 28 feet wide — and then still just a fragment of the full floor — the bear hunt mosaic from a villa outside Naples, Italy, was plainly designed to impress. (The remainder of the mosaic is in Naples' National Archaeological Museum.) Tesserae — flat, irregularly shaped stone bits — are pieced together in shades of white, gray, pink, purple, ochre, umber and black to create a surprisingly nuanced drawing.

The action scene at the center is surrounded by tesserae fashioned as decorative braiding. There are also laurel festoons, various animals (real and imaginary), assorted fruits, some cupids and sizable ornamental heads backed by elaborate acanthus leaves at the corners, perhaps personifications of the four seasons. The fierce bear hunt is woven into cycles of nature and rituals of culture, all as lavish decoration.

Combat chic seems to have been a way for the wealthy elite to revel in — and show off — their worldly success. They have triumphed over life's harsh vicissitudes. Images of conflict are metaphors for the battles they or their families fought, and not just militarily, to get where they are. Put under foot, they adorn the very foundation of things.

Scholars are not certain, but the bear-hunt floor is thought to have come from an upscale civic bath house. Enjoy your relaxing visit, the Neapolitan bath décor would seem to say; you've earned it.

Perhaps that is why this particular type of Roman floor mosaic was especially attractive to industrialist Paul Getty, once the richest living American. All but two mosaics are from the museum's collection, and the founder himself acquired most of them. (The other two are on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and an unidentified private collection.) They range in date from the 2nd to the 6th century AD.

Getty purchased his first Roman floor in 1949. The roughly 15-foot-square mosaic features a bust of the fabled minstrel Orpheus in the center, framed and bordered by hexagons containing a variety of spellbound animals. It was sold by the estate of William Randolph Hearst. Getty, notably frugal, wouldn't need to pay much for its transfer from a nearby California collection.

Most, however, were acquired later — around 1970. Getty had by then decided to build a replica of a first-century Roman villa adjacent to his Pacific Palisades ranch-house museum. It would need floors.

Instead, most ended up in storage. Many are just now having their public premiere.

The show, organized by Getty assistant curator of antiquities Alexis Belis, is modest in numbers — just a thumbnail sketch of a far-flung artistic practice. The dozen fragmentary examples are traced to architectural settings in Gaul (southern France), North Africa and ancient Syria (including parts of modern Turkey), as well as Italy. An excellent online catalog, available at the museum's website, is filled with information about them, including their condition, bibliography and history prior to arriving in Los Angeles.

Not everything here could be characterized as combat chic, however.

For instance, a large, elegant pair of sinuous peacock designs, given to the museum by the late antiquities collector William Wahler when the Villa opened 40 years ago, is thought to have come from an early Christian church in Syria. St. Augustine, according to the catalog, noted the belief that a peacock's flesh was incorruptible.The flamboyant bird symbolized an achingly beautiful paradise.

But sometimes, a dazzling design of sophisticated stylishness absorbs ferocity into its sumptuous pattern. Perhaps the most viscerally stunning mosaic is on the catalog's cover — a delicately colored head of the Gorgon Medusa, she with the hairdo of writhing snakes. The monster could turn an enemy to stone with just a glance.

Medusa's bust is set within a medallion at the center of a dramatic, spiraling whorl of black and white triangles, a pulsing visual vortex that animates the twisting nest of snakes crowning her head. The circular design is like a shield.

Perhaps it's the one that Athena carried after the Gorgon was slain, with Medusa's still-powerful head attached to the shield's front for protection. Even severed, Medusa's head was a weapon. The chic mosaic is gorgeous.

Twitter: @knightlat

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'Roman Mosaics Across the Empire'

Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: Through Sept. 12. Closed Tuesdays.

Info: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 14, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Roman floor mosaics pack a punch - The pieces on display at Getty Villa hold striking scenes of violence and beauty. - ART REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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