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From an Ancient Mosaic, Proof That Women's Bonds Are Ageless


It isn't always the great walls and grand canyons that stay with you after a trip. Sometimes it's a detail, like the delicate taste of pigeon pie in Morocco, the wild opinions of a New York City cabdriver or an artwork in a museum that no one stops at but you.

In the National Archeological Museum of Naples last fall, I stopped, transfixed, by a mosaic taken from a Roman villa outside the walls of Pompeii, dating to about 100 BC. The mosaic, made of mortar and tiny colored cubes called tesserae, depicts three matronly women talking animatedly as they sit on cushioned banquettes around a round table. The women in the mosaic are in period dress and have wine goblets at hand, but they seem a timeless coffee klatch, like any three modern women complaining about their children and husbands, which is what's so transcendent about them.

Their unvarnished looks impressed me too. All three are plump; the one on the right has white hair and the face of a hag. Here at last, I thought in amazement as I looked at the Naples mosaic, were real women from the age of Julius Caesar instead of the beautiful nymphs, Venuses and Cleopatras that seem all too ubiquitous in ancient art.

The coffee klatch mosaic, which my museum guidebook called "small and refined," is only one of the treasures in the extraordinary National Archeological Museum. Many of the artworks there were taken from excavations southeast of the city, like those at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were covered in ash, rubble and mud and thus preserved by the destructive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the summer of AD 79. For travelers who go to the Bay of Naples region to see the ruins of Pompeii, the Naples museum is a must because so much art and bric-a-brac from Pompeii are there.

Around the corner from the mosaic collection is the "secret room," crowded with erotic paintings, sculptures and mosaics that decorated the bedchambers of Roman houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the centuries before the great Vesuvian eruption. And near the mosaic of the three women is a large, breathtakingly dynamic panel made up of about 4 million tesserae from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, depicting a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.

The workmanship of mosaics like these is so detailed and expressive that you can easily mistake them for paintings until you get up close. The tesserae in such works are sometimes just an eighth of an inch across, according to D.J. Smith's essay on mosaics in "A Handbook of Roman Art," edited by Martin Henig (Phaidon Press, 1995). Smith says that creating the mosaics "would have been extremely time-consuming ... demanding the most gifted and skilled craftsmen."

Craftswomen, with their nimble fingers, would have excelled at work with the little tesserae, I imagine. But my coffee klatch mosaic was signed (in Greek) by Dioskourides of Samos, a man who did another outstanding mosaic of street performers that was found in the Villa of Cicero at Pompeii. Both are copies of Greek paintings from the 3rd century BC. As I later learned, the towns and villas on the flanks of Mt. Vesuvius were full of art inspired by the Greeks, who remained the taste makers during the Roman Empire.

After discovering the coffee klatch mosaic, I went to Pompeii, a 45-minute train ride southeast of Naples. I had limited time, so I didn't get a chance to see the Villa of Cicero, which is just outside the northwest gate. But I wandered, enchanted, through the town where time stopped 2,000 years ago, across the forum, into the baths and to the House of the Tragic Poet, with its intact floor mosaic of a fearsome dog guarding the door.

To sample the marvels of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, Southern Californians needn't go far from home. The Getty Center in West Los Angeles has a fresco fragment on display from the Bay of Naples region, I'm told by Karol Wight, a curator for antiquities. The Getty Villa in Malibu, now closed for remodeling but anticipated to reopen in 2003, is a re-creation of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, you'll find Roman glass, jewelry and the bronze leg of a couch from the same period as the coffee klatch mosaic, said Nancy Thomas, LACMA's curator of ancient art.

Wight and Thomas consulted art history books to help me learn about the coffee klatch mosaic, which, it turns out, isn't a coffee klatch at all. The three women are masked players in a comedy called "The Ladies at Luncheon" by Menander, a Greek playwright who was born in 342 BC and is credited with bringing a measure of realism to the ancient stage.

I went to the Los Angeles Public Library, where I found a small, worn volume of Menander's plays. Unfortunately, "The Ladies at Luncheon" exists in so fragmentary a form that it's impossible to tell what the play is about or who the women in the mosaic are. But one line struck me: "Life in the nature of things is thrice wretched and distressful and is filled with many cares."

So even if the women in the House of Cicero mosaic are actors in ugly masks, they're griping, which is what I tend to do with my girlfriends. I've taped a postcard of the mosaic to my computer monitor. The image reminds me that ancient Pompeii isn't really all that far away.

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