Preserving Tunisian Treasures

Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa
by Aicha Ben Abed, translated by S. Grevet
Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2006, 140 pp., 136 color illus.
$29.95 (paperback)
Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa
by Aicha Ben Abed
Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute and Museum with the Institut National du Patrimoine, Tunisia, 2006, 200 pp., 140 color illus.
$75 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Steven Fine
Mosaic pavements have been preserved at sites across the Roman Empire, from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Syrian Desert in the east. The preservation of floor mosaics has been facilitated by the fact that they are naturally low to the ground, and so likely to withstand the ravages of time far better than wall paintings or monumental architecture. In addition, mosaics are made of materials that are usually not easily reused for another purpose, so they have seldom been disassembled solely for their stone content. Like those in many areas of the Mediterranean world, the mosaics of Tunisia have another factor favoring their preservation: the depopulation of many formerly urbanized areas of North Africa that left these artifacts untouched for more than 1,500 years.

The two volumes under review are the result of a conservation project carried out by the National Institute of Cultural Heritage, Tunisia, and the Getty Conservation Center in Los Angeles. Both books appeared in conjunction with a major exhibit at the Getty Villa in Malibu of Roman North African mosaics.

Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa is a lavish tour of the Tunisian mosaics by Aicha Ben Abed, the director of monuments and sites at the National Institute of Cultural Heritage, Tunisia, one of the world’s leading experts on the mosaics of Roman Africa. Although this volume has the appearance of a tourist souvenir book, it is far more. The author sets her survey of mosaic art in Roman Africa against the background of the overwhelming cost and complexity of conserving and preserving the vast number of mosaics found in Tunisia. She writes: “Today Tunisia is confronting the challenges of preserving and presenting these treasures of universal art. Since these works are obviously quite fragile, the international scientific community is involved in an ongoing and multifaceted effort to save these priceless traces of the past.”

I found the chapter on “Mosaics in Their Original Settings” of particular interest. Here one can imagine the rooms that these mosaics decorated; treating them as the floor coverings they were, rather than the mounted wall hangings they sometimes become in museum settings.

Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa is the more scholarly volume of the two. Beautifully produced and eminently readable, this volume includes eight well-illustrated essays by leading scholars in the field. Articles cover the early development of mosaics; landscapes and scenes of daily life; beliefs, gods and myths; intellectual life; pugilist spectacles and athletic games and Christian mosaics in Tunisia.

As my own interests relate to Christian and Jewish remains, I was delighted by the superb color image of the exquisite baptistery of the Church of Father Felix at Clupea. This mosaic is stylistically related to the contemporaneous synagogue mosaic at Hamman Lif (Naro) discovered more than a century ago. This well-known synagogue mosaic (parts of which are at the Brooklyn Museum and others at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia) reflects the complex cultural mix of late antique Tunisia, which included polytheists, Christians of various sorts and Jews.

Ben Abed and the Getty are to be congratulated for both of these exquisite volumes and for the superb example of international cooperation that brought this project to fruition.

Steven Fine is professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University. He is the author of Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge Univ. Press, revised paperback edition, 2009).

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