By Pam Herbert
Just over three months ago on 1st May, when the Covid-19 lockdown was well established, one of the links in the Classical Studies Support weekly roundup of internet links announced that Brading Roman villa was financially struggling. Well, the good news is that at the start of August, the villa re-opened to the public.
You may remember that my Comfort Classics interview back in April featured one of my favourite mosaics, so I was particularly pleased to find that the villa would be open just in time for a long-planned visit to the Isle of Wight. I have to say that Jasmine, the collections manager, was incredibly helpful, and enabled me to arrange a booking for the first day of opening before the official internet booking system had started as I wasn’t able to book online at the right time for a variety of reasons (yes – I am the last person on planet Earth who doesn’t have a smartphone).
So, facemasks to the fore, we duly arrived at the villa museum building at the appointed time.
Anyone who has studied AA100, The Arts Past and Present is likely to know a lot more about this Roman Villa than I do, and anyone who hasn’t studied that course can find out about the lovely mosaics at Brading from the OpenLearn website. There has been a Romano-British villa on the site from around 50CE to at least 400CE, although the chronology of the villa’s development is not established with any certainty; nor is it known who the inhabitants were. It is thought that the villa that we can see today was built during the late third or very early fourth century CE, and during this phase, the surviving in-situ mosaics were created. One of the mosaics shows evidence of severe burning, so it is possible that the villa was eventually destroyed in a fire. The site was discovered in the 1880s when a local farmer disturbed the famous cock-headed man mosaic while he was working his land.
According to the story, a local antiquarian who happened to be passing became interested in the discovery of mosaic tesserae there, and the rest is history. The most impressive mosaics are seen in room 3 and in room 12, and are interesting in different ways. Room 3 contains a mosaic with Bacchus at the centre, surrounded by scenes from the arena. I like the theory that the cock-headed man represents Caesar Gallus in a satirical lampoon. If true, presumably the mosaic was constructed after Gallus’ death, otherwise it would be rather dangerous to have an emblem of political ridicule so permanently displayed on the floor. I have to admit that Caesar Gallus isn’t well known to me, so there is some more information about him here, and Ammianus Marcellinus’ very negative history of Gallus is here.
Room 12 contains a very impressive floor which shows an astronomer thought to be Hipparchus of Nicaea, although it is difficult to be certain of this.
The point is, though, that he unites the various elements of the mosaic floor, which shows the sea, the land and the heavens. Much of the floor shows mythical characters – among them Ceres and Triptolemus, Lycurgus, Attis and Sagaritis, Perseus and Andromeda (incidentally, if you fit in a visit to Osborne House, also in the Isle of Wight, there is a spectacular fountain featuring a chained Andromeda – I wonder what people who don’t know about myth make of a statue of a chained-up naked woman?). At the centre of the largest panel is a head of Medusa. In the corners of the mosaic panels are depictions of the seasons. What was interesting to me was that Medusa and the personification of Winter have marked similarities to the mosaics at Bignor Roman Villa in Sussex.
OK, so Winter has a dead bird on a stick at Brading, and at Bignor, Winter has a bare stick; and the actual faces of Medusa differ in detail, but the similarity shows the popularity of mythological subjects in Romano-British villa mosaics, and perhaps lends support to the idea that mosaic makers had pattern books from which commissioning villa owners could choose designs.
Apart from the mosaics, which clearly are the stars of the show, Brading has a collection of other artefacts on display including roofing materials, a hypocaust, pottery vessels including high quality Samian ware, mortaria (used for grinding foodstuffs), jewellery, coins, fragments of painted plaster showing flowers and a peacock, and even the lock and key to the front door!
All in all, it was a very worthwhile visit, and as the weather was very hot while we were away, it was lovely at the end of our visit to sit quietly in the shade of the Roman garden reconstruction before heading for the beach.
I hope that my account has encouraged you to think about making a visit to one or other of our wonderful British Roman Villas if you possibly can (Chedworth in Gloucestershire is also worth a visit and has fab mosaics too!). I know that they are a long way from my Cumbrian home, but it’s so rewarding to see more peaceable survivals from the past than we see up here in Hadrian Wall country, and all of our heritage bodies need as much support as they can get during these uncertain times.