Image Image Image Image Image

* = required field

BOM: get the Best of Mosaic Art NOW

Keep up with what’s happening in the world of  contemporary mosaics on your own time by subscribing to The BOM.

The BOM is a weekly digest showcasing three MAN articles and the top five tweets of the week. Sign up below and  The BOM will show up in your email inbox every Sunday at noon Pacific Standard Time.

We hate spam, too, so we won’t share your information with anyone else and guarantee that The BOM will be the only time you’ll hear from us – unless, of course, something really great comes up.

Scroll to Top

To Top



This Article appears in:


Read the comments:


"The Skull and the Level" Translated

On 31, Oct 2009 | 3 Comments | In Uncategorized | By man-admin

Blogger Halloweened us yesterday with a couple of nasty goblins that made posting impossible. Our erstwhile Web Wizard (Bill) fixed the conundrum of “Boo”, but still a portion of the content about The Skull and the Level was lost. And it was good stuff, as Paul Anater’s comment yesterday reminded me.

So here, once again, is the Skull and the Level from Pompeii which now resides in the National Archeological Museum in Naples. There’s an absolutely terrific explanation of the symbolism of the mosaic below from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science. I think it is absolutely fascinating.

Opus vermiculatum; 47 x 41 cm
Naples, MAN; inv, 109982
Pompeii, from the workshop R.I,5,2 (triclinium)
Middle of the first century AD – Second Style

Constituting the emblema of the flooring in a triclinium, this mosaic, with its naturalistic depiction of a skull and the tools of a mason, expresses allegorically the transience of life and the impending nature of death. It is the libella, the level, from which hangs the plumb-line -the instrument that serves to control the levelling of a construction- that symbolises all equality: from its ends hang in perfect equilibrium the symbols of power (the sceptre and the royal purple) and on the right, the sack and the stick, symbols of poverty. The skull -with a line of darker tesserae outlining the sutures of the cranium- and the level -an instrument that we known only through depictions from the Roman period, shown here with clearly illustrated bronze elements and its wooden structure- underline the intent to depict them with precision.

Here is Paul Anater’s ( reaction to seeing this mosaic in person:

Seeing that Skull and Level (the Memento Mori) in person is but one more reason to go to the National Archeological Museum in Napoli. That thing has more layers of meaning than should be allowed –it’s almost too much to ponder. The skulls is resting on a butterfly and it’s in turn resting atop Fortuna’s wheel. To the left are the trappings of wealth and to the right are the trappings of poverty. Quite a thing to have on your dining room floor when you’re a wealthy Roman.

Many thanks again to Liz Brazelton of Garden District Mosaics for “digging” this one up for us. Here is one of her works that is a lovely use of natural materials in a small format.

Here’s hoping your Halloween was “goblin proof”. Enjoy — Nancie

Share this article


  1. Pam Givens

    Thanks so much for posting this..I am in awe of all that symbolism and will do some research myself on this piece. The fact that all the teeth are there and the skull seems to be smiling a bit like the joker.


  2. Mindful Musings

    Gosh, I love that Pompeii skull too! But it's really weird how it has ears and a nose, isn't it?

    And the subject matter is REALLY different. Maybe it was made for a wealthy builder? Fantastic – thanks for the article.

  3. Ed Kinsella

    It's refreshing to see an atypical ancient mosaic image. I am so accustomed to seeing the standard mythology, battles, key historical events, and animals in ancient mosaics.

    Then you see something like this. Wow, it's great. I really like the palette used. The symbolism is relevant no matter what century it is.

Luca Barberini Bone Flowers