’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: A Roman treasure in Israel : The Tribune India

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’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: A Roman treasure in Israel

Even as the philanthropist spearheading its restoration makes news for the wrong reasons, the huge mosaic at the tiny village of Lod continues to throw up surprises

’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: A Roman treasure in Israel

Shelby White admiring the mosaic while standing on it.

Mosaic: A mosaic is a pattern or image made of small regular or irregular pieces of coloured stone, glass or ceramic, held in place by plaster/mortar, and covering a surface. Mosaics are often used as floor and wall decoration, and were particularly popular in the ancient Roman world.
— Dictionary meaning

From the moment Leon (my husband) and I saw this historic mosaic, we knew how important it was for the town of Lod and the world, and what it would do to make Lod a cultural center. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of the restoration of the mosaic and the creation of this museum. Being here is a dream come true.”
— Shelby White, philanthropist and museum trustee

Roman ruins in Israel, part, of course, of the ancient ‘Near East’, do not make much news, for they are everywhere; some large and imposing, some relatively trivial: symbols of power, evidence of taste, memories of lives lived in style. But when in a small little town, not far from Tel Aviv, a chance discovery throws up a great mosaic — road workers coming up with it — it is news. For the mosaic was no ordinary piece of glued together coloured stone or glass: it was enormous, measuring something like 180 square meters; remarkably well preserved, possibly the best preserved mosaic floor uncovered for a long time; and going back, as the estimates tell us, to somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century CE. The discovery goes back some 25 years, to 1996 to be exact, but the town where it surfaced — Lod by name — was of no great significance, at least till now. The best guess is that this great mosaic was part of, and created for, a lush private villa, traces of which have now vanished, leaving only this vestige.

A ship on the high seas.

The mosaic has, since its discovery, been described, analysed and evaluated endlessly. ‘They (the mosaics) are a riot of birds, shells, fishes and animals’, but they leave out human beings completely. The animals are not of the usual run. Tigers and deer, goats and asses, they are there, of course, but also feature rarities, ‘including one of the earliest known images of both a rhinoceros and a giraffe’, hinting at the owners of the villa, or the craftsmen, having a taste for exotica (reminding one of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s taste for the curious and the unusual several centuries later). There is a variety of birds, including a peacock in the central panel, pigeons and doves. But an enormous amount of space is devoted to the sea and its inhabitants. That the owners were sea-faring people is almost certain, and considering that two ships have also been featured, one with serious damage, there is the theory that the mosaic might have been a token of thanksgiving for having survived and lives saved. Admittedly, here one moves into the domain of fantasy, but all around there are slices of reality. In the sea, for instance, there is an enormous variety of fish: swimming, big fish swallowing small ones, others in pursuit and so on. In one of the great sea panels, there is some damage, which is not easy to explain since the rest is remarkably well-preserved. This is the way it goes. One can go into details, of course, as one writer has done thus: ‘…the fish are recognisable as species that could be caught in the Mediterranean; the birds, too, are familiar; the dog in one square appears to be wearing a leash, and even the exotic animals would have been known to those who frequented the games and wild beast shows in the amphitheatre. Finally, on the main axis of the central panel is another square containing a large golden krater (a large vase for holding wine and water). A pair of female panthers cling to the vase, and serve as handles.’

Detail from a sea-panel showing a large fish swallowing a smaller fish.

The Lod discovery was one thing; preserving and showcasing the great mosaic floor was another. Not enough funds being around at that time, an intelligent decision was taken: that of reburying the mosaic until a plan had been formulated to secure its long-term future. And generous support surfaced: coming from a known philanthropist in love with the antique world — Shelby White — already well-known as a champion of causes relating to art and someone who had served as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for decades. With funds from a foundation bearing the name of her husband — Leon Levy — she spearheaded a project that eventually took the shape of a new museum which housed the great mosaic, now fully cleaned up and restored: the Lod Mosaic Archaeological Centre in Israel. Segments of the mosaic had, in the intervening period, travelled to places, including the Hermitage in Russia, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York, everything adding to the reputation of the mosaic. But they had all come back. The opening was, deservedly, an occasion for a great celebration: the year was 2022.

A central panel depicting a variety of animals.

Recently, however, the reputation of the generous donor to this cause has received a jolt. For, recently, her and her husband’s conduct as collectors has drawn heightened scrutiny. Investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office have carted away 71 ‘looted artifacts’ from White’s home, though it has not been suggested that she or her husband knowingly bought stolen antiquities. Suspicions have mounted and allegations are flying around. Was there intent behind gathering these artifacts privately, or was it sheer neglect of laws and proper lack of action on the part of the collectors — whose munificence has been legendary — that has led to this situation? The air is thick with voices, attacking and defending. Meanwhile, she, Shelby White, issued a statement: “I’m not hiding things. If it turns out there is something I shouldn’t have bought, I will act appropriately.”

Surprises do not end, however. Several years after the initial discovery, other floors, not as large or as sumptuous, surfaced in the neighbourhood. The conclusion? The villa of which the first mosaic was a part must have been far more extensive, far more sprawling, than first imagined.

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