The Mosaic of the Nile in Palestrina is one of the greatest masterpieces of Hellenistic mosaic art. Of great visual impact, also for its size, every year it attracts thousands of tourists and scholars from all over the world. This artistic jewel located in the Roman countryside is visible at the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina, just a few kilometers from Rome.
Day Trip near Rome: Palestrina
During the weekend, there is nothing better than to pay a visit to the many extraordinary places, to the enchanting little villages in Italy, where history and art have left evocative impressions. Recently my explorations took me to Palestrina, a town in Lazio in the countryside near Rome, which I strongly recommend as an ideal destination for a trip out of town or a stay to discover local treasures of art and culture.
Preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina (Rome) you will find one of the absolute masterpieces of ancient art, which alone is worth the whole trip: the famous Nile Mosaic.
Set on the slopes of Mount Ginestro, Palestrina rises on the site of ancient Praeneste, founded, according to legend, by Telegonus, the legendary son of Ulysses and the sorceress Circe. Here stood the great sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, the most imposing monument of the Republican era of Lazio and home to a famous oracle to whom linked to an important cult of worship.
The sanctuary is divided into six terraces that descend along the slopes of the hill, in view of the sea. On the highest terrace of the sanctuary, known as the Cortina terrace, and near the portico of the hemicycle, stands the austere Palazzo Barberini, home to the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina.
In this beautiful seventeenth-century palace, archaeological materials from the excavation of the sanctuary and from the territory of Praeneste are preserved. The visit is exciting especially if you think that to reach the museum and to climb up to the third floor, where the famous mosaic is preserved, you follow the same ramps of those who, centuries before, came to question the oracle.
The Mosaic of the Nile
The great Nilotic mosaic is a noteworthy example of Hellenistic mosaic art, one of the most famous in the world and still leaves visitors breathless for the refinement of the execution, the complexity of the composition, the polychromatic composition and the abundance of detail.
The mosaic originally decorated the floor of the so-called apsidal hall, in the lower complex of the Sanctuary, in a rectangular area of uncertain destination, probably a nymphaeum or a place for the worship of the god Serapis or the goddess Isis, which was widespread in Rome at the time.
Even the dating of the mosaic is controversial: for some it dates back to the first Century BC, for others to the time of Augustus and Hadrian, or even the third Century BC. The most accredited, however, is the hypothesis according to which it derives from a Hellenistic original and was created by an Alexandrian artist at the end of the 2nd century BC.
Thus it bears witness to the close relations between Rome and Egypt and the influence of Hellenistic culture on Roman art.
The mosaic represents a perspective view of the territory of Egypt and the course of the Nile River, from the sources on the Ethiopian mountains to the delta in the Mediterranean, during one of its floods.
Egypt is a gift from the Nile, Herodotus wrote, because the river allows life in an otherwise arid and unhospitable land. For this reason, the Nile was considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians and revered as a deity.
In the mosaic, the river is inserted in a fantastic landscape that goes from the wild lands of Nubia to the cities of lower Egypt, rich with temples and sumptuous palaces, and enriched with fascinating details.
At the bottom, in the canal covered by a pergola, a banquet with convivial figures seems to be taking place: it is likely that it is the Alexandrian Canopus, a place of delights near the famous Serapeum, which should correspond to the temple represented directly to the right.
In front of the latter there is a scene with warriors and a priestess, perhaps to be identified with the goddess Isis.
Higher on the right, instead, you can see a sacred enclosure with columns, towers and statues and on the left, near a building with obelisks, you can see a hydrometer well, perhaps the famous one of Syene, now Aswan, which was used by Eratosthenes to calculate the terrestrial meridian.
Below on the right, there is the Port of Alexandria, capital of the kingdom of the Ptolemies, dominated by a large fortified structure that represents the royal palace.
The uppermost area of the work of art shows the rocky regions of the river cataracts and the desert regions of Nubia, populated by indigenous hunters and tropical animals, each with its name written in Greek.
You could spend hours discovering new details and the many characteristic figures, isolated and in groups, that animate this extraordinary work.
My advice is to admire the Mosaic of the Nile by hearing its story and its meanings as told by an expert, because in this way you can appreciate it even more, letting yourself be transported among the myths and legends of ancient Rome.