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Pieces of history: Ancient Roman mosaic from Israel on display at Legion of HonorSan Francisco, CA

Peacocks and gazelles, fish the size of ships, exotic beasts of every variety — all available for viewing without setting foot inside a zoo or aquarium.

Now through July 24, these fantastical creatures and many more will be on display at the Legion of Honor in the form of a sprawling, exquisitely preserved Roman mosaic that dates to 300 C.E.

“Marvelous Menagerie: A Roman Mosaic from Lod” showcases the tableau, which was unearthed from the Israeli city of Lod during an excavation in 1996 and recently removed from its site for conservation.

Currently on loan to the Legion of Honor from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the mosaic will be shown in only four U.S. museums before returning to Israel later this year for its permanent installation at the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, a new museum and archaeological site in Lod that’s slated to open to the public in late 2012 or early 2013.

Aside from being breathtaking to behold, the mosaic serves as a window into daily life in an ancient civilization, said exhibition curator Renée Dreyfus.

“I love that we’re able to show something about the people who lived in the Holy Land throughout the years,” Dreyfus said, noting that the exhibition marks the fifth in a series of collaborations between the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Israel Antiquities Authority over the past 30 years. The Koret Foundation and the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund are patrons for the exhibit.

Found in a villa historians believe belonged to a wealthy Roman, the mosaic consists of a large square medallion flanked by two rectangular end panels. The center and one end panel contain intricate depictions of lions, birds and other common animals, as well as fantastical beasts, while the final panel contains a scene of marine life, with sea creatures surrounding Roman merchant ships. The entire piece measures approximately 300 square feet, and takes up almost the entirety of the Legion’s Gallery 1.

Animals were a central part of Roman life during that era, Dreyfus said, so it makes sense that they were a dominant theme in art.

“It was common for people to have animals as domestic pets, but there were also wild beasts that the emperors brought into Rome for the Roman games,” she said. “Wealthy people owned private animal farms, they put animals into competition. It became trendy to have zoos.”

One element that makes this particular mosaic unique: the absence of humans. Most mosaics from that time period depicted humans watching or hunting or interacting with the animals in some way, while the Lod mosaic shows animals lounging or hunting each other — and in many cases, seemingly smiling.

“One can speculate about the reasons [for the absence of people] … it could just be the taste of this person, or perhaps it was not allowed by this person’s religion,” Dreyfus said, adding that it’s impossible to tell whether the Roman who owned the villa was Jewish, Christian or even pagan — each religion was well represented in Rome during that time period.

Another part of what makes the mosaic so interesting is how well it was preserved, Dreyfus said. Protected from the elements after the walls of its structure fell in such a way that covered the tile floor, the naturally colored stones

are vibrant and almost completely unmarked, despite being 1,700-odd years old. Only minimal restoration in one small section was needed.

To complement the mosaic, Dreyfus brought out select pieces of Roman art from the museum’s permanent collection, and borrowed coins of the era with images of animals and ships from the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society. These are on display in Gallery 2, along with a short film and interactive workstation providing more context about the mosaic’s significance.

photos/nicky davidov/courtesy of the israel antiquities authority

But the most exciting aspect of the exhibition may be the one that was hidden underneath the tiles themselves. Though it wasn’t ready in time for the April 23 opening, the  museum will soon be displaying the foundation from which the floor piece was removed — a limestone bedding that bears the footprints of the artists who laid the mosaic’s colored stones.

“You can see distinct sandals and bare footprints,” Dreyfus said. “And we’re learning so much about who laid the mosaic just by looking at them. You can see the different sizes, and there are clearly men, women and children. We learned that it was families that actually laid the tiles … we can see how tall they were, how much they weighed.

“You can’t look at it without being blown away,” she added. “It really puts us in touch with ancient people.” 

“Marvelous Menagerie: A Roman Mosaic from Lod” through July 24, Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F. $7-$11. Information: http://legionofhonor.famsf.org.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.