*A three part musing on Roman mosiac tiles and guitar rosette design.
If you've ever been fortunate enough to spend time in the southern Spanish city of Sevilla you may have taken note of one of the cities two professional football teams, called Real Betis. The team was named after the ancient Roman name for the Andalusia region, Baetica. Long before the Arabs took lower Spain and marched up to its northern limits in the 8th century, the Romans had settled in the western land they called Hispania, the Iberian peninsula of today. The Romans lived along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea from Barcelona to Cadiz for six hundred years. There are a few "minor" historical points as to why the soccer teams of Sevilla are not named The Moors or The Caliphs, least of all that the Romans were there before the Arabs and stayed almost as long. The Romans were one of the great builders of towns, aqueducts and monuments in ancient Spain. Along with public buildings there were houses, libraries and baths.
In an American library at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington D.C. there is an original Roman mosaic floor from Andalusia during the time when it was called Baetica. One day in 1998 I was walking the grounds of the Dumbaton Oaks library with my stepmother Mitchell and we perused the collection of Pre Columbian art and contemplated Igor Stravinsky writing the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto when he stayed there. One of the museum galleries has an original reconstructed Baetic mosaic floor and it caught my eye. As I looked down and studied it I had an insight into a mystery that had intrigued me for a long time. It's common in the Spanish classical guitar construction lore to assume that the influence for the mosaic tiles in the rosettes that adorn the sound hole of the guitar is from the Arabs. After I saw the Roman mosaic floor in the Dumbarton Oaks Library I began to think the mosaic tile goes back much further than the Arabic design influence in Andalusia. I'm not proposing a complete challenge to the Arabic influence in guitar making, I'm simply saying it opened my eyes to a bigger story which goes back several centuries earlier than the Arab grip of Spain.
When one is in Spain and talk goes to the past, of conquests by the Romans, Arabs, the expulsion of the Jews and other non football related subjects, the eating of Jamon Serrano often accompanies the conversation. Jamon is the delectable cured meat of the pig which was fed on acorns, away up in the hills. It was during one of these chats with the guitarist David Serva that I first heard the term "Cult of Jamon". The cult of ham means that during certain periods of time in Spain it was not proper to observe the kosher rule of abstaining from eating the cloven hoofed animals; Catholic power was in full bloom during some of these times and some of those times were dark and difficult for the people of Jewish heritage. Witch hunting, Jew bashing and Moor chasing were all part of the history of the country under the hood of Catholic control. The Cult of Jamon refers to some notion that to be seen eating the ham in public would make one safe, as a non observance of the kosher laws of Judaism and the halal food codes of Islam one could be assured of not being mistaken, by a spy of the Inquisition, for practicing Judaism. The Cult of Ham follower would demonstrate for all to see that he or she could eat with gusto the flesh of the cloven hoof beast thus ensuring they would be seen in public as a good Christian. So where you ask, looking skeptically over your glass of Cruz Campo, is the connection between the Cult of Jamon and guitar making? It's hard to say definitively, but like all things that happen in bars in Spain the more cerveza consumed, the clearer the details of the story can appear to be. And often it's not the perfect accuracy of the story that counts, after all, a bar in Andalusia is hardly the fact checking department of the New Yorker Magazine. What counts is the masterful act of telling the story as an amusement and in this department the Spaniards are kings, or at least as good as the Moroccans.
Not long ago I had this odd notion that the Spanish guitarreros, or dealers of guitars, had been fibbing or inventing mythologies about their guitar making for a long, long time. I thought back to that day in the Dumbarton Oaks Library when I stooped to examine the Roman mosaic floor carefully and up close. The floor was made of different shades of brown, ochre, grey and whitish square stones about the size of dimes. The floor was comprised of a predominantly white field with some curvy lines running through, and geometric shapes with borders layed out through the entire floor. The room was large and situated near a line of doors that opened onto a courtyard, not a Roman courtyard exactly because the Dumbarton Oaks Library was at one time the residence of a former diplomat and his wife, both patrons of the arts named Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Dumbarton Oaks has an extensive garden which is quite famous, and the house itself gives the feeling of a proper Washington D.C. Georgetown home created around its antiquities and art collection. In the borders around the geometric patterns of the mosaic floor were pixelated representations of human faces made of square stone fragments. The faces were lined up ear to ear making long belts of tiny heads, each from a distinct group of characters that repeat in series. These mosaic faces were used as border strips to wrap around the various larger pattern compositions in the floor. When I saw these faces, each could have been I imagined, a single mosaic tile in a classic Spanish rosette, I had an instant shock of recognition. It dawned on me that perhaps this idea of mosaic in Spanish guitar work was not simply the influence of the Moorish art and architecture in Spain, but that it had also come with the Romans several centuries earlier.
To make this connection between the ancient Romans and the development of the style in modern Spanish guitar in the mid 19th century is quite far fetched. But is it? What about that Cult of Jamon attitude and the thoughts of the average Spanish citizen in the 19th century on the occupation of Spain by the Arabs? How much did the artisans and guitar makers of the day really seek to cash in on the influence of Arabic design in the guitars they made? Did they consciously set about to form an Arabist aesthetic in the rosette mosaic designs? After seeing the Dumbarton Oaks Baetic floor I thought it is possible the Arab influence explanation is an idealized origin myth or fiction created by those who wrote about guitars in the early to mid twentieth century and that this lore went un questioned because it sounded so romantic. Just previous to the time period when the granddaddy of the modern guitar was working, a man named Antonio Torres, one of the main influences to Spanish art culture was the Neoclassic period in France which as highly inspired by images and comparisons to the Roman Empire. I've always wondered, did the Spanish guitar makers of the 19th century all sit down in a meeting and say "Ok we shall all use Mosarabic design motifs for our rosettes." Not likely, but the history books on guitar making that document the period are always bubbling up with this concept that the Arabic design motif is the influence for the rosette. What if there were enough old Roman floors and other decorative arts carried out in mosaic still in place in public buildings and used in common furniture decoration, like chests of drawers or silver ware boxes for those guitar makers to have grown up around? Or copies of copies of copies of floors that may have been intermixed with Arab design over the centuries which utilized the borders, lines and patterning, stemming originally from the Roman times? What part of Spanish design was distilled into the common vocabulary of decoration which may have come down from the Romans of Baetica?
This all starts to sound very intellectually seductive and tantalizing to your ham eating beer drinking audience as you mortar together an answer to the puzzle one tiny stone tile at a time. Then you go to the Alhambra palace in Granada and your intellectual construction of the Roman origins of the guitar rosette falls right off its Doric columns.
To be continued in three parts...