Exhibit sheds new light on classic Italian mosaics

photo by Z.L. Zhou
Z.L. Zhou / The Phoenix
Z.L. Zhou / The Phoenix

As the new academic year begins, there will be countless opportunities to overstress, over think, and spend too much time with your head buried in work. Luckily enough, Swarthmore Libraries’ first art installation of the year fits well into the beginning of the fall semester. Angela Lorenz, an artist based out of both Italy and Massachusetts, opens her exhibit Victorious Secret on campus next Thursday. Sponsored by a diverse group of campus organizations ranging from the Office of the Title IX coordinator to the Classics department, Victorious Secret features three triptychs placed strategically across campus (McCabe Library, the Science Center and the top floor of the Matchbox) in order to catch students during their daily routine. Each location features three mosaics that are based on a series of ancient Roman mosaics, colloquially known as “the bikini girls”, which depict elite female athletes living in Ancient Rome. Although Lorenz eventually visited these mosaics in person, she first encountered them in much less formal contexts –  stumbling upon them branded on mugs and various advertisements. Her interactions with the mosaics, combined with her visual art background (Lorenz attended Brown and Rhode Island School of Design) and some fortuitous connections, were the impetus for creating Victorious Secret.

“I had been wanting to do a series of watercolors of ancient Roman mosaics, creating my own narrative with existing fragments of images from the early 1990s,” said Lorenz. This foundational motive coincided with a unique opportunity that came to her from an unlikely place.

“Coincidentally in 2001 my daughter became best friends in first grade with the daughter of two prominent Italian archaeologists, whom I consult often for research questions on Latin, Greek, ancient culture, textiles and artifacts. When I mentioned the mosaics of women at Piazza Armerina (“the bikini girls”), Isabella [the girl’s archaeologist mother] explained that they were athletes competing in the pentathlon and receiving prizes,” Lorenz said.

Victorious Secret, on one hand, serves as a historical lesson in the surprisingly inclusionary nature of Ancient Roman athletics. The women depicted in the mosaics in Piazza Armerina were the daughters of the Roman elite, wealthy patricians willing to subsidize expensive training for the potential familial honor that would come from their children’s athletic successes. Despite the uneven financial privilege enjoyed by the women wealthy enough to compete, Lorenz aims to highlight how positive it was that women were allowed to participate at all.

There is another, more distressing message imbedded in the exhibit. The deeper subtext in the artwork is the cheapening of the “bikini girls” athleticism, in part by their apparently provocative moniker. Victorious Secret aims to recapture the women’s roles as athletes and competitive figures, while steering attention away from their sexuality.

“These ancient mosaics from Italy are still famous and constantly attracting attention for what they are wearing, not what they are doing,” said Lorenz. “They were christened ‘the bikini girls’ in the 1950s and their name hasn’t changed.”

Through her exhibit, Lorenz both questions the prevailing assumptions about the women in the mosaics and moves to establish a new public image for them.

“Sex sells newspapers, books and tourist guides. People see the bikinis and make assumptions,” she said.  “[In Victorious Secret] the bikinis are there, but the way I have chopped up the images to focus on their hands and their athletic equipment and prizes will hopefully encourage the viewer to look more closely at what is happening.”

Apart from the visual focus on the female’s athleticism, the text surrounding the figures explicitly points to the misunderstanding of the original mosaics. Taken from real texts in Pompeii and Herculaneum around 79 AD, they discuss daily tasks, abusive men, pregnancy and birth, all of which draw attention away from their role as elite athletes.

“[These texts represent] both the real and the salacious of ancient life. It contrasts with the privileged lives of the purportedly chaste wealthy girls permitted to compete in elite sports,” said Lorenz.

“This and other titillating information from Ancient Roman records has also distracted people from the historical record of less newsworthy over time, like the history of women in sports, and unwittingly smears this simple iconography of female athletes.”

While Victorious Secret, and many of her other pieces, can be easily consumed as feminist works with a political agenda, Lorenz does not see her art in these terms. As opposed to “self-censoring” her art, Lorenz says she prefers to work towards an idea and finding the appropriate means in presenting it. This technique can manifest itself in myriad ways, evidenced by Lorenz’s vast and diverse portfolio. She works in sculpture, painting, and conceptual disciplines but there is always a focus on research, historical accuracy, and informative performance.

“I find things that interest me, and try to shine a light on these things from the past for others to notice as well. One reason I do this is that it astounds me how issues, fiction, and events from the past correlate with and speak to events and issues today that crop up in the news and daily lives,” said Lorenz, speaking to the research-based component of her work.

Her other primary mission, something successfully actualized in her work, is making this historical message accessible.

“I [also] try to reward the viewer with something interesting or appealing to look at –  it may be conceptual but it is rarely dry – and humor is perhaps my favorite and most effective tool. I don’t presume to be able to change the world, but if I can amuse or distract people, that’s worthy.”


1 Comment

  1. Too bad the artist, in all of her research, did not think to study mosaics or to create them. Seems like a major oversight here.

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