A new art installation at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library hopes to reveal the true meaning of an ancient Roman mosaic.
“Victorious Secret: Elite Olympic Champions as Dancing Bikini Girls,” the work of visual artist Angela Lorenz, was installed in both Sterling Memorial Library and the Haas Arts Library. The project focuses on three Roman floor mosaics from around 300 A.D. that were rediscovered in Sicily in the 1950s. The mosaics, which depict several women dressed in minimal clothing, holding various objects, were long misinterpreted to represent female dancers or musicians. For this project, Lorenz has remade the mosaics using buttons, hairpins and foam board in an effort to show that the depicted women are not musicians, but rather athletes receiving their victory prizes.
After visiting the mosaics in 1998 at the Roman villa in Piazza Armerina, Lorenz was inspired to visually convey what archeologists and scholars had long known to be true, that women athletes in the ancient world were widely recognized and celebrated.
“The important thing in this piece is that people recognize that 2,000 years ago it was a goal for prestigious families to have their daughters competing in elite athletic competitions,” Lorenz said.
Instead of rattles and tambourines in their hands, the women are holding weights, a discus and a laurel branch — a symbol of victory. Archeological research published in 2007 by Italian archaeologist Isabella Baldini Lippolis confirms this interpretation of the mosaic. Nonetheless, Lorenz noted, the initial interpretation of the mosaics as depicting dancers or musicians still holds in many parts of the world.
The mosaic is most commonly known as “Bikini Girls,” which is a title Lorenz said she hopes to correct.
Evidence for female athletic competitions has been discovered through the ancient world, from Italy and Turkey to Algeria, Tunisia and Greece.
“I am an artist, not a scholar, but what I do as an artist is to circulate findings published by scholars in different fields,” Lorenz said. “I like to bring scholarly material to the people by making it visual.”
The artwork is dedicated to Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in education programs, and comes at a time in America when there have been struggles for women athletes to play sports, get equipment, and use facilities, Lorenz said.
Lorenz went on to cite her experience playing hockey at Brown University in the 1980s, when only the men’s team had access to the hockey rink during the day, forcing the women’s team to practice at night. Lorenz thinks the issue of discrimination against women in athletics is as prevalent today as it was 30 years ago.
The mosaic pattern that Lorenz recreated is replicated with clothing buttons and hair pins–materials that Lorenz said she consciously chose to use.
“These women athletes are famous for what they’re wearing not what their doing, so I used materials associated with clothing and ornament,” she said.
The installation is hosted by the Yale Bibliographical Press and represents roughly 25 years of collaboration between Lorenz and the University, said Acting Associate Director of the Haas Arts Library Jae Rossman.
Three of the nine mosaic panels are installed in the nave of SML, a place that Lorenz said she hopes will see a lot of student foot-traffic.
“Hopefully they’ll take a closer look,” Rossman said. Many of Lorenz’s works and books are in the Haas Arts Library.