Palestrina - Mosaico del Nilo

The Mosaic of the Nile of Palestrina in the documentary “the Nile in stone”

The stone Mosaic of the Nile, one of the greatest masterpieces of Hellenistic art, is the subject of the documentary ‘The Nile in Stone’ by Gian Luigi Rondi. The mosaic can be admired in the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina where it arrived after a long wander during wars and restorations.

The story of its arrival at the museum is very unusual and full of twists. Let’s start at the beginning. Most probably it was found between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century in the cellar of the old Bishop’s Palace.

In 1625 the Bishop of Palestrina, realizing the importance of that mosaic, detached it from the floor, then he divided it into square pieces and finally gave the order to transport it to Rome, in exchange for vestments.

When the feifdom of Palestrina was bought by the Barberini Family in 1630, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, a great collector of works of art, did everything to get hold of the Mosaic. He succeeded in 1635 thanks to his maternal uncle, Cardinal Lorenzo Magalotti, who in turn had received it as a gift from Abbot Francesco Peretti.

The Mosaic was restored by Battista Calandra, renowned mosaic artist and artist of some mosaics in the Basilica of San Pietro.

In 1640 the restored work was brought back to Palestrina and placed in its original position, in a room that had been restored by Prince Taddeo Barberini.

But that arrangement did not prove the best. The darkness and especially the humidity in the room necessitated a second restoration. In 1853 Prince Francesco Barberini entrusted the task to Cavalier Giovanni Azzurri, architect of the Barberini house, so the Mosaic of the Nile was divided into 27 slabs of various sizes and brought back to Rome for restoration.

Back again to Palestrina, the slabs were recomposed on a slightly inclined plane in one of the rooms of Palazzo Colonna Barberini.

In 1943, the Superintendent of Antiquities of Lazio, Salvatore Aurigemma, in agreement with the Princess Maria Barberini, decided to move the Mosaic back to Rome, for fear that the activities of the war could damage it.

After the Second World War, the Mosaic of the Nile should have immediately returned to Palestrina. But it was not like that. According to Superintendent Aurigemma its relocation on that same slightly inclined plane, where it had already been positioned between 1855 and 1943, was no longer acceptable.

To admire it in all its beauty, it was now necessary to place it vertically, like a wonderful picture hung on the wall. But for this new restoration it was necessary to raise substantial funding, difficult to find by the State, which at that time was engaged in the reconstruction of the whole country.

It was thus a private contribution that allowed the realization of this enterprise. In 1952 the historical film company Ponti-De Laurentis, which in that year produced the first colour film shot in Italy, proposed to the Superintendent the creation of a colour documentary on the Mosaico di Palestrina directed by Gian Luigi Rondi, great film and documentary critic. The proposal was accepted by Aurigemma, on one condition: the film company would have to bear all the expenses of the restoration.

Work began in the summer of 1952. In addition to capturing the beauty of the Nile Mosaic, the cameras also followed the various stages of restoration. The documentary, titled “The Nile in Stone”, was completed in 1954.

It was only in 1956 that the Mosaic of the Nile was finally placed inside the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina.

Despite numerous restorations, the great setting of the Mosaic of the Nile has retained a singular delicacy in the colours, illuminated by a surprising light that turns on and off the various rocks and figures, trees and animals, a light that touches the waters of the Nile and becomes the common thread of the whole restoration.

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The city of Palestrina has sat on the slopes of Mount Ginestro for almost three thousand years dominating the countryside […]