This week’s masterpiece from Hadrian’s Villa is a mosaic depicting a group of doves drinking from an ornate bowl, called Mosaic of the Doves.
The mosaic is made of thousands of small tesserae in a dazzling range of colors called opus vermiculatum, by far the most sophisticated mosaic technique. It depicts four doves on the rim of a large basin of gilt bronze. One of the birds is drinking from this extremely refined vessel, whose handle is supported by a caryatid. The mosaic panel is an emblema, a decorative element designed to be the central point of an otherwise plain floor or wall. The emblema was originally an import from the Hellenistic eastern Mediterranean, where, in cities such as Pergamum, Ephesos and Alexandria, there were artists specializing in their production. One of them was Sosus of Pergamum, the most celebrated mosaicist of antiquity, who worked in the second century BC. The workmanship was said to be so perfect that real doves flew against the mosaic in a vain attempt to join their stone companions. (Source: S. Walker, Roman art -London, 1991-)
The mosaic was discovered in 1737 during excavations at Hadrian’s Villa led by Cardinal Giuseppe Alessandro Furietti. Some scholars believe the mosaic to be Hellenistic and that it could be the famous Dove Mosaics by Sosus, which ancient sources described in the royal palaces of Pergamum. Other scholars think it is probably a copy of Sosus’ work made for Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. There are numerous copies that were made of this mosaic, even into late antiquity. In addition to Tivoli, these have been found at Delos; at Pompeii and Capua; in Marocco and Tunisa; and in the Christian mausoleums of Santa Costanza in Rome and Galla Placidia in Ravenna. But the finest copy of the Drinking Doves is the one discovered at Hadrian’s Villa. (Source:, Greek and Roman mosaics – Abbeville Press, 2012)
The mosaic today is preserved in the Musei Capitolini in Rome and hence is known as the Capitoline Doves.