Sometimes the vast rooms of the Bardo are so draughty and impersonal that the building more resembles a national gallery of modern art than it does a national museum. At other times, the decors of the Bey’s palace come out and wage a little friendly competition with the Roman exhibits. They bemuse you with lurid, improbable colours, rather like those of a tropical sunset.
There are occasions when it is good to study the Bardo’s mosaics up close, but it is often best to get as much distance as you can between you and them. The palace rooms are invariably flattering to the mosaics from either extreme. After looking a Roman peasant squarely in the eye, you can turn your back on him, retreat several paces, and turn again to survey the entire complicated choreography of his household. I twisted my neck into untried shapes trying to pour over the hunting scenes on the floor of the Carthage Room, but ten minutes later, I found myself gazing down serenely on them from the overhead gallery. I felt foolish at having doubted in the museum, even in this small, passing way.
The mosaics are never cramped or squeezed. They have made themselves perfectly at home in these palatial interiors, almost as if Roman imperialism continues to function mindlessly, like an algorithm, and its artefacts have invaded a new venue.
It is rare for a mosaic to be intact or even largely undamaged. They are usually moth-eaten (or devoured by whatever it is that eats holes in mosaics). Nonetheless, you are always provided with enough to be able to imagine what any given mosaic might have looked like when it was shining new.
Now and then, it appears as if a single raider has at some point over the last eighteen hundred years sliced out the most noteworthy chunk of a mosaic. This is the case with the famous, fabulous image of a gladiator slaying a lion, in which the lion’s face seems to have been ineptly extracted and its carcass, complete with gladiator, tossed away. I can imagine this face being used as a plate in some thieves’ den and being smeared every day with bolognaise sauce stains. Even more strangely there is one drinking scene in which the whole of a cupbearer’s curving left leg has been lifted and nothing else. I’m guessing that this thief was probably a fetishist, who ended up huddled in a hovel somewhere frantically licking the leg.
The information which accompanies the mosaics tends to be concerned with what they depict, rather than with their particular histories. The mosaics have simply arrived here and you are left to wonder at how they made their journeys. When almost all of a dramatic image is still in one piece, such as that of Ulysses tied to the mast, or Neptune riding the waves in his chariot, it is like some fragment of a dazzling, impossibly rich dream which you are left clutching on to in the morning light. A tiny souvenir of a lost world.
The designs are bold and superbly stylish. Wealthy Romans had once adorned room after room with mosaics, in villas and palaces across the coast. Now everything is kept in one fat museum. Perhaps we have a thousandth of what has been lost. They are all laughing at us on these mosaics; from the proudest marine centaur down to the humblest fishermen, they are all teasing us irresistibly. They bring us ancient Rome in the same way that a few off-course ladybirds can evoke the summer to a hospital invalid. Perusing them – indeed, luxuriating in them – you can only imagine.