Mediterranean and Art
The Mediterranean and art: from Alexandria to Dalí's House-Museum

Emperor Justinian and his retinue. San Vitale. Ravena, Italy

Like Ulysses on his voyage to return to Ithaca, along this itinerary we would like to awaken illusions, discover longings and challenge fortunes and misfortunes through some of the museums located along the length and breadth of the Mediterranean coast. We would like to enter them to appreciate their most remarkable creations dedicated to the Mare Nostrum, in order to admire in their waters the reflection of so many cultures, to appreciate in their flashes those battles silenced and their victories glossed over, to glimpse, in their warm transparency, the extent to which the Mediterranean was - and continues to be - a catalyst for people of dissimilar natures. We will thus draw a common history between countries, empires and kingdoms, between different religions and traditions, demonstrating that beyond continents, races, gender or condition, the Mediterranean, always faithful to its capacity for communication, to its waves that shore the pleasure of the different, these mythological, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, Phoenician and Byzantine waters, are symbol and reality in the succession and sedimentation of multiple civilisations and deeds. For this reason, even today, this sea shapes our way of understanding the present, and on its horizon we hope to see the arrival of a propitious future.

Miracle of the Holy Cross at Rialto by Vittore Carpaccio

The ports of this voyage will be different museums and institutions whose educational and patrimonial function, in the case in question, allow us to structure a common scenario around the history, society and anthropology of this maritime basin, all fully integrated into the future of Europe. In a globalised and changing society, the Mediterranean culture preserved in these museums is becoming more and more important as it becomes a humanist, anthropological, ethical and political parameter, reminding us of the importance of shared values and constructive differences.

This is by no means a meticulous tour, but rather a random one, abounding in works that are both unknown and significant in terms of Mediterranean art and archaeology, always, of course, stressing the need to preserve, project and disseminate such a rich heritage from the identity of the Mare Nostrum in the European context.

We begin our journey in Egypt, specifically in the National Museum of Alexandria, whose collections are articulated around the most outstanding historical periods of that city. The decline of Egyptian civilisation was marked by the creative assimilation of other peoples. This is evidenced by the mosaic of Berenice II (c. 250 BC), wife of Ptolemy III. This work moves away from the purely Egyptian tradition in favour of Roman models, thus demonstrating, on the one hand, the influences and aesthetic transformations that took place in antiquity, as well as the role and presence that women played, and still play, in the social configuration of this geopolitical area.

We speak of the Greek world from the Archaeological Museum of Athens, where the Cape God Artemisius (1st century BC), a probable image of Poseidon, takes us back to the importance of the sea in Hellenic civilisation. Curiously, this bronze was found at the bottom of the sea, a metaphor for the Mediterranean, always ready to surprise us with its intense past.

From what has been argued, in Rome, as in Greece, representations of, in this case, Neptune were very common, generally embodying the virtues that the Mediterranean brought to the Empire. Such a theme was common in any province, however distant from the metropolis. Among the extraordinary collection of Roman mosaics on display at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the Triumph of Neptune (2nd c.) stands out. It is a mosaic composition of great quality, the centre of which is dominated by the aforementioned deity, guarded at the corners by allegorical figures of the four seasons.

The Mediterranean played a crucial role in the expansion and consolidation of Christianity, contributing to its rapid spread, which went hand in hand with the development of its artistic imagery, in which, incidentally, baptismal water and its purifying meaning were often represented.

Mosaic portrait representing Queen Berenice II, wife of Ptolemy III

Mosaic portrait representing Queen Berenice II, wife of Ptolemy III, showing her with prow of warship on her head symbolizing the city of Alexandria, found at Thmuis, Ptolemaic period, Alexandria National Museum, Egypt


The cultural and political links between the eastern and western Mediterranean are evident in the impressive Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna (6th century) in Italy. Its two main panels, the one dedicated to Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodosia, probably travelled from Constantinople to the Italian city: thus our sea continued to consolidate itself as a route of knowledge and artistic exchange.

If water was important for Christianity, it was no less important for Islam, in whose development and intellectual emergence the Mediterranean was a great ally. Islamic gardens, in a way, yearn to recreate the paradise beyond the grave by means of all kinds of flowers and shrubs, where water, like a Mediterranean enclosed in ponds, pools and fountains, will play a considerable role, as can be seen in the picturesque collections of fountains, of different styles and periods, which adorn the courtyards of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Venice, gateway and port for Mediterranean trade and culture, left faithful testimony to such a fortunate position in its Renaissance painting. The presence of its canals, the maritime market and, therefore, its cosmopolitanism, can be seen in the many pictorial series produced for the scuolae - charitable institutions. The large canvases that made up these series usually recreated episodes set in the context of 15th- and 16th-century Venice, emphasising the importance of the sea, of water as a means of communication, without ignoring its scenographic potential. A good example of this is V. Carpaccio's Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross on the Rialto Bridge (1494, Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice).

Ancient Greece Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon

Ancient Greece Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon; from the sea near Cape Artemision, Northern Euboea; c. 460 BC


To speak of Sorolla is to speak of the Mediterranean, of its colour, of its people, of those who enjoyed and worked it. In short, the brilliant Valencian painter offers us a vision of that sea, of those beaches, around which the day-to-day life of the Levantine capital revolved. Sorolla is the painter par excellence of Mediterranean light, whose intensity and nuances can be glimpsed in any of the numerous paintings by this artist that the Valencia Fine Arts Museum treasures.

The transition to the 20th century and the avant-garde was marked by someone as closely linked to the Mediterranean as Salvador Dalí. A Surrealist par excellence, the cliffs of Cadaqués were essential in his paranoiac-critical method, through which those rocks become and suggest to us disparate forms and figures. This is reflected in his fascinating aesthetic universe housed in the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueras, Girona.

As the works that Picasso and Matisse dedicated to the Mare Nostrum are so popular, we chose to close our tour with the chapel of the Santísimo in Mallorca Cathedral, where Miquel Barceló created a powerful mural in which he unites his main aesthetic experiences: the Mediterranean and Africa. This conception is a contemporary metaphor: the Mediterranean as a place of encounter, welcome and interculturality. This is what is shown in the museum heritage referred to, as we have succinctly verified. The Mediterranean tradition, its history and its art thus become masters and teachers of which we are the legatees in order to build a diverse, humane and cultured Europe, values that define our identity.