75. Victorious Secret – Entertaining Notions of Elite Ideals for Women, 300AD

Edition of 41 copies
3.5″ x 9″ closed

This is a companion volume to three framed mosaic triptychs made out of buttons and hairpins, created to raise awareness regarding ancient ideals of elite sports for women and to celebrate 40 years of Title IX. The artist’s book in an edition of 41 copies serves as a key to interpret the mosaics, based on originals from Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

This project consists of three triptychs, nine framed images in all, based on Roman mosaics in Sicily from 300AD. The images are details from a thematic sequence on the floor of a patrician villa in Piazza Armerina. I originally became familiar with these mosaics from coffee mugs and merchandise in American mail-order catalogs. They are among the most famous Roman mosaics in the world, principally for what the women are wearing, not what they are doing.

Books purchased at the site in 1998 indicated these women hold tamborines and rattles in their hands, instead of a discus and weights for long jump . When these athletes in bikinis were excavated in Italy in the 1950’s, they quickly gained a reputation as musicians, dancers and performers as opposed to elite athletes, competing in, and winning, international athletic competitions.

In a conversation with archaeologist Isabella Baldini Lippolis, a professor at the University of Bologna, it became clear that these are not dancing bikini girls at all, despite this moniker they are known by in Italy. After several years of my nudging, Baldini Lippolis published her findings in an Italian academic journal in 2007. (1) I am now circulating these findings through a work of art.

No parallel has yet come to light in archaeological contexts, making this cycle of images unique and, therefore, enigmatic. Baldini Lippolis presents three categories of previous interpretations of this iconography: dancing bikini girls in an aquatic performance, or in a thermal bath complex; a generic athletic scene with five events in a Roman circus, or stadium; or women exercising for aesthetic purposes, regarding their personal care, an idealized didactic sequence not connected to a specific athletic competition.

The research points out many clues indicating the mosaic represents specific women’s athletic competitions, with five events. A ball game typically substituted the men’s wrestling event. Other iconographic cycles in the villa show young girls imitating the women athletes. Athletic competitions were only open to the elite ranks of society, and to partake in them was a status symbol. Women’s athletic games, sacred and international, were present in Naples, Puteoli, Cartagena, Cherchel, Nicopolis, Laodicea and Ossirinco through the first few centuries of the Common Era. In the 6th century, writers still made references to the Olympic games celebrated at Antioch, where noble young men and women, virgins, competed in wrestling, running events, declamation and recitation of Greek anthems. The chaste athlete-philosophers that won these competitions were ordained as priests and priestesses.

The most prestigious Roman families were promoting athletic competition as an ideal for women almost 2,000 years ago. That this imagery has attracted so much attention for the superficial aspect of the women’s novel and titillating garments completely subverts the original intentions of these mosaics.

To highlight the misguided reading of these images, I have reconstructed them with materials associated with women and ornamental dress: hairpins and buttons attached to a faux-cement ground with a metal frame, creating the semblance of a mosaic fragment. The buttons are attached with bobby-pins to acid-free foam core, in an industrial-looking frame, commonly used to display mosaic fragments in archaeological settings and museums.

I have isolated the women’s torsos, and eliminated their faces, emphasizing what has turned our heads: their subligar, or bikinis. I have also demarcated what should be the focus of our attention: their athletic instruments, and the crown and palm of victory awarded. Around the figures, I have replicated graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum in Latin and English in a faux cement background. The graffiti relates to erroneous interpretations of the mosaics, with the assumption that the women are sexy entertainers.

Chance encounters with educated Italians that have visited the site in the last year have revealed to me that tourists still come away from the site without realizing these women are victorious elite athletes. I created the piece to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which over the years has not just helped to fund women’s athletics, but to change attitudes about the participation of women and girls in competitive sports.

The button mosaics started their journey at Dartmouth College in 2013, and in 2014 traveled to Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, Waterfall Arts in Belfast, ME and Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. In the context of universities and schools, this installation resonates in many spheres, both academic and athletic. The exhibition draws interest from those studying Classics, archeology, history, women’s studies, women in athletics, and visual art. In exhibiting the mosaics at schools my goal is to place them in areas with a lot of student foot traffic, to transmit this message about goals for women in elite sports 2,000 years ago to young people that don’t necessarily make it into university art museums.


I. Baldini LippolisAtletismo femminile e ideologia aristocratica nel programma decorativo della Villa di Piazza Armerina, in: Atti del XIII Colloquio AISCOM, TIVOLI, scripta manent, 2007, pp. 269 – 276 (atti di: Atti del XIII Colloquio AISCOM (Associazione Italiana Studio e Conservazione Mosaico), Canosa, 2006) [atti di convegno-relazione]


Triptych 1: 68″w x 68″h

Triptych 2: 74″w x 64″h

Triptych 3: 96″w x 64″h

Victorious Secret Graffiti Text from Pompeii and Herculaneum

Triptych I

Panel A
Figulus loves Idaia  /  Virgula Tertio suo indecens es  [Virgula to her darling Tertius: you’re disgusting.]

Panel B
(no text)

Panel C
Restitutus multas decepit sepe puellas  [Restitutus deceived many girls] /  Atimetus got me pregnant  /  XK Febraruis Ursa Peperit Diem iovis [On January 23, Ursa has given birth, a Thursday]


Triptych II

Panel D
III Idus Apriles tunica I [I bought a tunic]

Panel E
ligna, procu IV, panem H VI, coliclo II, be I, sinapi I, menta I, sale I [firewood, barley, breadloaf, small cabbage, beetroot, mustard, mint, salt] /  April 20 I gave a cloak to be washed, on May 7 a headband, on May 8 two tunics

Panel F
Sabina may you stay young and beautiful forever.


Triptych III

Panel G
Aprodite issa [as beautiful as Aphrodite] /  Pompa venatio athletae vela erunt [There will be a procession, a hunt, athletes, awnings]

Panel H
Admiror te paries non cecidisse ovi tot scriptorum taedia sustineas [I admire you, wall, for bearing the weight of all the boring things written by many authors]

Panel I
Secunda xxxxx is not good at ballgames [Epaphra is crossed out, with Secunda replacing the other athlete]

The artist’s book was created by scanning pages with text rendered through wax graffiti, in imitation of the first Roman codex books, and in the tradition of ancient graffiti incised on the walls of buildings. The scanned pages and scanned peacock feathers were laser-printed on archival watercolor paper produced by Cartiere Magnani di Pescia. The book is bound with a brass screw post, vintage Italian buttons and brass wire. It opens into a fan shape, as peacock and ostrich fans were used in Roman times. The peacock was the symbol of Hera/Juno to whom many ancient female athletic competitions were dedicated, in both Greece and the Roman Empire.


Text of book:

Weights (halteres) used in long jump, not rattles for musicians.

Discus for throwing, not a tambourine.

Hoop (trochus) with stick for competitive races at prestigious games in various cities of the Roman empire.

A ball game substituted wrestling in the women’s events.

These privileged women also memorized and recited texts. The men wore nothing at all when competing.

The elite, chaste champions received a palm at the moment of victory,

And a crown at a ceremony, which made the patrician families proud of their athletic daughters whom they encouraged to compete.

It’s too bad they are still famous for what they are wearing, not what they are doing: “Bikini Girls” 300AD Piazza Armerina Sicily

Victorious Secret: Entertaining Notions of Elite Ideals for Women, 300AD.

Angela Lorenz  2013        /41

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