Victorious Secret: Elite Olympic Champions as Dancing Bikini Girls
Three framed mosaic triptychs by Angela Lorenz, 2012-2013
Installed March 23 - June 26, 2015 in the Sterling Memorial Library and the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library
The Arts Library has been collecting Lorenz’s works in book format for over twenty years and holds over thirty examples of her artists’ books, which often use humor and word play to address social issues. In Victorious Secret, Lorenz addresses gender inequality through the lens of art history, discussing how elite Olympic athletes portrayed in mosaics circa 300 AD were in modern times first identified as “dancing bikini girls.”
Victorious Secret - Elite Olympic Champions as Dancing Bikini Girls
This project consists of three triptychs, nine framed images in all, based on Roman mosaics in Italy from 300AD. The images are details from a thematic sequence on the floor of an ancient Roman villa in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. 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, merely for what the women are wearing. The books I purchased at the site in 1998 suggested that these women likely hold rattles and a tambourine in their hands, instead of weights for long jump, and a discus.
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 their reputation. After several years of my nudging, Isabella published her findings in an Italian academic journal in 2007.  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. Baldini Lippolis' 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. Noble Romans were promoting athletic competition as an ideal for young women 2,000 years ago. That this imagery has attracted so much attention for the superficial aspect of the women's novel 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 palm of victory awarded.
The text around the mosaics is graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum, some in English, some in Latin. It evokes the misinterpretations of these women, referring to obnoxious boyfriends, pregnancy, shopping and washing lists. Yale is the sixth venue for the traveling bikini girls, who started out at Dartmouth in 2013, and will continue to make their way around the U.S., spreading the word about ancient ideals for women, and celebrating 40+ years of Title IX.
I. Baldini Lippolis, Atletismo 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]