The Small Mosaic Gallery is one of the most valuable locations of the Nymphaeum, richly decorated with paintings and mosaics of white and black river pebbles arranged in floral-geometric designs, the most remarkable among which is the heraldic emblem of the Arese family, surmounted by a crown. This room is characterized by a vault of three frescoes depicting the virtues and allegories, lateral frames enclosed within octagonal cornices, achieved by Giovanni Stefano Doneda so-called Montalto (1608-1690), while the central painting, inserted in an oval cornice, was done by Giuseppe Nuvolone (1619-1703).
The central medallion shows the painting of Charity, moderated by Temperance represented as a half-undressed woman who is squeezing milk out of her breast, while a woman dressed in white is mixing water in a goblet. This representation comes very close to the baroque taste for oxymorons, in fact, charity is by antonomasia a virtue that should not have any limits and which is shown here instead as being held back by moderation, explained through the gesture of pouring water into a goblet, mixing hot and warm water to achieve warm or temperate water (from the Latin term “temperantia”) and by the horse bits which the woman holds in her left hand. Critiques proposed an ulterior interpretation of this scene by substituting the figure of Charity with that of Nature receiving nutriment from Temperance, and is able to quench her thirst with very little, therefore representing an explicit invitation to not exaggerate the pleasures of life, and to moderate one’s appetites. This change was suggested by the analysis of the Latin inscription found in the painting, actually senseless due to the erroneous repaintings, which for the critiques could have been originally “NATVRA PAVCIS CONTENTA” (Nature is happy with few things), taken from the work, “De Consolatio Philosophiae,” of the philosopher, Severino Boezio. This new hypothetical interpretation, however, still needs to be supported by documentation.
The first medallion instead shows Wise man who, on recovering time by driving away passions thanks to Solitude, dedicates himself to Culture. The painting depicts an elderly and bearded man according to traditional iconography of the philosopher, holding a book on which he is writing and beside him is an hourglass representing the awareness of the passing of time, which is being approached by the feminine personification of Solitude. The latter, flanked by other images of a rabbit and a swallow, both solitary animals, is dressed in white from toe to head over which a scroll opens out showing a citation taken from Cicero’s “De Republica” (book I, 27), which cites how Scipione Emiliano Africano Maggiore considered as happy, only the person who could affirm to “never be less lonely than when he is alone.”
In the third medallion is the portrayal of Talent enhanced by Peacefulness, as also cited in the Latin scroll it bears. Here the feminine personification of Peacefulness, half-naked with her left arm resting on a marble cube, is shown with a young man beside her, with golden clothes, holding a scepter in his left hand, and over whose crowned head, the fire of Intelligence is burning. This last figure probably stands for Giulio Arese, who has a sceptre and crown because whoever acquires dominion over intelligence and calm, reigns over himself.
The theme portrayed in the three paintings are the different expressions of a sole iconographic theme aimed at indicating idleness taken as the possibility for man to recover contact with himself. The Nymphaeum grotto thus becomes Bartolomeo Arese’s place of voluntary exile, and who could discretely dedicate himself to the study of alchemy and esoteric theosophy, making him feel like a new Cicero, in eternal equilibrium between sharpness of mind and openness to mystery, the man of a rational century and at the same time, priest of ancient rites. This hall is thus like a place of mediation between religious and mythological themes and as places for multifaceted uses: as a humanistic cenacle, a place for meditation, exhibition, and in which to show some other items collected by the Arese Borromeo family. In the past centuries, in fact, all the halls of the Nymphaeum had a rich sculpture collection, of which today there are only documentary testimonials and base elements.