Once upon a time in Sicily, about 1700 years ago, a very rich Roman–maybe Emperor Maximian–built a very large home. He brought very skilled artists from Africa to cover all the floors in very colorful mosaics…nearly 38,000 square feet (3500 square meters) of mosaics.
Inside and outside, every room, hall, courtyard, and available space had exquisite designs. The very rich man and his family were featured in many of the scenes, along with detailed pictures of life in 300 AD. Villa Romana del Casale (“Roman Country Villa”) has some of the largest and best-preserved mosaics in the world. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997…impressive, since excavation wasn’t completed until 2012.
Villa Romana sits in central Sicily, near the hilly town of Piazza Armerina. Why build there, why not near the coast? Some experts think it may have been an upscale hunting lodge or country residence for Roman aristocracy, others propose it was a convenient half-way stop for travelers crossing the island between Catania and Agrigento, for trade with Northern Africa. Either way, it stands at the base of a mountain, with a river which supplied water for the villa and its baths, as well as to irrigate the fertile land.
Sixty rooms were built into the mountainside on four terraced levels around a peristyle, with courtyards, dining halls, guest rooms, servants quarters, thermal baths, latrines, and a huge basilica. The owners had their own private quarters.
Things seemed to go really well for about 150 years. Then the Roman Empire started to falter. The villa was eventually plundered by the Visigoths and Vandals (The Vandals did serious damage in 469-478. Hence the term we still use today…) before the Byzantines settled in for a few centuries. Then came the Saracens who conquered Sicily in 827. They inhabited the villa and called it Casale Dei Saracenti…after themselves.
Things moved along until a disaster–a mudslide from the mountain–enveloped the entire complex in the 12th century. Bad for the occupants, good for history and archeologists. The villa was buried in mud…and also the memories of Piazza Armerina. It was also perfectly preserved, protected from the elements and intruders.
Locals tried to dig out the villa to get to valuables; mention of the site shows up in a 1640 chronicle. Then it seems to have been forgotten. But things got serious in 1881 when archeologist Pappalardo was commissioned to do actual excavations. Little by little, the mosaics emerged. In the 1950s, actual scientific work began, lasting 10 years. What emerged is beyond treasure.
The mosaics are so precise that they show a son with a “crossed-eye” and sutures on the cut of an athlete’s leg. Tribute to Maximian is displayed in many rooms–he fancied himself as Hercules. One room (The Glorification of Hercules) is dedicated to the hero’s 12 labors.
A 200-foot (60-meter) hall features “The Great Hunt” displaying animals of the known world, from India to Africa. Men use every mode of transportation and method of trapping or killing the creatures. The mosaics show movement of the hunters and their prey. Astounding!
Visitors wander from room to room in the villa, then go back and start again. There is simply too much to take in at one go. The mosaics are spectacular…and so is the design of the villa. The “spa” area has separate rooms for men and women, as well as a gymnasium. The latrines are strategically placed, with constant running water to carry away waste. The peristyle allows light to enter the rooms around the courtyard. The courtyards themselves are extravagant, with fountains and columns.
Are there any spaces without mosaics? Yes! The basilica has a floor laid with marble slabs from all over the Mediterranean. It’s interesting that marble was considered to be more “deluxe” than the mosaics. The basilica was a formal room, used for audiences.
The Villa Romana del Casale is the best example of the presence of Romans in Sicily. Some of it is still encased in mud, with no current plans to continue excavation.
My visit left me wondering most about the artists and craftsmen who created each room’s themed floor or wall. We know they came from Africa, where their work was already known in Tunisia and Algeria. They carefully followed the orders of the owner/master regarding the designs…but exactly how were they able to do this? How long did they work each day? Were they slaves? How did they learn their craft?
Ah, the mysteries of archeology. And the fascination of exploring ancient discoveries…
More about UNESCO and Italy:
Can’t get to Sicily? Here are some Italian replicas in the U.S.: