After a three-day stint oceanside, we decided to return to Palermo by going through the island and stopping at one of the most impressive Antiquity sites of Sicily, the Villa Romana del Casale. We took the A18 south to Catania then the A19 west toward Palermo. As we turned west, the Etna showed itself again, maybe as a wink goodbye. The day was clearer and you could see furmeroles being lazily taken by the wind and merged with the clouds.
The road is easy until you get to Piazza Armerina, which is as crazy as Messina but with much narrower streets and insane directions. The street we had to take was suddenly part of a three-pronged way with trucks backing up, cars coming the other way honking, and traffic on the main road pushing to pass. A navigator who keeps her eyes peeled for the signs is very useful in a case like this. Once we were through Piazza Armerina, the road was easy again.
The Villa is about 5km from Piazza Armerina and well-appointed to receive tourists (there are even clean toilets, sometimes a luxury). We rented an audioguide for a few euros and it was well worth it, although there are explanations about the rooms posted everywhere if you prefer reading.
The Villa Romana del Casale is a late era Roman villa (4th century AD) that is world famous for its floor mosaics, the most detailed in the world. Since 1997, it is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
The villa possibly belonged to a member of the senatorial aristocracy, perhaps a Roman governor, who would be using it as the center for his latifundium (an agricultural landed estate specializing in imports like grain, olives, or wine). It is one of the most important examples of a state residence in the Roman West. Because of the similarity in style with Roman North Africa, the images set in polychrome mosaics were probably set by African mosaicists from Carthage.
The villa is divided into four main parts, all built at the same time, and adapted to the geography and prevailing winds. The massive atrium and the baths face west-northwest, the private chambers (along with the basilica) face east, the guest quarters north, and the triclinium (dining room) and additional rooms south. All are built around a large quandrangular peristyle (a colonnade surrounding a courtyard); the courtyard itself, with at its center a three-basin fountain, was used as an indoor garden and was certainly an oasis of tranquillity for owner and guests.
Once past the entrance of the villa and its vestibule, visitors entered the peristyle, the colonnade around which all the rooms of the villa could be accessed. The floor of the peristyle is decorated with a series of animal heads surrounded by laurel wreaths. The detail is so incredible, there is no doubt as to which animals are depicted. In fact, throughout all the rooms, the realism of animals, especially the exotic ones (elephant, ostrich, rhinoceros, hippo) make it certain that the mosaicists themselves had seen these animals.
As a visitor, you walk above most rooms on an especially built walkway that lets you appreciate the whole picture, something you wouldn’t be able to do at eye-level.
The baths, where one can still see the various rooms (hot and cold, steam, massage room, etc.) also include a gymnasium. Its pavements depict a chariot race around the Forum in Rome.
Room after room -there are 62 of them- you gape at richness of styles and colors, the variety, the complexity of design. Two of the most famous iconographic depictions in the Villa are “the corridor of the Great Hunt,” which is the antechamber to the basilica, and the “bikini girls.”
At the end of the peristyle is a 65 meter long, 5 meter wide (213 ft by 16 ft) corridor depicting various captures of wild and exotic animals to be brought back to Rome for the games. None of the animals are killed and, in the center of the corridor, mosaic tiles depict men loading animals onto a ship. From left to right, the images give us an overview of the Roman Empire of the times, from west (Africa) to east (as far east as India). Some mythological beasts, such as the gryffin and the phoenix, were added for good measure. The corridor is well preserved and, as a historical document, invaluable.
The private appartments are lavishly decorated with scenes of every day life (fishing, picking fruit) but also with mythological story like the legend of Orpheus, who could put to sleep any animal with his playing the lyre. A series of rooms were obviously meant for the owner’s young children, with parodies of chariot races using birds instead of horses.
Some of the rooms were designed as “service rooms”, area in which servants would prepare to serve guests or the family, or offices where business would be conducted. These rooms have mosaic patterns without iconography. Beside one of the service rooms is the famous Room of the Ten Maidens in which ten girls in bikinis are competing in sports of weight-lifting, discus throwing, running and ball-games. The winner is adorned with a crown of roses.
Other rooms were reserved for the matron of the villa. One such is her bedchamber with intricate, lavish mosaics; in its center is a medallion depicting an erotic scene, probably referring to the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Girls in bikinis, boys skiing or driving chariots, exotic animals, ships, rabbits, birds, bears, laurel, fruit, legends, monsters, the rape of the Sabines, whirlpools and whales, the designs are almost too many to count. Artisan mosaicists had to lay over 30 million tiles (a conservative estimate) to create these images. An inimaginable feat these days.
Villa del Casale was sacked during the Byzantine era (fortunately no one was interested in the floors) and although people continued to live there, it slowly decayed and was completely abandoned after a landslide buried most of it in the 12th century. Some parts were always visible but it was all but forgotten (with feeble attempts in the 19th century at archeological digs) until Biagio Pace and Paolo Orsi began serious excavations in 1950. They immediately saw the need to protect the mosaics and had a laminated plastic structure built above them. The world owes them for their forethought and wisdom.