Villa Romana del Casale
A tigress in the big game hunt mosaic
|Location||Piazza Armerina, Province of Enna, Sicily, Italy|
|Area||8.92 ha (22.0 acres)|
|Founded||First quarter of the 4th century AD|
|Abandoned||12th century AD|
|Periods||Late Antiquity to High Middle Ages|
|Archaeologists||Paolo Orsi, Giuseppe Cultrera, Gino Vinicio Gentili, Andrea Carandini|
|Official name||Villa Romana del Casale|
|Criteria||i, ii, iii|
|Designated||1997 (21st session)|
|Region||Europe and North America|
The Villa Romana del Casale (Sicilian: Villa Rumana dû Casali) is a large and elaborate Roman villa or palace located about 3 km from the town of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Excavations have revealed one of the richest, largest, and varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world, for which the site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa and artwork contained within date to the early 4th century AD.
Although less well-known, an extraordinary collection of frescoes covered not only the interior rooms, but also the exterior walls.
The visible remains of the villa were constructed in the first quarter of the 4th century AD on the remains of an older villa rustica, which are the pars dominica, or master’s residence, of a large latifundium or agricultural estate.
The owner's identity has long been discussed and many different hypotheses have been formulated. Some features such as the Tetrarchic military insignia and the probable Tetrarchic date of the mosaics have led scholars to suggest an imperial owner such as Maximian. However, scholars now (2011) believe that the villa was the centre of the great estate of a high-level senatorial aristocrat.
Three successive construction phases have been identified; the first phase involved the quadrangular peristyle and the facing rooms. The private bath complex was then added on a north-west axis. In a third phase the villa took on a public character: the baths were given a new entrance and a large latrine. A grand monumental entrance was built, off-axis to the peristyle but aligned with the new baths' entrance in a formal arrangement with the elliptical (or ovoid) arcade and the grand tri-apsidal hall. This hall was used for entertainment and relaxation for special guests and replaced the two state halls of the peristyle (the “hall of the small hunt” and the “diaeta of Orpheus”). The basilica was expanded and decorated with beautiful and exotic marbles.
The complex remained inhabited for at least 150 years. A village grew around it, named Platia (derived from the word palatium (palace).
In the 5th and 6th centuries, the villa was fortified for defensive purposes by thickening the perimeter walls and closing of the arcades of the aqueduct to the baths. The villa was damaged and perhaps destroyed during the short domination of the Vandals between 469–78. The outbuildings remained in use, at least in part, during the Byzantine and Arab periods. The settlement was destroyed in 1160-1 during the reign of William I. The site was abandoned in the 12th century AD after a landslide covered the villa. Survivors moved to the current location of Piazza Armerina.
The villa was almost entirely forgotten, although some of the tallest parts of the remains were always visible above ground. The area was cultivated for crops. Early in the 19th century, pieces of mosaics and some columns were found. The first official archaeological excavations were carried out later in that century.
The first professional excavations were made by Paolo Orsi in 1929, followed by the work of Giuseppe Cultrera in 1935–39. Major excavations took place in the period 1950–60 led by Gino Vinicio Gentili, after which a protective cover was built over the mosaics. In the 1970s Andrea Carandini carried out excavations at the site. Work has continued to the present day by the University of Rome, La Sapienza. In 2004 a large mediaeval settlement of the 10–12th centuries was found. Since then further sumptuous rooms of the villa have also been revealed.
The latifundium and the villa
In late antiquity the Romans partitioned most of the Sicilian hinterland into huge agricultural estates called "latifundia". The villa's latifundium is cited in the Itinerarium Antonini and is known as the Filosofiana. The villa’s pars rustica, or agricultural section, has been discovered to the west of the entrance area, as shown by a room divided in three parts by pillars for storage of agricultural products. The size of the villa and the amount and quality of its artwork indicate that it was the pars dominica of such a latifundium.
The villa was so large as to include multiple reception and state rooms which reflects the need to satisfy a number of different functions and to include spaces for the management of the estate as well as of the villa. This transformed the villa into a city in miniature. The villa would likely have been the permanent or semi-permanent residence of the owner; it would have been where the owner, in his role as patron, received his local clients.
The villa was a single-story building, centred on the peristyle, around which almost all the main public and private rooms were organised. The monumental entrance is via the atrium from the west. Thermal baths are located to the northwest; service rooms and probably guest rooms to the north; private apartments and a huge basilica to the east; and rooms of unknown purpose to the south. Somewhat detached, and appearing almost as an afterthought, is the separate area to the south containing the elliptical peristyle, service rooms, and a huge triclinium (formal dining room).
The overall plan of the villa was dictated by several factors: older constructions on the site, the slight slope on which it was built, and the path of the sun and prevailing winds. The higher ground to the east is occupied by the Great Basilica, the private apartments, and the Corridor of the Great Hunt; the middle ground by the Peristyle, guest rooms, the entrance area, the Elliptical Peristyle, and the triclinium; while the lower ground to the west is dedicated to the thermal baths.
The whole complex is somewhat unusual, as it is organised along three major axes; the primary axis is the (slightly bent) line that passes from the atrium, tablinum, peristyle and the great basilica (coinciding with the path visitors would follow). The thermal baths and the elliptical peristyle with the triclinium are centred on separate axes.
Little is known about the earlier villa, but it appears to have been a large country residence probably built around the beginning of the second century.
Recent excavations have found a second bath complex close to the storerooms at the entrance dating to the late antique phase and showing rare wall mosaics belonging to a basin or a fountain.
Access to the villa was through a three-arched gateway, decorated with fountains and military paintings, and closely resembling a triumphal arch. This gave onto the horseshoe courtyard surrounded by marble columns with Ionic capitals with a square fountain at the centre. On the west side of the courtyard was a latrine, and also separate access was given to the baths and to the rest of the villa.
The peristyle garden and the southern rooms
The elegant peristyle garden is decorated with a three-basin fountain, in the centre of which decoration featuring fish swimming among the waves can be seen. Rooms 33 and 34 were dedicated to service functions and have mosaics with geometric motifs while room 34 also features a mosaic installed above the original floor showing female athletic competitions giving it the name “the room of the palestriti”.
Also on the south side is the so-called diaeta of Orpheus, an apsidal room adorned with a remarkable Orpheus mosaic. As was usual, it shows Orpheus playing the lyre beneath a tree and taming every kind of animal with his music. This room was probably used as a summer dining room or, considering its floor subject, for the enjoyment of music.
This grand apsidal hall was an audience hall and the most formal room in the villa, accessed through a grand monumental entrance divided by two columns of pink Egyptian granite. An exceptionally elaborate polychrome opus sectile floor consisting of marbles coming from all over the Mediterranean lies at the entrance and is the richest decoration in the villa; it also covered the walls. This type of marble, rather than mosaic, constituted the material of greatest prestige in the Roman world.
The excavations showed that the apse vault was decorated with glass mosaics.
Triclinium and elliptical peristyle
On the south side of the villa is an elliptical peristyle, the Xystus, with a semi-circular nymphaeum on the west side. In the open courtyard were fountains spurting from the mosaic pavement.
The Xystus forms a spectacular introduction to the luxurious tri-apsidal triclinium, the great hall that opens to the east. This contains a magnificent set of mosaics dominated in the centre by the enemies encountered by Hercules during his twelve labours. In the north apse is his apotheosis crowned by Jupiter, while to the east are the Giants with serpentine limbs and in their death throes, having been struck by Hercules’ arrows. In the south apse is the myth of Lycurgus who tried to kill the nymph Ambrosia, but was encircled by grapevines and attacked by a crowd of Maenads.
In 1959–60, Gentili excavated a mosaic on the floor of the room dubbed the "Chamber of the Ten Maidens" (Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Italian). The women appear in a mosaic artwork which scholars named Coronation of the Winner. The young women perform sports including weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and ball-games. A woman in a toga offers a crown and victor's palm frond to "the winner".
The Little Hunt
Another well-preserved mosaic shows a hunt, with hunters using dogs and capturing a variety of game.
A lioness attacks a hunter on the Great Hunt mosaic
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- Villa Romana del Casale, Val di Noto
- Petra C. Baum-vom Felde, Die geometrischen Mosaiken der Villa bei Piazza Armerina, Hamburg 2003, ISBN 3-8300-0940-2
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