9. Villa Romana del Casale
First quarter of 4th century AD
Sicily entered a new era of prosperity at the beginning of the 4th century. This was largely due to the growing importance of the provinces of Africa and Tripolitania for grain exports to Italy and the central role of Sicily in trade between the two continents. This development also brought about the increasing economic activity on the island. The upper classes of the Roman society began to move to the countryside, establishing new latifundia there or expanding new ones.
Villa Romana del Casale, located near today’s city of Piazza Armerina, was one of the villas that dates back to this era. It was the residence of the owner of a large latifundium, and it was a large villa, as shown by the number and variety of rooms. It was built on the remains of an early-2nd-century villa rustica, and it remained inhabited for at least one and a half century.
The ownership of the villa is unknown. It was formerly believed that it belonged to a Roman Emperor, such as Maximian (286-305) or Maxentius (306-312). Now it is generally accepted that its owner was a senator or a high-level aristocrat. The name of Lucius Aradius Valerius Proculus (Populonius), who served as a governor of Sicily (327-331) and the consul (340), is often mentioned in this context. His ownership of the villa is suggested on the basis of some mosaics, especially those depicting hunts and circus games, which are thought to serve as a reminder of the pompous games that he had organised in Rome some years earlier.
The mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale are probably the largest, richest and best preserved collections of Roman mosaics in the world. They are found in almost all the rooms in the villa, covering, together with opus sectile floors, some 3,500 m². They were produced in different workshops, and their style shows the influence of North African artists. Their excellent state of preservation comes from the fact that they were buried by landslides during the 12th century.
The entrance to the villa took place through a monumental gateway resembling a triumphal arch. It opened into a horseshoe-shaped courtyard with Ionic columns and a fountain in the centre.
The first room that a visitor entered was the vestibule. On its floor are fragments of the so-called Arrival Mosaic, depicting the festive greeting of the landlord upon his arrival to the house (adventus).
From the vestibule one enters a rectangular peristyle of Corinthian columns with a three-basin fountain in the centre. The public and private rooms of the villa are arranged around this space. On the floor is a mosaic with square fields in each of which there is a head of an animal surrounded by a circular laurel garland. The animal heads are placed in two orientations, to show the different routes to public and private rooms.
North of the peristyle are three service rooms and the kitchen. The mosaics here have geometric patterns in North African style.
The following two rooms to the west have painted walls. They were most probably bedrooms (cubicula), with the adjoining antechambers. The first bedroom has a poorly preserved floor mosaic, showing six pairs of people in two registers. It probably represents a peasant dance in honour of Ceres. The depictions of the heads, clothes and jewelry are remarkably detailed.
The second bedroom depicts Cupids fishing on richly decorated boats, with lakeside country houses in the background. The V-shaped sign that they carry on their foreheads can also be found in some North African mosaics of the same era.
The next room has an entrance with two columns. It was a small dining room (diaeta), possibly used in winter. Its floor mosaic is known as the Little Hunt. This wonderful mosaic clearly shows that hunting was a very important part of the life of the landlord.
The scenes of the mosaic are arranged in four registers. In the upper register we see hunters pursuing a fox with dogs. In the second register there are two men carrying a boar tied to a pole and a man carrying a goat in sacrifice for Diana (cf. the sacrificial scenes of the contemporary Arch of Constantine in Rome). The third register is dominated by a big banquet scene in the woods, flanked by a further scene of hunt on the either side. The fourth register shows the catching of three deer with a net and the killing of a boar that has injured a man. The scenes of hunt are neatly arranged around the central episodes of the sacrifice and the banquet. The style and the composition are reminiscent of some mosaics in North Africa (e.g., the House of the Horses in Carthage and a villa romana in Hippo Regio).
A hunter with dogs and sacrifice for Diana
Killing of a boar that has injured a man in a swamp. A slave tries to hit the boar with a stone, while another covers his forehead with hand in fear.
Next to the diaeta are two rooms, one with octagonal and the other with square mosaics.
From the rectangular peristyle one enters a corridor that runs parallel to its eastern side. The corridor is 65.93 m long and 5 m wide and is closed by an apse at both ends. Its floor is covered with one of the most impressive mosaics of the villa, known as the Great Hunt. Even though its name suggests a hunt, it actually depicts the animal catching for the games in Rome.
Catching a rhinoceros in the Nile
Loading an elephant on a ship at an eastern port, possibly Egypt
A guard whipping a slave and another slave carrying an ostrich on a ship at the port of Carthage
Other notable scenes of the Great Hunt mosaic include the capture of a griffin with a human bait, the capture of a tiger with a crystal ball, the killing of a lion that has attacked a man, and the unloading of the caught animals at Ostia. The apses at the ends of the corridor depict female figures flanked by animals, usually thought to be the personifications of Africa and India. The meticulous mapping of lands from the west to the east, using animal species characteristic for each region, makes this mosaic very unique. Even the most remote regions of the world, symbolised by mythical creatures such as the griffin and the phoenix, are shown as benefiting from the imperial glory.
The mosaic was put together by two different groups of artists. The first three scenes in the northern part of the corridor were made of regular square stones of 5-6 mm with coloured glazes, while those in the southern half of the corridor show the use of larger (6-8 mm) stones. This creates a difference in the quality of execution of the scenes, in terms of details and vividness of colours.
The corridor of the Great Hunt served as the waiting room to the adjoining audience hall. The latter room had been constructed in the form of a large basilica with an apse. Its decoration was even richer than that of the corridor. It had an exceptionally elaborate polychrome opus sectile floor, made of marbles from all over the Mediterranean. The apse vault was decorated with glass mosaics. The basilica was elevated from the corridor by four steps, and its entrance was highlighted by two columns of pink Egyptian granite.
North of the basilica are rooms of the landlord and his wife. The antechamber has a floor mosaic depicting Ulysses handing a goblet of wine to Polyphemus. It may have been inspired by paintings of the same content found on the Palatine Hill (a reference to the landlord’s attachment to Rome).
One can enter two rooms from this antechamber. One room – a bedroom with an apse – has a mosaic with fruit baskets on the floor. The other room – also a bedroom – has a floor mosaic with patterns of polygonal shapes and stars. Inside the central shape is the depiction of a loving couple – most probably Venus and Adonis. Around it are allegories of the seasons.
South of the basilica is a semicircular atrium. On its floor is a mosaic depicting fishing Cupids, similar to one of the bedrooms north of the rectangular peristyle. A notable feature here is the depiction of the sea with zigzags in one half and with straight lines in the other.
Five rooms are arranged around the atrium. The biggest of them is a room with an apse in its back. It may have been another diaeta or perhaps the landlord’s library. Its mosaic shows Arion, the poet of Lesbos, around whom Tritons, Nereids and sea animals are gathered. In the apse is the head of Oceanus.
Behind the hall of Arion is an octangonal latrine.
In the antechamber to the bedroom in the north of the atrium is a mosaic depicting the competition between Eros and Pan, attended by boys and girls. On a table in the background are the prizes for the winner. A similar theme can be found in a mosaic of the contemporary Basilica of Aquileia.
The mosaic of the bedroom depicts children hunting animals and birds. The spaces are filled with sprawling branches with leaves. Interesting scenes include a boy being bitten by a rat and a boy fleeing from a cock.
On the other side of the atrium there are two similar rooms.
The floor of the antechamber is covered by the so-called Small Circus mosaic. It depicts four carriages drawn by birds and steered by children in the arena. These are allegories of the four seasons. Parallels can be drawn with the depictions on the Arch of Constantine in Rome.
The antechamber leads to a bedroom with an apse. Its mosaic depicts children singing or reciting poems. Like in the mosaic of Eros and Pan, there is a table with prizes for the winner in the background. In the apse, two girls braid garlands of flowers and leaves.
South of the rectangular peristyle are two service rooms. Their floors are decorated with geometrically patterned mosaics, but in one room the mosaic was later covered by the so-called Mosaic of Girls in Bikini. Two registers show nine young women doing sports, while the tenth offers a crown and a palm frond to the winner.
South of the rectangular peristyle is a room with an apse, two columns at the entrance and a fountain in the middle. It can be either a diaeta, possibly used in summer, or a music room, as hinted by the Orpheus Mosaic, which covers its floor. At its centre is the poet who attracts with its songs various animals, among which there is also a phoenix. The parallel with the Arion Mosaic is obvious.
Further south from the rectangular peristyle is an elliptical peristyle (xystus). It had a semicircular nymphaeum at one end and fountains spurting from the mosaic pavement. From it one entered a large room with three apses. The latter room functioned as a triclinium in winter. It has a floor mosaic depicting the Labours of Hercules and his apotheosis. Around the elliptical peristyle there are six more rooms.
The villa also had thermal baths. They were built over an older bathhouse, which explains their unusual position near the northwestern corner of the rectangular peristyle. The residents of the villa entered the baths through a vestibule here, while the guest entrance was through the horseshoe-shaped courtyard and two vestibules. The former vestibule has a floor mosaic showing the landlady with two children and two servants.
From here one entered the room for boxing and wrestling (palaestra). It measures 6 x 15 m and ends in two apses. Its floor mosaic, the Great Circus, shows a race of four quadriga at the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The next room was the cold water area (frigidarium). It has eight apses. The swimming pool, to which water flowed from the nearby aqueduct, was in the long apse in the north. In the south was an apse with three apsidioles. Four apses inbetween possibly served as changing rooms. Entry and exit was through two more apses. On the floor of the central room is a mosaic with Cupids, Nereids, Tritons and seahorses.
The next room was the massage room, as shown by its floor mosaic.
The massage room leads to the warm room (tepidarium). It ends with an apse on both sides, and its floor mosaic depicts athletes. From here one entered the hot water rooms (caldaria). The praefurnia, which heated the latter rooms, can be see from the outside.
Near the entrance to the villa are remains of the storerooms and the second bath complex.