Thursday, October 11, 2007

La Villa Romana del Casale, vicino a Piazza Armerina, Sicilia

Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Villa Romana del Casale, situated 5 km outside the town of Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, is visited annually by more than half a million people. What draws these tourists there are the more than forty rooms with 12,500 square feet of mosaic pavement, the best collection of Roman mosaics in existence today.

A mosaic from the Corridor of the Great Hunt

I was fortunate enough to visit this wonderful spot in 2000, as a side trip from my stay in Taormina. A group of about fifteen of us took a tour arranged by the language school where I was studying and we had an excellent Italian guide, with the tour being in Italian of course. It seems that so many of the guides I have had on trips to Italy have been architects. I don't know if there is an over supply of architects in Italy and they cannot find work in their field, but they certainly make splendid guides.

Catwalks are used to traverse the mosaics and you can see the overhead
protective cover. Our excellent architect guide is in the blue shirt.

The villa, which was the house of a large surrounding estate, was constructed over an older villa around 320 AD. While there is much controversy about who the owner was, he was certainly a man of wealth and power. From the mosaics we can see that he had connections in Africa, he loved hunting as well as music and poetry and that he was probably a pagan. The villa was thought to be destroyed by invaders about 150 years later although some buildings continued to be used until the twelfth century when there was a fire. The site was abandoned and finally the whole was covered by mud landslides. It is this fact that enabled the mosaics to survive and be so well preserved today.

Another part of the Great Hunt mosaic

At the end of the nineteenth century preliminary excavations were made of the site but most of the work was done during three periods in the twentieth century. The major excavations were done between 1950-60, when a cover was built over the whole to protect the mosaics.

The furnaces where wood was burned to heat the water both
for the baths and the heating system of the villa itself

The extensive mosaics of the villa were probably done in the early fourth century by North African artists, for the materials are considered African in origin. A very detailed account of the mosaics is given here where the workmanship is discussed as well as the mosaics of each room. Of course when we talk about a room, we are basically talking about the floor because most of the walls, although there, are damaged, however some frescoes and wall paintings and niches for statues still exist.

A different style of mosaic, with a central "erotic" image, in the
antechamber to the main bedroom in the private quarters

Visitors to the villa walk on catwalks built on the old walls which you can see in my photo. It is not easy to photograph the mosaics since you stand high above them. In addition they look rather dull because they are open to the air and covered in dust, although in fact when cleaned they have good colour on the whole.

Of course the most widely known of the mosaics is the Bikini Girls Mosaic which I posted about previously here. It is situated in the Sala delle Dieci Ragazze, The Room of the 10 Girls. But another mosaic floor, in the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia, The Corridor of the Great Hunt, measuring 60m or 197 ft in length by 5 m or 16ft in width, is surely more splendid. The mosaics depicted there are among the most impressive from the ancient world, showing the hunting and capture of wild animals and their transportation to Rome for use in the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. I'm afraid my scanned photos do not do justice to this amazing place. Click to enlarge for an improvement.

I would consider my visit to this villa one of the highlights of my stay in Sicily and recommend it highly should you go there. As the Italians say, Vale la pena. It's worth the trouble.

I would like to thank Welshcakes Limoncello for inviting me to guest post on her site and to share some of my experiences of Sicily with her readers.

This is crossposted at Sicily Scene and Nobody Important.


Liz Hinds said...

Those are incredible, jmb. When we were in Crete we visited the palace of Minos where murals had been recreated from tiny bits, while the original bits were in musuems. They were obviously reconstructed and lost what should have been their grandeur. These mosaics, on the other hand, have been preserved wonderfully and must have been a truly magnificent sight.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for a great post and fabulous pictures, jmb. I have been there and found it fascinating. It's not an easy place to get to by public transport, though. I'll try and find out about the architects - there do seem to be rather a lot of them here, come to think of it!


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