Villa Romana del Casale
This imposing Roman villa was likely built between the late 3rd century BC and the early 4th century AD undoubtely by some important figure, perhaps a member of the Imperial family itself. One of the most likely candidates seems to be Maximian, one of the tetrarchs who jointly rule the Empire from AD 286 to 305.
The villa, lying in the countryside, surrounded by large estates, was only occupied occasionally until the 12th century. Ravaged by a fire and then buried in mud following floods around 1611, it was only partially re-discovered at the end of the 19th century.
The large complex (about 3500sqm) is made up of different levels. Its main entrance led into a polygonal courtyard, which provided access to the large peristyle overlooked by guest rooms (to the north) and the owner’s private apartments (to the east). Beyond the guest rooms were the servant’s quarters, complete with kitchen. The family’s private apartments were divided into two by a large basilica for meetings and official receptions.
The living area, consisting of a large elliptical atrium which gave onto a large apsed triclinum (dining-room), six small rooms and service amenities, was situated to the south of the complex. The western part of the complex housed the baths. The water was supplied by two aqueducts connected to a third, which, in turn, was fed by the river Gela, flowing a few metres away.
Mosaics – What makes the villa unique are its floors, mainly consisting of mosaics fortunately survived in excellent condition. The majority of panels are polychrome and feature a wide range of subjects. Mythological scenes, incidents from daily life, special occasions – a great hunt, circus games, feast days honoring the gods and a grape harvest – alternate with geometric decoration incorporating medallions stars and key patterns in a wonderful array of colours. What is particularly remarkable is the evocative way in which movement and action is portrayed thereby animating the various scenes with realism. The rare skill with which the wild and exotic animals have been portrayed has been interpreted as the work of North African craftsmen. The panels are laid facing the entrance to each room, what allows visitors to see the scenes from the best angle, as they enter the room.
Some rooms contain geometric mosaics with a wide range of motifs: circles, stars, swastikas, hexagons and interlacing. The other, more figurative panels are described in detail below.
Terme – Past the entrance to the steam baths, on the left, is a section of the aqueduct that supplied the villa. Immediately beyond are the rooms which make up the thermal complex. In the first are installed the great furnaces (praefurnia) which, through an elaborate system, heated the rooms of the building. Sections of pipes which once ran along the lenght of the room are still visible in the walls. The under-floor heating can be seen in the Tepidarium; small brick columns support the floor, leaving a large cavity between it and the ground through which hot air could circulate freely. This room was maintained at a moderate temperature for use immediately after the Calidaria where saunas and the hot baths were taken.
Sala delle Unzioni – The use of the small square anointing room is shown in the mosaic decoration. Slaves are shown preparing oil and unguents for application and massaging the bodies of the bathers (the figures at the top left), with some of the tools of their trade, notably the strigil, a sort of curved spatula with a handle used for scraping and cleaning the skin, and a jar of oil (the figure at the top right). Below, Tite and Cassi (from the names of the two slaves on the cloth draped around their hips) hold a bucket and a brush. The latter wears a pointed hat, of a kind that is typical in Syria.
Frigidarium – The octagonal room set aside for cold baths, has a fine central mosaic with a marine theme consisting of cherub fishermen surrounded by tritons, nereids (sea nymphs) and dolphins. One recess is filled with a man sitting on a leopard skin, attended by two servants
From the frigidarium, the piscina and the end of the aqueduct can just be seen. Beyond the shrine of Venus, thus called because fragments of a statue of the goddess were found there, is a polygonal courtyard articulated by a colonnade. In the centre are the remains of the impluvium – a basin or cistern in which rainwater was collected from the surrounding roofs and then channelled towards the great latrine. The main entrance to the villa was from the courtyard; on the south side can be seen the remains of the entrance comprising a central door flanked by two side-doors.
Peristilium – Pass through the vestibule. The mosaic features figures bearing a candlestick, a branch of laurel and, below, a figure with a diptych (a small book consisting of two panels) from which he might read a welcome addressed to the master of the house and any guests.
Directly opposite is the lararium, where statues of the household gods, the lari, were kept.
The imposing rectangular portico (eight columns on the short sides, ten on the longer sides) is dominated by a great fountain with a small statue as its centrepiece.
Peristilium mosaic – Running along all four sides of the portico is a beautiful mosaic ornamented with round medallions set among squares, with, at their corners, birds and leaves. The medallions bears the heads of wild and domestic animals (bears, tigers, wild boars, panthers, horses and cows).
Piccola latrina – The floor mosaic depicts animals including a wild ass, a cheetah, a hare and a partridge.
Sala del Circo – The long room apsed at both ends, represents a circus, identified as the Circus Maximus in Rome. The decoration illustrates a chariot race, the final event in the festival in honour of Ceres, the goddess of plenty and the harves, whose cult was particularly popular in nearby Enna. The scene is depicted in great detail. Above the spina, the central line around which the horses race, the winner receives his prize, the victory palm, handed to him by a magistrate dressed in a toga, while another character blows a horn signaling the end of the race. To the left, around the bend in the track, are the spectators, among whom a boy picks his way distributing bread. The right-hand bend is dominated by a view of three temples dedicated to Jupiter, Rome and Heracles, before which a charioteer is being dressed: one child holds out his helmet, while a second gives him the whip. The charioteers, dressed in green, white, blue or red, indicate to which of the four factions to compete they belong.
Along the south side of the peristyle are a series of rooms reserved for guests. These were accessed through a second vestibule, which is decorated with mosaics portraying the lady of the house with her children, and her servants holding lenghts of cloth and a box containing oils. Other rooms comprised the servants’ quarters, complete with kitchen in which the oven is still visible.
Sala della Danza – Although incomplete, the mosaic gives a clear impression of women and men dancing. One girl in particular, at the top left, moves sinuously with a veil over her head.
Sala delle Quattro Stagioni – The four seasons, after which this room is named, are represented in medallions, personified by two women (spring and autumn), differentiated by their clothing, and two men (summer and winter), with a bare shoulder.
Sala degli Amorini Pescatori – A few cupid-like cherubs concentrate on fishing with lines, tridents and nets while others play in the water with dolphins. In the upper section may be seen the shore, where a large bulding stands, fronted by a columned portico, amidst palm trees and umbrella pines. The walls bear traces of frescoes depicting a further number of cherubs.
Sala della Piccola Caccia – The room of the Small Hunt preserves five panels depicting the most important moments in the heat of the hunt. In the top left corner, a hunter walks his dogs on a lead, before releasing them and encouraging them to chase after a fox.
In order to give thanks for favourable conditions and a successful day, a sacrifice is offered to Diana, the goddess of hunting, a figure of whom is shown set on a column, in the middle ground. Two high-ranking officials burn incense on the altar, while, behind them, a wild boar is brought forth in a net (on the left) and another hunter (on the right) holds up a hare that he has caught.
The whole of the central part of the mosaic is dominated by a banqueting scene. Shaded by a red awning, slung between the trees, game is being cooked over a fire. There is a pause in the day’s activity; the horses are tethered, the nets are hung on branches, the huntsmen arranged in a semi-circle, relax around the fire taking refreshment.
All around are junting scenes: at the top left, two falconers seek out birds hidden among the branches of a tree; on the right, in the bushes, a man encourages his dogs to follow a hare and, below, a huntsman on horseback tries to coax out another from under a bush.
The last panel depicts the netting of deer and the hunt for a boar, which, having injured the leg of a man (shown resting on the ground, on the left), is being hemmed in by fellow hunters as they plunge a spear into its chest.
Ambulacro della Grande Caccia – The fabulous Corridor of the Great Hunt, 60m long with a recess at each end, is the most pleasant and moumental part of the whole villa. The floor mosaic depicts an incredibly elaborate hunting scene. Panthers, lions, antelopes, wild boar, ostrich, dromedaries, elephants, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses are captured and put into cages or bound prior to being loaded onto ships destined for Rome, where they will be shown to acclaim in the great amphitheatres. What makes this composition so extraordinary is the great variety of its scenes, the realism with which men are shown vying with wild beasts, the strong scene of action and movement, the wealth of and articulate attention to detail. Note, for example, how the limbs of animals shown underwater are portrayed in a different colour to the parts above the surface.
Just beyond the mid-way point is a group of three figures: the central one is presumed to be the Emperor Maxentius, protected by the shields of two soldiers.
Further on, another scene shows the same extreme sophistication in detail: a tiger pounces on a crystal ball in which an image of the animal is reflected. Nearby, a curious scene provoking considerable controversy illustrates a winged griffin holding a wooden box in its talons from which the head of a boy peeps out. Some maintain that the boy acts as human bait to attract the animal, others interpret the scene as a warning against the cruelty of hunting, and that the protagonists have swapped roles.
In the right recess, Africa is depicted as a female figure with an ivory tusk, flanked by an elephant, a tiger and, above left, an Arab-style phoenix – the mythical bird symbolizing immortality which took its own life by throwing itself in the flames, to be re-born from the ashes.
Along the eastern side of this long corridor were rooms used by the owners of the villa, including in the middle, the basilica destined for audiences and receptions (described below)
Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Bikini – The room of the Ten Girls has a mosaic showing two rows of girls dressed in bikini. In fact, they are pictured in their underwear, which was also commonly used to practise gymnastic. The upper part was called the fascia pectoralis and the lower one subligatur. The young women concentrate on performing their various exercises: weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and playing ball-games. In the bottom row, a girl wearing a toga is about to crown another girl (also awarding her the palm of victory) who has been performing exercises with a hoop, trundling it with the aid of a stick.
Diaeta di Orfeo – The Chamber of Orpheus is so called because it was reserved for playing music. At the centre is Orpheus (scarcely visible), seated on a rock, playing the lyre and enchanting all the animals around him. In the apse behind is a statue of the god Apollo.
The south wing of the villa accomodated the principal reception rooms: a large central atrium is flanked by six small units (three on each side) and a large apsed triclinium where meals were served. Two of the three rooms on the north-side contain mosaics of cherubs harvesting grapes from the vines.
Triclinium – The spacious central square extends into three broad apses.
Central area – The main mosaic is dedicated to the Twelve Labours of Heracles (Hercules to the Romans), few of which still recognisable. On the left is the Cretan Bull (or Bull of Minos), the famous and powerful animal sent from the waters by Poseidon to Minos, which having been captured by Heracles was eventually sacrificed to Athene by Theseus at Marathon. Beside it is the Hydra of Lerna, whose many heads, one of which was immortal, were chopped off by the hero. In this case, the monster is represented with the body of a water-snake and a single immortal head.
The Hydra, the younger sister of Cerberus, acted, with her brother, as guardians of the Underworld, reigning in the sweet, deep waters near Lerna, on the border with Argos. In this Labour, Heracles is assisted by his nephew and friend Iolaus, the figure, it is assumed, depicted next to the hero in the left apse. At the top, in the centre, is the great Nemean Lion, which terrorized a mountainous area. Having killed the monster, Heracles wore its peit as a cloak and its head as a helmet. In honour of this great deed, Zeus, the divine father of Heracles, brought the lion to the heavens making it into one of the constellations of the zodiac.
On the right is the hind of Artemis, which Heracles captured among the hills of Ceryneia in Arcadia. Left of the animal is Cerberus, the many-headed huge and savage dog which was brought by Heracles from the gates of the Underworld.
Left apse – The mosaic represents the glorification of Heracles, who is depicted in the centre, holding the hand of his friend, Iolaus (on the left), while Zeus bestows a laurel wreath on his head.
The panel below illustrates the metamorphoses of Daphne into a laurel (on the left) and of Cyparissus into a cypress (on the right). This serves as a reminder as to why laurel is twisted into crowns honouring the heads of brave warriors, emperors and poets. Daphne was the nymph loved and pursued by Apollo; to escape his clutches she prayed to her father a river god and her mother Earth to be turned into a laurel tree – in consolation Apollo made himself a laurel wreath, which from then on, was awarded as a prize at the Pythian Games held in his honour.
Central apse – The scene represents a battle of the giants: five huge creatures have been struck by Heracles’ poisoned arrows. Except for the central figure, the others have snakes’ tails for legs. One of the labours consisted of Heracles stealing the oxen of Geryon. The return jouney is particularly animated with exploits. It was as he crossed Italy that he encountered the giants, one of whom was called Alcyoneus, and fought them by the Flegraean Fields (near Naples).
In the mosaic below, Hesione, the daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy, is threatened by a sea monster sent by Poseidon: an incident resulting from Laomedon’s failure to honour his agreement in paying Poseidon and Apollo for their assistance in building the walls of Troy; the only way to safeguard the city from the sea monster is to sacrifice Hesione. Heracles undertook to slay the monster on condition that Laomedon gave him his famous horses. On the right is Endymion, who was thrown into perpetual sleep, awaiting Selene, the moon, his lover.
Right apse – This mosaic depicts the story of Ambrosia and Lycurgus. On the left, three maenads (literally mad women) attack Lycurgus, a legendary king of Thrace who, having surprised Dionysus (engaged in a bacchanal) on his land, chased him off, killing many maenads and satyrs. Among them, he even tries to kill Ambrosia who, in the scene depicted, is changing into a vine. Behind the maenad are the figures of Pan, Dionysus and Silenus.
Continue along the wall of the aqueduct. Just before a small hexagonal latrine, some steps on the left lead into room 18.
Diaeta di Arione – The chamber of Arion was probably dedicated to making music and reading poetry judging by the mosaic decoration. In fact, this depicts the poet and musician Arion sitting on the back of a dolphin in the middle of the sea, holding a lyre and surrounded by nereids, tritons and cherubs astride, wild beasts and sea monsters. Here is another example of the precise and minute detail demonstrated elsewhere by the mosaicists; one nereid on the right holds a mirror in which her face is reflected.
Atrio degli amorini pescatori – The mosaic illustrates a delightful variety of fishing scenes which run right around the semi-circular portico.
Vestibolo del Piccolo Circo – The vestibule of the small circus derives its name from another circus scene, this time with children as the protagonists. Racing around the turning-posts are the chariots drawn (starting from the top right and working anti-clockwise) by flamingos, white geese, waders and wood pigeons. Each pair of birds also seems to symbolise a season, as a motif on their collars would suggest: roses (spring), ears of wheat (summer), bunches of grapes (autumn) and leaves (winter).
Cubicio dei musici e degli attori – This particular cubiculum probably served as a bedroom for the owner’s daughter. In the apse, two girls sit at the foot of a tree making crowns of flowers. The decoration of the rectangular room is divided into three areas populated by musicians and actors. The letters inscribed in the medallions in the second and third sections allude to musical notes.
Vestibolo di Eros e Pan – Dominating the ante-chamber is the central horned and cloven-hoofed figure of Pan, the god of the woodlands, flocks and shepherds, fighting Eros, the god of love. Next to Pan is the judge, wearing a laurel wreath. Behind the two contestants is the audience made up of satyrs and maenads (carrying a thyrsus – the rod entwined with vine and ivy more often attributed to Dionysus) supporting the god of the woodlands, and the family of the owners of the house supporting Eros. The fight symbolises the difficulty for anyone who is ugly (Pan) to vanquish love. In the background, on a table, are aligned four hats set with diadems and palm leaves and, below, two bags full of money, as the writing indicates.
Cubicolo dei fanciulli cacciatori – This cubiculum was probably the bedroom of the son of the house-owner. The mosaic divides into two parts, which in turn are sub-divided into three sections. At the top, girls collect flowers and make garlands; a boy carries two rose-filled baskets on his shoulders. Lower down, hunting scenes show children killing a hare, capturing a duck and killing a small antelope.
Walk around the large basilica, noting the fragments of the floor tiled with marble.
Vestibolo di Ulisse e Polifemo – These mosaics illustrate the famous story of Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) outwitting the Cyclops Polyphemus (shown here with three eyes) with a cup of wine intended to intoxicate him and send him to sleep. Behind him, the hero’s companions are filling another cup.
Cubicolo della scena erotica – Surrounded by images of the four seasons (in the hexagonal medallions), a polygonal medallion enclosed within a laurel wreath shows a young man embracing a loosely clad girl. This is one of the few rooms that still bears traces of wall paintings depicting dancing figures.
In the room behind the vestibule is a mosaic with fruit, realistically represented with exquisite delicacy, set within medallions and among complex geometrical shapes, while the apse is ornamented with a delicate flower composition against a pale background.