Villa Romana del Casale

At the foot of Mount Mangone, about 6 km south-west from Piazza Armerina, in a basin surrounded by low hills rich in vegetation, stands a splendid Roman villa, famous throughout the world as Villa Romana del Casale.

With an area of ‚Äč‚Äčover 3,500 square meters, the Roman Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina, is one of the most precious jewels left by the Romans in Sicily. The hunting residence of the emperor M. Valerio Massimiano (known as Herculeos Victor), is an extraordinary testimony of the life of the times thanks to its splendid mosaic decorations whose fame has travelled around the world.

 

These mosaics, which are by far the most extensive and fascinating of Roman times, were most probably made by North African craftsmen as evidenced by the authenticity and precision with which the places and situations are represented.

 

Through these mosaics, you can retrace the history of the Roman empire with scenes of everyday life, depictions of heroes and gods, hunting scenes and games.

The mosaics have been oriented so that the front side always faces towards the entrance of each room. The structure of the villa with its 48 rooms is articulated around the quadrangular peristyle (place surrounded by columns) which is accessed from the vestibule (space in front of the external door of the villa) and whose pavement represents a ceremony of sacrifice to the Lares, the protective deities of the family.

 

The peristyle floor is covered entirely with mosaics with drawings of felines, lions, antelopes, bulls, wild boar, wild horses, deer and rams within circular geometric figures inscribed in squares. Everything is decorated with laurel wreaths. The external walls of the portico are entirely covered with pictorial decorations while the internal walls are delimited by granite columns.

 

The peristyle garden has a large fountain made up of three basins, covered in marble on the outside and in a mosaic on the inside. At the centre of the larger basin, an octagonal base with a marble statuette was found. From the peristyle through two staircases you access the ambulatory best known as Corridor of the Great Hunt, which contains images related to hunting in Africa and Asia where the Romans used to get their supplies of animals to show in circuses.

 

Of great officiality also for its size (about 65 meters in length), the corridor has two apses (niches) colonnades, marble covered walls and a portico. At the extremity, the two extreme provinces of the Roman Empire are represented in the form of female figures: India on the right and Mauritania on the left.

 

In the left part of the corridor instead, the five provinces that formed the diocese of Africa: Bizacena, Mauretania, Numidia, Proconsolare and Tripolitania. For each province, a hunting scene is represented with a typical animal of the place, while the captured animals are transported to the port of Carthage and boarded. At the center of the corridor is the landing of animals at the port of Ostia.

 

Next to the corridor, preceded by an elliptical portico, is the Ovoid Triclinium (dining room) while along the sides of the peristyle, there are a series of private rooms some of which are reserved for servants.

 

This portion of the villa was intended for the master and his family and consists, besides their private rooms, of a series of service areas. In the latter mosaics with geometric motifs predominate and the walls are all frescoed.

 

The most famous room depicts ten girls in bikinis engaged in a show in honour of the sea goddess Teti. Various gymnastic competitions: discus throwing, ball games, exercises with hand weights and cross-country running. At the bottom left, the coronation of the two winners.

Through the Corridor of the Great Hunt one can access the Basilica. The apse of the Basilica is decorated with pink granite and the floor, of which little remains, is in marble. In ancient times the walls were also covered in marble, while in the centre of the apse there is a shrine and a large niche that probably housed the statue of Hercules, whose head was found in the spa complex.

 

The Basilica has an exceptional role both for the decoration of the floor, for which polychrome marbles from Africa were used and for the position inside the villa itself. It’s thought the Basilica was for public use.

 

On the left of the Basilica. there is an apartment most likely destined for the Domina, the lady of the house. It is an apse room and a cubicle (bedroom) with a rectangular alcove and mosaic decorations depicting theatrical masks, the seasons and the famous medallion with lovers.

On the right side of the Basilica, there is another apartment composed of a semicircular portico, a covered courtyard, an apsidal room and two rooms with an anteroom. The courtyard is paved with an elegant slab of local limestone with a shrine covered in marble that gives it the appearance of a small nymphaeum.

 

To the left of the porch is a cubicle with an alcove and its antechamber. The mosaics in these rooms depict Eros and Pan and a hunt for domestic animals conducted by nine children who enjoy playing. The floors of the apsidal room and the relative antechamber instead, represent children who compete by driving flying chariots, playing and singing dressed as actors.

The south-west corner of the quadrangular peristyle leads to the baths of the villa. Inside the thermal baths there are: the Room of the Anointing, a small square room whose mosaics portray slaves intent on anointing the bodies of bathers; the octagonal Frigidarium, intended for bathing in cold water, whose mosaic decoration recalls the marine environment with cupids fishermen surrounded by newts, nymphs and dolphins; the Tepidarium with its ovens that were used to heat water and keep the rooms warm.

 

The walls are lined with tubules with side holes for better heat diffusion between the columns. From the Frigidarium you can see the swimming pool and the thermal section of the aqueduct.

 

There is also the Circus Room, elongated and rounded, used as a gym. The mosaic of the room reproduces a circus identified with the Circus Maximus in Rome. Pass the shrine of Venus, the place where the statue of the Goddess once stood, we reach the polygonal courtyard.

The Roman Villa of Casale throughout history

Initially, on the site of the sumptuous residence, there was a rustic settlement but with a thermal plant dating back to the first century. Around the 2nd-century the villa was rebuilt according to a more complex plan than the previous one, a Domus articulated in the Pars Dominicia and Pars Rustica, and was enriched with splendid polychrome mosaic decorations.

It played its role as a noble dwelling until the 5th century, after which its farms fell and a Muslim settlement was built on them but it was destroyed by the Normans around the second half of the 12th century after the abandonment of the ancient site to the south-west of the current city.

 

In the 15th-century, a rustic village still stood within the ambit of the ancient residence but was destroyed during the late Middle Ages by a flood that buried everything under a thick blanket of sand and mud.

 

It is in 1761 that the first noteworthy findings are reported but an active safeguard of the monument began only in 1778. Again, in 1808 the Consul of the British government, Robert Fagan, obtained an excavation concession throughout the island and carried out a campaign also in the villa of the Casale.

 

In 1881 it was the municipality of Piazza Armerina that started an excavation campaign. Between 1935 and 1943, the excavations were intensified allowing to bring to light most of the structure. In 1997, UNESCO declared the villa, now visited by more than 500,000 tourists a year, a World Heritage Site.

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