Villa Romana del Casale
Villa Romana Del Casale
Cultural Italy Europe And North America Piazza Armerina, Province Of Enna, Sicily

Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina is the supreme example of a luxury Roman villa, graphically illustrating the predominant social and economic structure of its age. Its decorative mosaics are exceptional for their artistic quality and invention as well as their extent.

An earlier rural settlement generally thought to have been a farm, although on slender evidence, existed on the site where the late Roman villa was built. Its orientation was the same as that of the baths of the villa, and its foundations were discovered beneath parts of the villa. The existence of baths in the earliest phase of the site suggests that it was the residence of a rich tenant or the steward of a rich landowner. Two portraits were discovered dating from the Flavian period (late 1st century AD) that may represent members of the owner's family. The stratigraphy of this earlier house provides a chronology from the 1st century AD to the Tetrarchy at the end of the 3rd century. There are indications that the earlier house was destroyed by an earthquake in the first decade of the 4th century, by which time it was probably owned by Marcus Aurelius Maximinianus, a Pannonian who had risen from the ranks of the Roman army to become a general, and then was raised to the status of Augustus by Diocletian. On the violent death of Maximinianus in 310 it would have passed to his son and imperial colleague Maxentius, killed at the battle of Milvian Bridge in Rome in 312. The grandeur and lavishness of the structure that arose on the ruins of the house suggests that it was built on the orders, if not of a Roman ruler, then by a rich and powerful landowner, between 310 and 340. It was occupied until the Arab invasion of the 9th century, although in a state of increasing degradation. The final act of destruction was the work of the Norman ruler of Sicily, William I the Bad, around 1155.

This building, which merits the title of 'palace' rather than villa, is designed in the tradition of the Roman villa but on a scale and to a level of luxury with no parallels in the Roman Empire. The area that has been excavated, which is only part of the full establishment and covers about 4,000 m2 , may be divided into four zones or groups of rooms, all of them decorated with floor mosaics of superlative quality.

The villa is built on a series of terraces. The first is the monumental entrance, which opens into a courtyard, on to which faces the elaborate baths complex. The oval palaestra gives access to an impressive octagonal frigidarium (cold room) and thence through the tepidari um (warm room) out of which open three caldaria (hot baths). Next comes the impressive main peristyle with its monumental fountain in the centre, and the rooms opening off it. There is a small apsidal shrine to one side. To the south is the third group, around the elliptical peristyle. The spacious triclinium has apses on three sides and is decorated with mythological scenes, notably the Labours of Hercules. The fourth group lies to the east of the main peristyle, linked by the long Corridor of the Great Hunting Scene.

This monumental area contains one of the finest and deservedly most famous mosaic pavements, depicting the capture of wild animals in Africa, with the master and his assistants directing the activities in the centre. This group also includes the basilica, a large hall for receptions, which is paved in marble rather than mosaics. Most of the small private rooms in this part of the complex contain mosaic floors depicting more peaceful and domestic activities. Particularly well known is the group of young women wearing costumes remarkably similar to modern bikinis, engaged in sporting activities. The mosaics are the glory of the Villa del Casale. They date from the most advanced period of mosaic art and were in all probability the work of artists from North Africa, judging by both the quality of the work and the scenes they depict. On stylistic grounds it is believed that at least two master-mosaicists worked on the villa, one working in a more classical style on principally mythological scenes and the other using a more realistic approach for scenes of contemporary life. The range of subject matter is vast: mythology, hunting scenes, flora and fauna, domestic scenes and much more. The columns and walls of the villa were also decorated, with painted plaster, both inside and out, and much of this survives.