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The Silk Route - World Travel: SVilla Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy
americas asia & far east africa & middle east europe

Sicily: Villa Romana del Casale
2013

Mosaic of wild animal hunt, Villa Romana del Casale

 

This magnificent Roman aristocratic villa has a multitude of rooms whose floors are covered with the most magnificent mosaics including an immense exotic animal hunt and the famous "bikini girls".

Villa Romana

The entrance to the porticoed court of the villa; on either side were once fountains. New buildings cover and protect the remains of the villa.

 

This magnificent villa belonged to a wealthy man, a landowner, possibly a politician. His wealth probably came from the labour of the Sicilians whose land was appropriated to produce vast quantities of grain for Rome.

It was built in the fourth century A.D. on the site of another earlier villa and over the following two hundred years was adapted to a more defensive architecture, perhaps reflecting the deterioration of Roman power. A major excavation, restoration and conservation programme has revealed over 3000 square metres of exquisite mosaic floors, the largest extent of in situ mosaics ever found. They are thought to have been created by skillful African mosaicists. Much of the information included here was found on the excellent informative boards throughout the villa and in the guide which is downloadable from the villa website.

Villa Romana
The porticoed entry court on the western side of the villa; on either side of the south-facing entrance were fountains. The photograph was taken from the steps of the vestibule leading into the villa.

 

This lavish residence was entered from an external porticoed court via a wide and imposing vestibule. The layout was obviously designed to impress visitors and can't have failed as through the vestibule was a rectangular peristyle (a colonnaded porch surrounding an open courtyard), roughly 30m x 22m, oriented roughly east-west and with a magnificent fountain running almost its full length.

The floor, like all floors in the villa was covered with elaborate mosaic patterns and images.

Villa Romana
Floor mosaic in the vestibule
The mosaic probably represents a welcome ceremony to the master of the villa (dominus). The richly dressed figures wear crowns of laurel leaves signifying the importance of the dominus.
Left: The middle-aged man holding a lit torch could be the Master of Ceremonies (lampadarius). The style of his hair and beard are typical of the late third or early fourth century A.D.
Right: In the lower register a young man holds a diptych, two small wooden plates on which a welcome hymn could be written, to be recited or sung in honour of the dominus.
Villa Romana
Villa Romana
Villa Romana
The fountain in the peristyle; visitors standing in the vestibule would have been able to see into the courtyard with its impressive fountain.
The stonework on the lower right is what remains of a small room protruding into the court called the sacellum of the household gods, a small apsidal room probably dedicated to the villa's protector deities. It very much spoils the lines of the court and almost looks like an afterthought.
Villa Romana
Peristyle mosaic pavement
The mosaic pavement of the colonnade running around the peristyle is decorated with animal heads.
Villa Romana
Villa Romana


Villa Romana
Floor mosaics in the peristyle

 

Villa Romana
The entrance from the peristyle leads into an antechamber which in turn leads to the (reconstructed) private family lavatory.

Villa RomanaA donkey, hare, partridge, bustard and a serval chase each other in a very lively mosaic.

On the west side of the peristyle is a private family lavatory with animal mosaics - something to contemplate from the multi-seated conveniences!

Villa Romana
The seats (reconstructed in concrete) once extended all around the curved wall and were served by a deep sewer.
Villa Romana
The private entrance room preceding the thermal baths. Lower right are the steps from the peristyle, centre left the steps leading to the baths. Between the two sets of steps are depictions of a vase and a wooden throne which have imperial allusions.

 

On the north-west corner of the villa is a sequence of baths. These could be entered either from the external porticoed court via a passage connecting the baths to the so-called aedicule of Venus, or through a private entrance which led off the north-west corner of the peristyle.

Villa Romana
The mistress of the house on the way to the baths
Villa Romana
Steps lead down from the private entrance to the biapsidal hall.

Villa Romana

The private entrance room from the peristyle has a mosaic floor showing the domina - the wife of the owner - going to the baths. She is accompanied by servants, two blonde-haired germanic youths and two maidservants carrying a fresh clothes and boxes containing massage ointments. Another interpretation is that the domina is leading her children to the baths. This room has benches around its walls and may have been a waiting or changing room.

The biapsidal hall has a magnificent mosaic of a quadriga race taking place in the Circus Maximus in Rome. This room probably functioned as a gymnasium.

Villa Romana
The biapsidal hall seen from the southern entrance from the passage joining the baths to the aedicule of Venus - the private entrance is at the far right.
Villa Romana
Villa Romana






Mosaics on either side of the southern entrance show groups of spectators at the games.





A detail from the mosaic of a group of spectators in the biapsidal hall: here it looks as if flat bread is being sold or served from a tray.
Villa Romana

 

Villa Romana
The octagonal frigidarium
Villa Romana
Mosaic floor of the frigidarium.

 

This baths complex is enormous and it is thought that they were open to the public. From the biapsidal hall one proceeds first to an octagonal frigidarium with two cold water pools and four apsidal spaces for changing. On the floor are mosaics with a maritime theme..

Villa Romana
Mosaic floor in one of the changing areas of the frigidarium depicts servants helping a bather with his clothes.

 

Villa Romana
This mosaic on the floor of the massage room features two slaves whose names are on the white cloths around their waists: Titus and Cassius hold the bucket and brush used during the massage.

Further on through a massage room is a tepidarium.  The tepidarium acts as a thermal buffer between the cold room and the hot rooms which lead from it: caldaria with hot baths and a steam room - laconicum. The tepidarium and hot rooms were heated by a hot air system flowing in the hypocaust - a space supported by brick columns below the floor.

Villa Romana
The remains of the hypocaust below the tepidarium. In the top right hand corner can be seen the brick tunnel which led to a furnace, detail below.
Villa Romana

The furnaces were outside, three behind the caldaria and laconicum and two off the tepidarium. They connected to the hypocaust by brick tunnels. Hot air also circulated in clay pipes within the walls.

Villa Romana
Baths furnaces



Villa Romana
Looking over the reconstructed rooms from the north west corner of the main building. Behind is the entrance to the baths. Directly in front are service rooms with geometric mosaic floors.

Nearby was a large arcaded lavatory building for the use of bathers.

Villa Romana
Geometric mosaic in a service room
Villa Romana

Back in the main building, rooms on the north side of the peristyle served a variety of purposes. There are service rooms with less ornate mosaic floor, typically geometric patterns. In the central area dining rooms and bedrooms for guest use.

Rooms were set one behind another off the peristyle so some would have been more secluded.

Villa Romana
This room bordering the peristyle has a mosaic floor with a combination of figurative and geometric patterns. the figures represent the four seasons and there are also birds and fish. The room behind has a floor decorated with a lively fishing scene, putti casting their nets from boats into waters teeming with fish.
Villa RomanaDetail from the fishing mosaic, bottom right corner
Villa Romana
Kidnap or dance?
Villa Romana
Villa Romana
This room was separated from the peristyle by another and so it is thought that it could have been for sleeping. The mosaic is very interesting, being in two registers and either a dancing scene or a depiction of a legendary kidnapping such as the Rape of the Sabine.
Villa Romana
The woman depicted here is rich, given the elaborate necklace, earrings and bracelets and the large medallion on her chest.




Villa Romana
Both these men are carrying women looking more like a kidnap than a dance.
Villa Romana
The room of the small hunt.



Villa Romana
A fox hunt. The hunters wear knee-length socks tie below the knee called fasciae crurales.
Villa Romana
The entrance to the room of the small hunt from the peristyle was flanked by fine Corinthian columns.


Villa Romana
A sacrifice is made to the goddess Diana before the start of the hunt. An image of the goddess can be seen on top of the pedestal.

Close to the north east corner on the north side of the peristyle is a larger room known as the "small hunt", a living room or winter dining room with realistic mosaics depicting hunting scenes. They show all phases of the hunt from the sacrifice to Diana, goddess of the hunt, through hunting of various animals and birds to a final banquet scene which takes place under a red canopy, the tired hunters lounging on a semi-circular cushion with their horses tethered nearby.

Villa Romana
Hares are chased with dogs
Villa Romana
Two hunters with falcons search for two thrushes in a tree
Villa Romana
A stag hunt. Two horsemen chase the stags into a net stretched between two tree trunks
Villa Romana
A boar hunt with dogs and spears. The hunter at the back looks to be wielding a large boulder while on his left a dazed hunter holds his head. The hunter in the foreground has a gashed leg, his spear broken in his right hand. Blood spurts from a spear wound to the boar's chest and also where the dog attacks its hindquarters.

On the eastern side of the peristyle is the greatest wonder of the villa. here a wide corridor runs the length of the building with an amazing mosaic of the "venationes" - hunts to capture wild animals for the circus spectacles in Rome. Soldier huntsmen travel the Roman Empire to its furthermost reaches in search of the exotic and fierce of the animal kingdom.

Villa Romana     Villa Romana
The magnificent mosaic of the wild animal hunt runs the full length of the villa


Villa Romana
Villa Romana
Villa Romana
Villa Romana
this scene is thought to take place on the shores of Egypt near the port of Alexandria
Villa Romana

 

Villa Romana
Villa Romana
At the south end of the great hunt a tiger pounces on its own reflection in a glass sphere, a very innovative way to hunt tigers!1 Behind a hunter stands ready with spear and shield and on the right is a mythical griffon.
Villa Romana
Mosaic in the corridor of the great hunt

 

On the eastern side of the Great Hunt corridor is a basilica in the centre, with private apartments on either side. The basilica is enormous and the notes for the visit describe it as "an audience hall and the most official room in the residence" - this is in keeping with the original Roman definition of a basilica, as an official building, rather than the later and now more usual definition as a place of Christian worship. Here the richest decoration in the villa was used including precious polychrome marbles transported from all over the Mediterranean region to cover both the floor and walls. There is evidence that the great apse vault was decorated with glass mosaic.

Villa Romana
The small apsidal hall in the north-east apartments
Villa Romana
Cupid and Psyche
Villa Romana
Ulysses and the cyclops Polyphemus

 

Villa Romana
The bedroom in the north-east apartments
Villa Romana
Mosaics of putti fishing in the semi-circular portico of the south east apartments

The apartments to the north of the basilica are composed of three rooms: an antechamber with a mosaic depicting Ulysses offering wine to the cyclops Polyphemus, a small apsidal hall decorated with mosaics of baskets of seasonal fruit, and a bedroom with the "lover's embrace" mosaic - probably Cupid and Psyche.

Villa Romana
In the bedroom of the north-east apartments, at the entrance to the alcove (perhaps where the bed stood?) flanked by pillars, is a mosaic of children playing with rings and balls.
Villa Romana
Semi-circular portico in the south east apartments

 

The apartments to the south of the basilica are larger and are grouped around a lovely semi-circular portico. These were meant for the owner and his family and feature mosaics of children or putti - winged male children.

The mosaic floor in the semicircular portico shows scenes of putti fishing set around a pool/fountain.

 

Villa Romana
Mosaics of putti fishing in the semi-circular portico of the south east apartments
Villa Romana
Mosaics of putti fishing in the semi-circular portico of the south east apartments

 

Villa Romana
Antechamber to the apsidal room of the south east apartment

Off the south side of the portico is an antechamber with mosaics of children engaged in chariot racing, with birds drawing the chariots. The antechamber leads into an apsidal room, a long rectangular space with two pillars at the far end which lead into the large apse. This is thought to have been the owner's bedroom or study, the walls, once frescoed, were latterly faced with marble as befits its importance to the dominus.

The rectangular space has a mosaic of crowned dignitaries being greeted by musicians and a mosaic of, possibly, a schoolroom scene with a child teacher brandishing a cane or whip.

Villa Romana
South east apartment apsidal room: bedroom or study of the owner
Villa Romana
South east apartment: bedroom or study of the owner
Villa Romana
South east apartment: bedroom or study of the owner
Villa Romana
South east apartment: antechamber leading to cubiculum on the north side of the portico

 

In the apse a large mosaic appears to show two women gathering roses in baskets and making crowns with the flowers. A leaf and tendrils in the centre seem to form a heart which would be fitting for a mosaic where the marital bed was located. A mosaic of a table, with what looks like two crowns of roses and palm fronds lying on cushions, is laid into the floor at the entrance to the apse between the pillars. Also on the table are two bags with Roman numerals, possibly XIId - 12 dinari?

On the north side of the portico is another antechamber leading to a cubiculum with an alcove. The mosaics in the antechamber show a contest between Pan and Eros representing respectively irrational forces and the human soul. Silenus, wearing a crown of grape leaves, is the judge and here raises his arm to start the competition which appears to be some kind of wrestling match. Silenus was associated with the cult of wine and is distinguished by his great wisdom /( which doesn't seem to follow!). He was entrusted with the education of the young Dionysus who can be seen behind him wearing an a leopard skin.

Villa Romana
South east apartment, north side antechamber: contest between Pan and Eros

Behind Dionysus are the supporters of Pan: maenads and satyrs.

Villa Romana
South east apartment: cubiculum on the north side of the portico

Villa Romana

Behind Eros is a group of women and children which may represent the wife of the owner and his children.

In the centre at the back of the scene is a table with palm fronds in baskets or pots and, beneath, bags of coins labelled with a star symbol and 12d - no doubt for the victor.

Villa Romana

The cubiculum which leads off this antechamber has mosaics of children hunting. A hare and a goat are stabbed in the chest, blood pouring from the wounds. A duck is caught around the neck with a noose. One small creature bites one of the hunters on the leg - more blood.

The walls were originally frescoed with female figures but were later faced with marble.

Villa Romana
South east apartment apsidal hall looking back to the semicircular portico
Villa Romana
At the eastern side of the peristyle, at the base of the central stairway leading into the corridor of the great hunt, the mosaic is interrupted to include the name "Bonifatius", probably a pseudonym of a gladiator. Alongside are numerals II, III and IIII which are probably related to his chariot race victories.

At the apex of the semicircular portico is the entrance to an apsidal hall. Here the elaborate mosaics are of a marine procession of Nereids, Tritons and animals led by Arion riding a dolphin and playing a lyre. This room may have been a family living room or study to which only the closest friends and associates would have been invited.

Villa Romana
South east apartment apsidal hall
Villa Romana
South east apartment apsidal hall

Turning the south-east corner of the Great Hunt, at the east end of the south side of the villa, is a service room with a geometric mosaic floor and quite substantial remnants of frescoes on the walls. These feature women wearing long gowns and carrying objects which may have  been related to various services.

Villa Romana
Villa Romana

Behind this room another, possibly originally also a service room, has the villa's most  famous mosaics, the so-called "bikini girls". These are women engaged in athletics, a very unusual subject; the room thus being called the "room of the palestriti". The floor is set above an earlier floor hinting at a change in use.

Villa Romana
An earlier floor can be seen top left.
A long jumper uses weights to increase momentum; a discus thrower is poised for action, her jewellery consistent with high status.
Villa Romana
Villa Romana

 

Villa Romana
"diaeta of Orpheus"
There was once a fountain - the square enclosure bottom right.
Villa Romana
The oval courtyard and entrance to the triapsidal triclinium.
Villa Romana
A mosaic depiction of Hercules in the north apse of the triclinium
Villa Romana
"diaeta of Orpheus"
The phoenix, with the halo, imbues the music with sacred power.
Villa Romana
Mosaic in the ovoid peristyle
Villa Romana
The triapsidal triclinium

Almost in the middle of the south side of the villa is a room called the "diaeta of Orpheus". It has a columned entrance and an apse at the southern end where there was a statue of Apollo Lycaus which is a particular pose in which the god leans against a support with an arm resting on his head. The room features a mosaic of Orpheus beneath a tree playing a lyre and taming all kinds of animals with his music. Originally the walls were faced with marble. Its northerly aspect would have made it perfect for summer dining and may have been used for musical entertainment, in accord with the mosaics.

On the south side of the villa is an ovoid peristyle leading, on its eastern side , to a large ceremonial hall.

The peristyle colonnade has only fragments remaining of mosaics of animals encircled in acanthus leaves. The oval courtyard which it encloses is thought to have been used, at times, for aquatic games when it would have been flooded, the zig zag mosaics mimicking waves.

The great hall, or triapsidal triclinium, has a large square central area with an apse on each of its north, east and south sides. The hall was used for the most lavish of official banquets when each of the apses would have been furnished with the semicircular beds, known as stibadia, on which a good number of diners could lounge.

The central square floor was laid with a complex and colourful mosaic depicting the labours of Hercules.

The triclinium is currently protected by a glass and plastic enclosure and is incredibly hot and airless inside which keeps visitors moving quite rapidly to the exit!

Villa Romana
Triclinium east apse: giants with legs ending in snakes, struck by the arrows of Hercules.
Villa Romana
The Labours of Hercules mosaic in the triapsidal triclinium, some of which are: centre top - the Nemean lion, below the three-headed giant Geryon, to the left the bull of Marathon on its right the Hydra.
Villa Romana
Triclinium south apse: Lycurgus entwined in grape vines and attacked by Maenads after attempting to kill the nymph Ambrosia.

The villa is quite overwhelming to visit, we were unprepared for the sheer number of high quality mosaics it contains. The detail and skill are breathtaking and there is a wealth of information here on the life and activities of a wealthy Roman household and activities in the wider Roman world.

References

  1. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: The Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina (PDF)