Villa Romana Mosaics
Guided Tour

Villa Romana del Casale – Guided tour of an ancient residential complex with an amazing collection of floor mosaics representing scenes from the life of Roman upper-class...

Part 2

Eastern Section: Representative Area and private Master Quarters

     The area at the east of the Central Courtyard starts with the magnificent Ambulatory of the Great Hunt. 

It also includes prestigious audience hall (Basilica) and two clusters of large private rooms on both sides of the Basilica. Understandably this was architectonically and artistically the most spectacular part of the Villa Romana del Casale. Some actually call this area as the “Villa within the Villa". 

Ambulatory mosaics: Hunting for lion

Hunting rhino in the swamps of the Delta of Nile

Ambulatory of the Great Hunt (Corridoio della Granda Caccia)

    This long-stretched vestibule located on the eastern side of the Central Courtyard is one of the most spectacular areas in the Villa Romana del Casale. It reflects much-loved activities of ancient Romans and in this particular case – those of wealthy owners of the villa.  While still dedicated to hunting adventures, these mosaics depict realistic scenes of capturing ferocious wild animals and then loading them on ships to Rome for bloody exhibitions in circus spectacles. 

The mosaic in the north-end apse of the Ambulatory seems to be a representation of Mauretania (North African territory – today the Kingdom of Morocco). Correspondingly mosaics illustrate the process of capturing local beasts: panther by using a trap with a goat as bait, lion but also less dangerous species like an antelope or ostrich.

Scene of hunting bufflo

Hunt for an elephant

An attempt to catch the tiger and griffon

      Right side of the Ambulatory represents the hunting “landscape” of the far-east (mostly Egypt but it also extends far beyond the “known world” to the “mystical” India). It depicts scenes of capturing camel, elephant (used for Emperors’ triumphal ceremonies), buffalo, rhino in swamps of the Delta of Nile …..   Reality mixed with mysticism of India is shown in scenes of capturing tiger cubs using a mirror to divert tigress’ attention and an attempt to catch a mythical Griffon (winged lion with the head of an eagle).The story of griffon seems to reflect the “high-flying” imagination (spirit) as well as the might of soldiers at the peak of the Roman Imperium.

The southern apse depicts a female figure symbolizing far-east lands completing the themes of the hunting scenes displayed in the right-side of the Ambulatory. Her dark skin, incense tree and a symbol of mythical phoenix (here shown as a nest in flames preceding the legendary rebirth from ashes) point to Ethiopia.

Capturing wild beasts was a “team effort” requiring close collaboration of soldiers and servants. Obviously any mistake or hesitation could result in serious injury or even death of hunters. No wonder that one scene depicts a punishment of a servant possibly for luck of courage or idling…. 

After the capture, animals were kept in crates then loaded on big chariots pulled by bulls to be transported to the closest ports (either Carthage - a busy commercial hub linking North-Africa with Europe or Alexandria). In the port animals were loaded on the galleys to the final destination – Rome and its arenas. 

Hunting scene (it seems that it was a "crowded" business)

Preparation for the transport of captured animals to Rome

Loading captured animals on the ship

     In a wider sense the Ambulatory mosaics offer a great graphical testimony to the status of the Roman Imperium and its authority over the lands stretching along Nord-African continent from the extreme west (todays Morocco) to the far-east (Egypt). 

Basilica

    Few steps up from the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt lead to the large apsidal hall called Basilica. Most likely it was an official reception and audience area for ancient Roman “VIPs”. Surprisingly, the floor was not finished with mosaics as one could expect but with marble. Panels of different colors (green, yellow, red ….) and various textures were transported from far ends of the Mediterranean Sea so certainly the marble pavement was a symbol of great wealth and status.

The length of the main hall measures 29.5 meters corresponding to 100 Roman feet. As nothing in Basilica’s architectural design was accidental, its width is exactly half of the length. 

The apse’s floor was covered by sheets of some of the most precious marbles – porphyry. It was probably a place where the master sitting on the throne was holding audiences. 

Despite the fact that surviving fragments of the marble flooring are in bad shape (broken, deformed….), Basilica even in its current state still well reflects the original grandeur.

Basilica (Audience Room) - Marble floor

Antechamber and the Master Apartment (North-Eastern Section)

     This group of rooms was probably used as master’s retreat or a place for work. 

Antechamber’s mosaic shows the mythological scene of Ulysses and Polyphemus. The famous story from Homer’s Odyssey is shown in the scenery of the dark cave from where Ulysses, taking advantage of animals leaving for pastures escaped by clinging under the belly of one of them. Mosaic depicts the scene prior to fleeing, when Ulysses with the help of his companions is serving a cup of wine to Polyphemus to make him drunk.

Mosaics depicting Ulysses serving a cup of wine to Cyclope Polyphemus

       The room to the left served as the bedroom. Its mosaic includes a famous “erotic” scene depicting half-naked lovers (apparently mythological Cupid and Psyche) embraced in a sensual hug. This explicit “picture” is encircled by hexagonal patterns with symbols of four seasons. It seems to be a great metaphoric message – the time is passing, the “clock of life” is ticking but the true love and passion may stay eternal! For this reason the scene is often called “Love and Immortality”. Well, some seventeen hundred years later we can say that indeed, that one is immortal.

Famous erotic scene depicting Cupid and Psyche

     The strip of mosaic at the entrance to the alcove presents four joyful children playing some games. It’s a similar message – true love brings genuine “fruits” from where new love can draw strength and flourish becoming endless ….

The mosaic on the main floor in the apsidal room shows geometric pattern of twelve large stars “encircled” by lozenges and octagons. Garlands inside the stars contain images of fruits (including pomegranate – symbol of prosperity and fertility). The apse’s mosaic has different geometrical pattern with leafy stems and buds. Originally the walls of apse had frescoes – now almost invisible for visitors. 

Mosaics in the Apsidal Room

South-Estern Private Rooms.

     The living space located south from the Basilica includes few apsidal rooms, antechambers and common circular courtyard characterized by unique architectural design and vibrant mosaics. Undoubtedly this section of the Villa Romana was designed as a private quarter for masters.

Master’s Apartment

     The room has rectangular shape ending with large apse marked by two columns. In the past the walls were finished with marble panels what prompts scholars to believe that the room served as a master apartment (Appartamento Padronale).

Main floor mosaics (in quite bad shape) depict young musicians, poets and actors in theatrical competition. Mosaics in the apse are in much better condition. They show two women making rose wreaths for the winners of the completion. The bare tree trunk in the center holding single ivy leaf probably symbolizes Dionysus.

On the table below are prizes for winners: two crowns adorned with roses and a bag with coins. 

The mosaic in the antechamber of the master apartment mimics in small scale the one in the Palestra (Circus Maximus) at the entrance to the baths. It depicts the racing arena and four chariots drawn by birds (correspondingly flamingos, geese, chickens and pheasants). The chariots are driven by children. Colors of birds’ plumage (correspondingly pink, white, purple and green) as well as birds’ adornments (flowers, spikes, bunches of grapes and olive branches) symbolize four seasons while the itself race – the cyclical nature of time.

Women making rose wreaths for the winners of the completion.

Racing arena for children (chariots driven by birds)

Semi-Circular Portico

     The semi-circular portico provides access to the private rooms (including Master’s Apartment) located in this part of the villa. As it could be expected – on top of required functionality such space should also match esthetical and sensual needs of masters. No wonder, that the little circular courtyard was “beautified” with the central fountain and nymphaeum providing fresh water and air.

The mosaics present relaxing pictures of “putti” fishermen in boats with on the background villas along the shore. These scenes are very similar to those in the Salla Piccola Caccia.  

"Putti" fishermen (note abundance of fish in those days :-)

Antechamber and the Room with Alcove

     Antechamber mosaics depict symbols of the Dionysian cult. In the center on the large table are prizes for victors (crowns, palm leaves and bags of coins….). The mosaics in the room mimic the hunting scenes so vividly illustrated in the Hall of the Great Hunt. In this case however the hunters are children and hunted species - the domesticated barnyard animals. Mosaics in the alcove show the process of making the crowns from roses by the “flower girls”.

These mosaics may indicate that room was used by master’s children. But it also reveals that since very young age children were being educated in the spirit of virtues of mythological gods, harshness of an earthly life and duties of upper class. 

Children hunting domesticated animals

Hall of Arion

     The hall was probably serving as a “living room” for masters. The floor mosaic is dedicated to sea nymphs (Nereids) in company of other not necessarily “water-loving” creatures like mythical tritons, dragons, ichtyocentaurs (human torso, horse front legs and fish tail), panthers…. At the center of the nympharium, mythological singer Arion sitting on the back of a dolphin plays the cither….

Nympharium: Arion playing the cither....

  ... surrounded by nymphs

Southern Section

Hall of Orpheus 

     Most likely this apsidal room was used for musical performances. At first glance, the statue of Apollo standing in the apse and flanked by two columns may be a bit confusing.  The mosaic however is quite clear presenting at the center Orpheus with harp - clear indication of main activities. 

Musical room (in the center visible Orpheus playing harp)

Room of the Ten Palestrite (Bikini Girls Room)

      This is one of the “service” rooms where the original mosaic had geometrical pattern (still visible in one corner). Later, the floor was covered with different mosaic probably reflecting its new use. It shows young girls in light outfits during athletic competitions.  Due to the similarity of outfits to modern-day bikini bathing suits the young women are nicknamed “Bikini Girls” and correspondingly the room – Bikini Girls Room. 

The clothed woman (on the left) – presents the trophies (crown from roses and palm branch) to the winner. 

On the walls are visible fragments of frescoes (almost a miracle given the fact that for centuries the villa was buried under the thick layer of mud).

Famous "Bikini Girls"

Elliptical Peristyle

     Elliptical Peristyle decorated with fountains and pillar porch is the highest part of the Villa Romana. The archeological evidence that spaces between columns were closed by short walls led to suggestions that the area was used for aquatic games. This theory is supported by the mosaics in the pattern of zigzags in graduated colors – perfectly imitating waves.

Peristyle - ruins of what used to be a "splendid" arena for aquatic games

Triapsidal Triclinium

       Triclinium was one of the most prestigious places in the villa reserved for “state-rank” visitors. It was built on the plan of central square with three large apses on each side. Mainly, the area was used for official banquets. 

The access to the Triclinium is marked by imposing grey granite columns emphasizing the importance of this place. Well preserved mosaics present various episodes from classical mythology expressing the victory of virtue over evil. The first is personified by heroic works of Hercules, the latter by vicious creatures and forces of nature. The central square mosaic depicts adversaries of Hercules encountered during his twelve labors. The mosaic in the left apse shows victorious Hercules in a crown of laurel leaves. The mosaic in the central apse portrays five Giants hit by Hercules’ arrows. And finally the right apse depicts an attempt to kill the nymph Ambrosia by Lycurgus (the king of Thrace). 

Mosaics in passageways introduce stories from lives of other mythological divinities like Dionysus, Endymion (handsome shepherd awarded with immortality), his bellowed Selene (goddess of moon), Daphne (nymph bellowed by Apollo), Alphaeus (god of rivers)…. 

Five Giants hit by Hercules' arrows

An attempt to kill the nymph Ambrosia by Lycurgus...

Daphne and Alphaeus

Final notes

       Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armenina is a must to see for everybody visiting Sicily (or at least this part of the island). No pictures or descriptions can truly reveal the magnificence of this jewel of ancient Roman art. While not all of us have adequate art education to fully appreciate artistic values of mosaics, for all of us it is a great lesson of history, it’s an open geographical map presenting the Roman Empire its peak and an introduction into daily life of Roman’s upper class. So please consider this guided tour only as an opening into the vibrant 4th century world. 

After visiting the Villa Romana do not forget to stop at Piazza Armenina (about 5 km / 3 miles away) – a city with its own long and rich history, numerous monuments and secrets. 

To start the guided tour of the ancient Roman residential complex go to:  --> Villa Romana (part 1)


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