Villa Romana del Casale
Ancient Roman Mosaics

Villa Romana del Casale – ancient residential complex from 4th century AD with an extraordinary collection of floor mosaics representing scenes from the daily life of a rich Roman patrician....

Part 1

Historical background

Villa Romana del Casale (Roman Country House) was built at the beginning of 4th century AD on the remains of an earlier “residence” most likely destroyed by an earthquake.

The Roman baths unearthed under the Villa Romana del Casale as well as few archeological findings suggest that the owner of the earlier structure was a wealthy, high ranking Roman official. Some historians speculate that it was a hunting retreat of the Roman Emperor - Marcus Aurelius Maximianus but there is no clear evidence to prove such theory.  Regardless these speculations – the truth is that the Villa Romana del Casale subsequently built on the “ashes” - with its grandeur, elaborated design and luxurious decorations (of which only mosaics survived) proves that indeed for long the whole site belonged to a rich and powerful Roman patrician (member of senatorial class or imperial family).

The fall of the Roman Empire and invasion of Vandals marked an end to this “oasis” of lavishness. The villa was damaged, possibly even ruined and certainly abandoned by the owners. While the complex was still inhabited during periods of Byzantine and Arab domination of Sicily, since long its time was over.  Fortunately (from our “present-day” point of view) in 12th century the villa was totally buried by mudslides hiding its secrets and treasuries for the next few centuries. 

Map of the Villa Romana: Blue - Existing walls, Yellow - Original Mosaics, Pink - areas where mosaics are lost or where only traces of them survived. 

Plan of the Villa Romana showing its most important sections

       The first major excavations of the Villa Romana del Casale began in 1929 under direction of the famous Italian archeologist and classicist - Paolo Orsi. The archeological works were continued in 1930s by Giuseppe Cultrera and followed in late 1950s by Gino Gentili. 

Unfortunately major part of the residential complex’ was lost due to combined effects of landslides, time as well as “scavenging” activities of humans. Surviving fragments of the structure show the large residential complex with the columned rectangular courtyard (peristyle) in the center. Around the courtyard are clusters of private, guest and service rooms, large hall for official receptions (called “basilica”) and a number of connecting vestibules and antechambers. 

Attachment on the north-western side includes baths - thermal (Tepidario) and cold (Frigidario). On the southern side of the complex “attached” is an area including elliptical peristyle connected to a large three-apses “dining” room (Triclinium).  

Both attachments (section of baths and section of elliptical Peristyle and Triclinium) were built along different axes compared to the main part of the residential complex. This atypical architectural solution where sections of the residential complex have different orientations was imposed by the shape of the terrain (terraces) on which the villa is located. 

Surviving section of the aqueduct - it reminds that water and thermal baths were essential elements of any ancient Roman residence....

      The ruins of the Villa Romana will probably never get any attention if not their extraordinary floor mosaics. The truth is that excavations brought to the daylight the richest and largest collection of mosaic floors in the Roman world. What makes it even better – they were made in the time shortly after the Roman Empire reached the peak of its military power and the height of artistic achievements. 

Covering the surface of about 3500 square meters (about 35,000 square feet), mosaics display series of mythological, hunting and everyday-life scenes mixed with geometrical patterns and floral “ingredients”. Interestingly, while fine mosaics decorate almost every available inch of the floor space, the pavement in apparently most prestigious area – “Basilica” is finished with marble.  

Forgotten for centuries, surviving thanks to the “protective” nature, mosaics made the Villa Romana del Casale famous and one of the prime tourists’ destinations in the world. Since 1997, the site is protected by UNESCO as the World Heritage Site.

Vividness and beauty of floor mosaics can only boost our imagination regarding lavishness of wall decorations. Unfortunately only small fragments of frescoes survived on the walls till our times. 

Bird's view of the residential complex known as Villa Romana del Casale. 

Note: this photo does not have its HR version

Since 1960s the remains of the residential complex of Villa Romana received the cover protecting mosaics (and tourists) from the weather elements. 

Before we start the guided tour of the Villa Romana del Casale, let's see what waits for you in the residential complex.....

One of mosaics presenting scenes of hunting (fragment)

Famous "Gym" with mosaics depicting "Bikini Girls"

Loading captured animals on the boat for transport to Rome

Punishing a "lazy" servant during hunting

Nympharium - fragment of mosaics

Floor's mosaics

Nympharium, mythological singer Arion sitting on the back of a dolphin plays cither….

Well, after this short introduction into the life of a 4th century AD Roman patrician let's start our tour of the residence:

Villa Romana Guided Tour – part 1

Entrance

       The entrance to the complex leads through the arch opening into the horse shoe–shape polygonal court with portico. From there a main access via a large vestibule leads to the central columned courtyard (Peristilio Quadrangolare). 

The entrance court has also separate smaller passage leading directly to the baths. It consists of an apsidal room called Edicola di Venere followed by a passage leading to long vestibule Palestra and then to baths. Edicola di Venere (let’s call it “Chamber of Venus”) gained its name from a small statue of Venus emerging from the water that was discovered in the chamber by archeologists. The mosaic covering floor represents geometrical patterns with diagonally placed ellipses and floral decorations.

Ruins of thermal chambers used to deliver hot air and water into baths

Thermal baths: The main floor is in quite poor shape. However it can be seen that under the floor there was a system of canals and chambers distributing hot air from external "ovens" (see picture above)

Frigidarium (octagonal room housing cold-water piscine): floor's mosaics

Baths

     The octagonal Frigidarium (Cold Room) includes two cold water pools (large and small) fed directly by aqueduct carrying water from the river Gela (fragments of the aqueduct are still visible outside of the villa). Along the diagonals are four circular-shape rooms (apses) used for changing before and after taking the bath. The central floor’s mosaics display scenes representing the sea. 

The thermal complex called Tepidarium is a sort of “Roman-day” spa. It includes two small warm-water pools (“Caldario”) and one steam-bath (Laconico). Tepidariom floors are raised above the ground on small brick pillars creating the network of underground canals circulating hot air. From the outside visible are furnaces (Prefornos) supplying hot air to the canals under the floor as well as through the network of pipes hot water to the pools.  Trepidarium is one of few areas in the complex that lost original mosaics (mainly because the major part of the “suspended” floors collapsed).

The room between the Tepidarioum and Frigidarium called Stanza delle Frizioni (kind of “waiting room”) was probably used for taking oil massage (as suggested by mosaic).

Two Apses Room: Mosaic reproducing famous Circus Maximus 

Another look at the mosaics presenting Circus Maximus

Fragment of mosaic presenting public watching the race of quadrigaes

Two-Apses Room (Circus Maximus) 

       This long room called Palestra ends on both sides with semi-circular apses. It served as a passage room to the thermal baths with two entrances. One – connecting to the private “quarters” (next to the Central Courtyard) was serving members of family and important guests. The second one for common users provided an access directly from the Main Entrance via mentioned Venus’ Chamber.

Despite its “humble” purpose Palestra has very rich and colorful mosaics reproducing the famous Circus Maximus in Rome. The central barrier along the hall divides the space forming a racing arena. In fact, the mosaic displays a race of Roman quadrigas (chariots) and the final ceremony of awarding the winner with a palm leaf and a bag of coins. 

In the middle of the barrier (all as a floor mosaic) rises tall stone obelisk – mirroring the original one placed in Rome’s Circus Maximus.

Central Courtyard (Peristyle) with its large columned portico around which are clustered main rooms of the residence

Floor mosaics along courtyard's wings

Courtyard's mosaics presents geometrical ornaments with animal protomes

Central Courtyard (Peristilio Quadrangolare)

      The central part of the Roman Villa makes a large rectangular courtyard with portico supported by marble Corinthian columns.  Next to the entrance from the main vestibule there is a little apsidal shrine (Sacello dei Lari) dedicated to the guardian-deity (Lar) protecting owner’s family.  Lar(es) were usually located in the central section of the Roman house as it was believed they observed and protected all within the boundaries of their location.

The mosaics in the wings are made in form of squares containing medallions with animal heads.

In the center of the courtyard there is a big fountain and small garden (Giardinio). As the matter of fact in the following centuries this Roman architectural concept was introduced to Christian monasteries in form of cloisters. 

From the courtyard’s wings there is access to private, guest and service rooms as well to the Great Hunt Corridor and Basilica.

Mosaics in one of the private rooms (it probably served as the Waiting Room or Dressing Room)

Rooms in the Northern Central Section

       The northern side of the courtyard gives access to several service and private rooms. 

Certainly the high rank owners required vast service area for housekeepers, maids, cooks ….  Simple mosaics characterized by geometric patterns as well as small size of rooms indicate that major part of this section was used as a service area. Remains of a furnace for pottery firing in one room and fragments of cobblestone and mortar flooring in another one did not originate in Roman times. They are rather evidence that the complex was still inhabited in medieval times.

Mosaics in private rooms are more elaborated. The elegance of geometrical patterns is enhanced by images of birds, fish and busts symbolizing four seasons. The head symbolizing Winter is crowned with bare branches and correspondingly heads of Spring with red flowers, Summer with crown of spikes and Autumn with green and yellow clusters.

The most interesting rooms in this section of the villa are: Sala della Piccola Caccia (Room of the Small Hunting) and Room of Fisherman and Dancers. 

Sala Piccola Caccia: Hunting scene

Scene of hunting birds

Final scene of hunting - sacrifice of a bird in front of Diana 

Sala Piccola Caccia

       Sala Piccola Caccia is significantly bigger than surrounding rooms in this section of the villa. It is covered with vividly colorful and “dynamic” mosaics illustrating hunting scenes. Images depict scenes including: fox hunting with dogs, deer hunting on horses, wild boar hunting with spears as well as bird-catchers with falcons. The wild boar scene is particularly dramatic as it shows the real drama of hunting – a wounded man lying on the ground and the hopeless wounded animal sinking in the swamp with no chance for escape.

The final stage of hunting includes scenes of sacrifice of an animal in front of the statue of Diana (goddess of hunters) and a banquet under the red tent. Tied horses, big bird roasting on the fire, servants sharing food from baskets – it all so realistically reveals a joyful atmosphere after successful hunting….   

The hunting scenes include numerous plants reflecting the real hunting landscape.  Cypress and oak trees shown on the mosaics certainly were part of the landscape surrounding the villa in Roman times.

The mosaics depicting hunting scenes have nothing to do with the use of the room. They rather present favorite activities of ancient Roman patrician class. As the matter of fact it is believed that the room Piccola Caccia was used as a winter dining area. Extra prestige is added to the room by the presence of two columns with Ionic capitals.

Mosaics presenting the fishing scene....

Fishing with "Putti" representing the fertility

     In the second room (Fishermen and Dancers) mosaics show images of fishing scenes taking place in a coastal inlet. The fishing “fiesta” depicting full of fish baskets and nets is an evidence of abundance of food. “Putti” (in art - chubby children usually naked, sometimes shown with wings) shown on the fishing boats seem to be the representation of fertility and love – both reflecting abundant harvest. At the background along the inlet’s shore, the mosaic displays a villa in bright colors shown with great architectural details.

In both rooms on the walls there are fragments of ancient frescoes, although understandably they are rather in bad shape. 

Next to these two private rooms (on the east side) are utility rooms probably reserved for “offices” and in general for support of activities related to the adjacent reception areas. Their mosaics form geometrical patterns of octagons interlaced with circular and almond shapes connected by braided bands.....

Follow at --> Villa Romana del Casale Part 2


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