ROMANA DEL CASALE
imposing Roman villa was likely built between the late 3rd century
BC and the early 4th century AD undoubtely by some important figure,
perhaps a member of the Imperial family itself. One of the most
likely candidates seems to be Maximian, one of the tetrarchs who
jointly rule the Empire from AD 286 to 305.
villa, lying in the countryside, surrounded by large estates, was
only occupied occasionally until the 12th century. Ravaged by a
fire and then buried in mud following floods around 1611, it was
only partially re-discovered at the end of the 19th century.
large complex (about 3500sqm) is made up of different levels. Its
main entrance led into a polygonal courtyard, which provided access
to the large peristyle overlooked by guest rooms (to the north)
and the owner’s private apartments (to the east). Beyond the
guest rooms were the servant’s quarters, complete with kitchen.
The family’s private apartments were divided into two by a
large basilica for meetings and official receptions.
living area, consisting of a large elliptical atrium which gave
onto a large apsed triclinum (dining-room), six small rooms and
service amenities, was situated to the south of the complex. The
western part of the complex housed the baths. The water was supplied
by two aqueducts connected to a third, which, in turn, was fed by
the river Gela, flowing a few metres away.
– What makes the villa unique are its floors, mainly consisting
of mosaics fortunately survived in excellent condition. The majority
of panels are polychrome and feature a wide range of subjects. Mythological
scenes, incidents from daily life, special occasions – a great
hunt, circus games, feast days honoring the gods and a grape harvest
– alternate with geometric decoration incorporating medallions
stars and key patterns in a wonderful array of colours. What is
particularly remarkable is the evocative way in which movement and
action is portrayed thereby animating the various scenes with realism.
The rare skill with which the wild and exotic animals have been
portrayed has been interpreted as the work of North African craftsmen.
The panels are laid facing the entrance to each room, what allows
visitors to see the scenes from the best angle, as they enter the
rooms contain geometric mosaics with a wide range of motifs: circles,
stars, swastikas, hexagons and interlacing. The other, more figurative
panels are described in detail below.
– Past the entrance to the steam baths, on the left, is a
section of the aqueduct that supplied the villa. Immediately beyond
are the rooms which make up the thermal complex. In the first are
installed the great furnaces (praefurnia) which, through an elaborate
system, heated the rooms of the building. Sections of pipes which
once ran along the lenght of the room are still visible in the walls.
The under-floor heating can be seen in the Tepidarium; small brick
columns support the floor, leaving a large cavity between it and
the ground through which hot air could circulate freely. This room
was maintained at a moderate temperature for use immediately after
the Calidaria where saunas and the hot baths were taken.
delle Unzioni – The use of the small square anointing
room is shown in the mosaic decoration. Slaves are shown preparing
oil and unguents for application and massaging the bodies of the
bathers (the figures at the top left), with some of the tools of
their trade, notably the strigil, a sort of curved spatula with
a handle used for scraping and cleaning the skin, and a jar of oil
(the figure at the top right). Below, Tite and Cassi (from the names
of the two slaves on the cloth draped around their hips) hold a
bucket and a brush. The latter wears a pointed hat, of a kind that
is typical in Syria.
– The octagonal room set aside for cold baths, has a fine
central mosaic with a marine theme consisting of cherub fishermen
surrounded by tritons, nereids (sea nymphs) and dolphins. One recess
is filled with a man sitting on a leopard skin, attended by two
the frigidarium, the piscina and the end of the aqueduct can just
be seen. Beyond the shrine of Venus, thus called because fragments
of a statue of the goddess were found there, is a polygonal courtyard
articulated by a colonnade. In the centre are the remains of the
impluvium – a basin or cistern in which rainwater was collected
from the surrounding roofs and then channelled towards the great
latrine. The main entrance to the villa was from the courtyard;
on the south side can be seen the remains of the entrance comprising
a central door flanked by two side-doors.
– Pass through the vestibule. The mosaic features figures
bearing a candlestick, a branch of laurel and, below, a figure with
a diptych (a small book consisting of two panels) from which he
might read a welcome addressed to the master of the house and any
opposite is the lararium, where statues of the household gods, the
lari, were kept.
imposing rectangular portico (eight columns on the short sides,
ten on the longer sides) is dominated by a great fountain with a
small statue as its centrepiece.
mosaic – Running along all four sides of the portico
is a beautiful mosaic ornamented with round medallions set among
squares, with, at their corners, birds and leaves. The medallions
bears the heads of wild and domestic animals (bears, tigers, wild
boars, panthers, horses and cows).
latrina – The floor mosaic depicts animals including
a wild ass, a cheetah, a hare and a partridge.
del Circo – The long room apsed at both ends, represents
a circus, identified as the Circus Maximus in Rome. The decoration
illustrates a chariot race, the final event in the festival in honour
of Ceres, the goddess of plenty and the harves, whose cult was particularly
popular in nearby Enna. The scene is depicted in great detail. Above
the spina, the central line around which the horses race, the winner
receives his prize, the victory palm, handed to him by a magistrate
dressed in a toga, while another character blows a horn signaling
the end of the race. To the left, around the bend in the track,
are the spectators, among whom a boy picks his way distributing
bread. The right-hand bend is dominated by a view of three temples
dedicated to Jupiter, Rome and Heracles, before which a charioteer
is being dressed: one child holds out his helmet, while a second
gives him the whip. The charioteers, dressed in green, white, blue
or red, indicate to which of the four factions to compete they belong.
the south side of the peristyle are a series of rooms reserved for
guests. These were accessed through a second vestibule, which is
decorated with mosaics portraying the lady of the house with her
children, and her servants holding lenghts of cloth and a box containing
oils. Other rooms comprised the servants’ quarters, complete
with kitchen in which the oven is still visible.
della Danza – Although incomplete, the mosaic gives
a clear impression of women and men dancing. One girl in particular,
at the top left, moves sinuously with a veil over her head.
delle Quattro Stagioni – The four seasons, after
which this room is named, are represented in medallions, personified
by two women (spring and autumn), differentiated by their clothing,
and two men (summer and winter), with a bare shoulder.
degli Amorini Pescatori – A few cupid-like cherubs
concentrate on fishing with lines, tridents and nets while others
play in the water with dolphins. In the upper section may be seen
the shore, where a large bulding stands, fronted by a columned portico,
amidst palm trees and umbrella pines. The walls bear traces of frescoes
depicting a further number of cherubs.
della Piccola Caccia – The room of the Small Hunt
preserves five panels depicting the most important moments in the
heat of the hunt. In the top left corner, a hunter walks his dogs
on a lead, before releasing them and encouraging them to chase after
order to give thanks for favourable conditions and a successful
day, a sacrifice is offered to Diana, the goddess of hunting, a
figure of whom is shown set on a column, in the middle ground. Two
high-ranking officials burn incense on the altar, while, behind
them, a wild boar is brought forth in a net (on the left) and another
hunter (on the right) holds up a hare that he has caught.
whole of the central part of the mosaic is dominated by a banqueting
scene. Shaded by a red awning, slung between the trees, game is
being cooked over a fire. There is a pause in the day’s activity;
the horses are tethered, the nets are hung on branches, the huntsmen
arranged in a semi-circle, relax around the fire taking refreshment.
around are junting scenes: at the top left, two falconers seek out
birds hidden among the branches of a tree; on the right, in the
bushes, a man encourages his dogs to follow a hare and, below, a
huntsman on horseback tries to coax out another from under a bush.
last panel depicts the netting of deer and the hunt for a boar,
which, having injured the leg of a man (shown resting on the ground,
on the left), is being hemmed in by fellow hunters as they plunge
a spear into its chest.
della Grande Caccia – The fabulous Corridor of the
Great Hunt, 60m long with a recess at each end, is the most pleasant
and moumental part of the whole villa. The floor mosaic depicts
an incredibly elaborate hunting scene. Panthers, lions, antelopes,
wild boar, ostrich, dromedaries, elephants, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses
are captured and put into cages or bound prior to being loaded onto
ships destined for Rome, where they will be shown to acclaim in
the great amphitheatres. What makes this composition so extraordinary
is the great variety of its scenes, the realism with which men are
shown vying with wild beasts, the strong scene of action and movement,
the wealth of and articulate attention to detail. Note, for example,
how the limbs of animals shown underwater are portrayed in a different
colour to the parts above the surface.
beyond the mid-way point is a group of three figures: the central
one is presumed to be the Emperor Maxentius, protected by the shields
of two soldiers.
on, another scene shows the same extreme sophistication in detail:
a tiger pounces on a crystal ball in which an image of the animal
is reflected. Nearby, a curious scene provoking considerable controversy
illustrates a winged griffin holding a wooden box in its talons
from which the head of a boy peeps out. Some maintain that the boy
acts as human bait to attract the animal, others interpret the scene
as a warning against the cruelty of hunting, and that the protagonists
have swapped roles.
the right recess, Africa is depicted as a female figure with an
ivory tusk, flanked by an elephant, a tiger and, above left, an
Arab-style phoenix – the mythical bird symbolizing immortality
which took its own life by throwing itself in the flames, to be
re-born from the ashes.
the eastern side of this long corridor were rooms used by the owners
of the villa, including in the middle, the basilica destined for
audiences and receptions (described below)
delle Dieci Ragazze in Bikini – The room of the Ten
Girls has a mosaic showing two rows of girls dressed in bikini.
In fact, they are pictured in their underwear, which was also commonly
used to practise gymnastic. The upper part was called the fascia
pectoralis and the lower one subligatur. The young women concentrate
on performing their various exercises: weight-lifting, discus throwing,
running, and playing ball-games. In the bottom row, a girl wearing
a toga is about to crown another girl (also awarding her the palm
of victory) who has been performing exercises with a hoop, trundling
it with the aid of a stick.
di Orfeo – The Chamber of Orpheus is so called because
it was reserved for playing music. At the centre is Orpheus (scarcely
visible), seated on a rock, playing the lyre and enchanting all
the animals around him. In the apse behind is a statue of the god
south wing of the villa accomodated the principal reception rooms:
a large central atrium is flanked by six small units (three on each
side) and a large apsed triclinium where meals were served. Two
of the three rooms on the north-side contain mosaics of cherubs
harvesting grapes from the vines.
– The spacious central square extends into three broad apses.
area – The main mosaic is dedicated to the Twelve
Labours of Heracles (Hercules to the Romans), few of which still
recognisable. On the left is the Cretan Bull (or Bull of Minos),
the famous and powerful animal sent from the waters by Poseidon
to Minos, which having been captured by Heracles was eventually
sacrificed to Athene by Theseus at Marathon. Beside it is the Hydra
of Lerna, whose many heads, one of which was immortal, were chopped
off by the hero. In this case, the monster is represented with the
body of a water-snake and a single immortal head.
Hydra, the younger sister of Cerberus, acted, with her brother,
as guardians of the Underworld, reigning in the sweet, deep waters
near Lerna, on the border with Argos. In this Labour, Heracles is
assisted by his nephew and friend Iolaus, the figure, it is assumed,
depicted next to the hero in the left apse. At the top, in the centre,
is the great Nemean Lion, which terrorized a mountainous area. Having
killed the monster, Heracles wore its peit as a cloak and its head
as a helmet. In honour of this great deed, Zeus, the divine father
of Heracles, brought the lion to the heavens making it into one
of the constellations of the zodiac.
the right is the hind of Artemis, which Heracles captured among
the hills of Ceryneia in Arcadia. Left of the animal is Cerberus,
the many-headed huge and savage dog which was brought by Heracles
from the gates of the Underworld.
apse – The mosaic represents the glorification of
Heracles, who is depicted in the centre, holding the hand of his
friend, Iolaus (on the left), while Zeus bestows a laurel wreath
on his head.
panel below illustrates the metamorphoses of Daphne into a laurel
(on the left) and of Cyparissus into a cypress (on the right). This
serves as a reminder as to why laurel is twisted into crowns honouring
the heads of brave warriors, emperors and poets. Daphne was the
nymph loved and pursued by Apollo; to escape his clutches she prayed
to her father a river god and her mother Earth to be turned into
a laurel tree – in consolation Apollo made himself a laurel
wreath, which from then on, was awarded as a prize at the Pythian
Games held in his honour.
apse – The scene represents a battle of the giants:
five huge creatures have been struck by Heracles’ poisoned
arrows. Except for the central figure, the others have snakes’
tails for legs. One of the labours consisted of Heracles stealing
the oxen of Geryon. The return jouney is particularly animated with
exploits. It was as he crossed Italy that he encountered the giants,
one of whom was called Alcyoneus, and fought them by the Flegraean
Fields (near Naples).
the mosaic below, Hesione, the daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy,
is threatened by a sea monster sent by Poseidon: an incident resulting
from Laomedon’s failure to honour his agreement in paying
Poseidon and Apollo for their assistance in building the walls of
Troy; the only way to safeguard the city from the sea monster is
to sacrifice Hesione. Heracles undertook to slay the monster on
condition that Laomedon gave him his famous horses. On the right
is Endymion, who was thrown into perpetual sleep, awaiting Selene,
the moon, his lover.
apse – This mosaic depicts the story of Ambrosia
and Lycurgus. On the left, three maenads (literally mad women) attack
Lycurgus, a legendary king of Thrace who, having surprised Dionysus
(engaged in a bacchanal) on his land, chased him off, killing many
maenads and satyrs. Among them, he even tries to kill Ambrosia who,
in the scene depicted, is changing into a vine. Behind the maenad
are the figures of Pan, Dionysus and Silenus.
along the wall of the aqueduct. Just before a small hexagonal latrine,
some steps on the left lead into room 18.
di Arione – The chamber of Arion was probably dedicated
to making music and reading poetry judging by the mosaic decoration.
In fact, this depicts the poet and musician Arion sitting on the
back of a dolphin in the middle of the sea, holding a lyre and surrounded
by nereids, tritons and cherubs astride, wild beasts and sea monsters.
Here is another example of the precise and minute detail demonstrated
elsewhere by the mosaicists; one nereid on the right holds a mirror
in which her face is reflected.
degli amorini pescatori – The mosaic illustrates
a delightful variety of fishing scenes which run right around the
del Piccolo Circo – The vestibule of the small circus
derives its name from another circus scene, this time with children
as the protagonists. Racing around the turning-posts are the chariots
drawn (starting from the top right and working anti-clockwise) by
flamingos, white geese, waders and wood pigeons. Each pair of birds
also seems to symbolise a season, as a motif on their collars would
suggest: roses (spring), ears of wheat (summer), bunches of grapes
(autumn) and leaves (winter).
dei musici e degli attori – This particular cubiculum
probably served as a bedroom for the owner’s daughter. In
the apse, two girls sit at the foot of a tree making crowns of flowers.
The decoration of the rectangular room is divided into three areas
populated by musicians and actors. The letters inscribed in the
medallions in the second and third sections allude to musical notes.
di Eros e Pan – Dominating the ante-chamber is the
central horned and cloven-hoofed figure of Pan, the god of the woodlands,
flocks and shepherds, fighting Eros, the god of love. Next to Pan
is the judge, wearing a laurel wreath. Behind the two contestants
is the audience made up of satyrs and maenads (carrying a thyrsus
– the rod entwined with vine and ivy more often attributed
to Dionysus) supporting the god of the woodlands, and the family
of the owners of the house supporting Eros. The fight symbolises
the difficulty for anyone who is ugly (Pan) to vanquish love. In
the background, on a table, are aligned four hats set with diadems
and palm leaves and, below, two bags full of money, as the writing
dei fanciulli cacciatori – This cubiculum was probably
the bedroom of the son of the house-owner. The mosaic divides into
two parts, which in turn are sub-divided into three sections. At
the top, girls collect flowers and make garlands; a boy carries
two rose-filled baskets on his shoulders. Lower down, hunting scenes
show children killing a hare, capturing a duck and killing a small
around the large basilica, noting the fragments of the floor tiled
di Ulisse e Polifemo – These mosaics illustrate the
famous story of Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) outwitting the
Cyclops Polyphemus (shown here with three eyes) with a cup of wine
intended to intoxicate him and send him to sleep. Behind him, the
hero’s companions are filling another cup.
della scena erotica – Surrounded by images of the
four seasons (in the hexagonal medallions), a polygonal medallion
enclosed within a laurel wreath shows a young man embracing a loosely
clad girl. This is one of the few rooms that still bears traces
of wall paintings depicting dancing figures.
the room behind the vestibule is a mosaic with fruit, realistically
represented with exquisite delicacy, set within medallions and among
complex geometrical shapes, while the apse is ornamented with a
delicate flower composition against a pale background.
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