Villa Romana Del Casale in Piazza Amerina, Sicily

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Imagine that you are co-emperor of the western world. You need to build a ranch, hunting lodge or lake home worthy of your status that will keep you safe from unappreciative plundering hordes. Oh, and you like the finest art being produced today. What considerations would you, could you, give to the art and interior design of this edifice? How would you insure that it remain intact and important for centuries? Where in your empire would you place it? For the second of the Chambers Architects’ Sicily blogs, we deepen our knowledge of the Sicilian connection to mythology and rural life with a visit to Villa Romana del Casale.

Most scholars believe it belonged to Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximilian, who ruled between A.D. 286 and 305. The UNESCO protected Villa is located in the province of Enna, the heart of Italy’s breadbasket. This region has been little affected by time and mass tourism. Historically, Enna has been an important agricultural center since Arab rule. The pasta you eat anywhere in Italy may well have begun its life in Enna. Sicily was once a heavily forested island, but with the Roman Empire’s increasing population, iron ploughs and animals were used to clear dense forests to grow wheat in the rich topsoil. Agriculture was the economic base for the Roman Empire. Sicily was the granary that fed its legions. In fact, Sicily’s flag features a trinacria (three legs) with head of Medusa. At the time of the Romans, Medusa was replaced by a sweet-looking young maiden with stalks of wheat protruding from her head instead of snakes. This substitution emphasizes the fertility of Sicily’s lush landscape.

Enna has an ancient mythological link to the cult of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She was carried off by Hades to become Queen of the Underworld at Lake Pergusa near Enna. Greek myths abound with creepy uncles and revengeful mothers and fathers. Persephone’s drama doesn’t disappoint. She’s minding her own business frolicking and picking flowers, when her Uncle Hades, God of the Underworld, kidnaps and drags her to the land of the dead, forcing her to be his wife. Demeter finds out what happened and becomes so angry she doesn’t allow anything on earth to grow. This origin story was used to explain the change of seasons and why crops don’t grow in the winter. When Persephone returns to the world of the living with Demeter, the earth and plants return to life. Persephone is the embodiment of a seed. Each year she must go under the earth to be reborn again in the spring and return to the world of the living.

Stepping into Enna’s Villa Romana, we see the exceptional richness in architectural and decorative elements. Due to the beauty and complexity of this 4th century AD Roman structure, it is considered one of the most important examples of a state residence among its contemporaries in the Roman West. Only a man of great wealth and standing could have created such a building. Diocletian realized that the Roman Empire was too large and unwieldy to be ruled successfully as a single entity. Eventually, this realization led to the Empire’s division into Western and Eastern (Byzantine) empires. Some hint of this split is seen in the Villa’s location, far from fractious Rome and close to northern Africa, one of Maximilian’s spheres of authority in the unraveling empire.

The villa’s age is also significant artistically. Within a few years, the empire, under Constantine, would recognize Christianity. The subjects and imagery allowable in art would be primarily religious. The Villa mosaics express exuberant paganism and vivid narrative. All the pleasures and events of everyday life are depicted, from dancing, lovemaking, massages, hunting, sports, and children at play. None of this representation would have been sanctioned a few years later. Few mosaics, before or since, show the same intense naturalism combined with subtlety, intimacy and sensuality.

African artists probably made the mosaics in the early 4th century AD. The North African provinces were in the economic and artistic forefront in the 4th century, and polychrome stone mosaics were one of the specialties of the North African artists. The mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale are very similar to those found in Carthage, Tunisia and other places in North Africa. Many of the motifs of the mosaics are African in nature, especially the hunting scenes. A substantial part of the tesserae, the small colored stones used in the mosaics, are of African origin. The artisans appear to have brought colors with them that aren’t found locally.

A few highlights of the Villa:

The Ambulatorio features a single, 200-ft. mosaic carpet of stone of “The Great Hunt,” depicting the hunt and capture of wild animals of land and sea, probably destined for Rome’s Colosseum for use in gladiatorial games

Sala del Circo portrays the events of a Roman “circus”, or chariot racetrack based on Rome’s actual Circus Maximus.

The Triclinium illustrates the “Labors of Hercules” with panels that vie with those of “The Great Hunt”as the villa’s masterpiece.

The Thermae is a thermal complex with enormous furnaces that heat the rooms through an elaborate system beneath the villa. Sections of ducts, which once ran along the length of the rooms, 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.

The Frigidarium is an octagonal room set aside for cold baths and features a central mosaic with a marine theme consisting of cherub fishermen surrounded by tritons, sea nymphs and dolphins. One recess is filled with a man sitting on a leopard skin, attended by two servants.

The Portico is rectangular with eight columns on the short sides, ten on the longer side and is dominated by a great fountain with a small statue as its center. 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 feature heads of wild and domestic animals.

Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Bikini is a room with ten girls pictured in their underwear, commonly worn as exercise outfits for weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and games.

Cubicolo della Scena Erotica is a room surrounded byimages of the four seasons. A polygonal medallion enclosed within a laurel wreath shows a young man embracing a loosely clad young woman, probably Cupid and Psyche.

The area and the Villa Romana have become highly prominent in the program to safeguard and valorize Sicilian heritage. Its mosaics and frescoes make the villa one of the most prestigious monumental testimonies to antiquity in the Mediterranean. For this Texas architect, the villa is a living classroom of ancient design techniques.

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