Imagine receiving this invitation. An extravagance of otium (unbelievable self-indulgent luxury), Philosophiana manifested the voracious appetite of a hedonist enthralled with the world of his time. Among the villa’s sixty-three rooms were elaborate baths, winter and summer dining halls for sumptuous feasts, decadent cubiculums (bedrooms)… But most splendid were the 3535 sq metres of exceptional multicoloured floors of mosaics, renowned for their artistic quality and creativity in depicting nature’s seasons, Greek mythology, Homer’s literature, lustful lovers, agricultural wealth and the lavish life of their benefactor, Maximianus, co-emperor of the late Imperial Age. Superlative, right?
Magellan and I didn’t need an invite to see the finest mosaics in situ in the Roman world.
Arriving by rental car, we stayed in Piazza Armerina in southeastern Sicily, which, despite being near such a major attraction, has a faded down-on-our-luck-and-not-our-fault realism that I found oddly appealing. On a walkabout, we stopped at La Tavernetta and asked to look at a menu. The thin, elderly chef reached into a doored cabinet, his rubber-gloved hands coated in what looked like glycerine. He was a nice man, unlike our waiter, sour as quince, who spent most of his time talking to himself or someone on his cell phone that rang frequently with an obnoxious tone. On our walk to the place we’d rented for two nights, a farmer pulled up on the piazza, his truck loaded with fruits, flowers and vegetables. I admired his long-stemmed calla lilies and before I knew it, three were a gift.
Its richness and size suggest Philosophiana was at the centre of the agricultural economy of the Roman Western Empire in Sicily. In Roman times, agriculture was an activity worthy of a patrician like Maximianus, co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian from 286–305. The villa was presided over by one of his senators who acted as landlord, likely Gaius Caeionius Rufius Volusianus, governor of the province of Africa at the time. It is estimated thousands of farmers and slaves worked at the estate of Philosophiana and lived in the surrounding area.
Built between the 3rd-4th century, the villa is in an idyllic green valley near the Gela River and Mount Mangone, ideal for an imperial residence for officialdom and entertaining. Buried by an earthquake in 346, the villa was fortified in the 5th-6th century to become a medieval settlement—until a landslide covered it in 1161. (Those two natural disasters entombed and preserved the mosaics.) A small community known as Casale was founded over the ruins in the 15th century giving the estate the name it has today—Villa Romana del Casale. Archeologists began exploring three hundred years later, excavation started in 1929 and by 1950, treasures of this aristocratic villa were uncovered. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997.
When the ticket booth opened the next morning, Magellan and I were in line. Entering through the remnants of a triumphal arch and polygonal courtyard, what guests see first today is the bathing complex of twelve rooms. To protect the mosaics, an elevated walkway leads you to the central part of the villa where VIP guests of yore would be received, a courtyard with a portico surrounding a garden and fountain, and a large hall with three apses leading to the basilica, dining rooms, main apartments and servants’ quarters. In the villa’s most recent restoration (2012) the entire complex was covered with a wooden roof. Workers are still restoring the slaves’ quarters in the nearby hazelnut orchards.
Astounding visitors for centuries, the mosaics were created by highly skilled African artists from Carthage, Hippo and Caesarea. In total there are 30 million little mosaic tessera in the villa—estimated to have taken twenty-one thousand days of work to lay. Researchers believe the villa was built in fifteen years.
The “Great Hunt Room,” a zoological catalogue of big game, is considered the finest mosaic of antiquity. After the exotic animals were captured they were crated and loaded onto chariots pulled by oxen and transported to Carthage or Alexandria. In port, the animals were loaded onto ships headed to Rome and its arenas of bloody exhibitions and circus spectacles.
Off the master’s large bedroom (11 m2 ) on the wall of one of the service rooms are the most well-known mosaic figures in the villa—the “Room of the Girls in Bikini.”
In the sexiest mosaic, the “Cubiculum with Erotic Scene,” half-naked lovers (Cupid and Psyche) are embracing. Often called “Love and Immortality,” its metaphoric message is the seasons of life are passing but true love and passion is eternal. The woman’s Junoesque bottom shows the status of being voluptuous—it demonstrated the family’s wealth. Notice her dark hair arranged in an elaborate up-do. Roman women who wanted to dye their hair black (including grey-haired jubilados I suppose) massaged in a concoction of leeches that had macerated in vinegar and red wine in a lead vessel for sixty days. If they believed blondes have more fun, a dark-haired girl used a dye made from walnuts and sumac sap. A Roman matron was very particular about her hair, often forcing her hairdresser to work without a blouse so she could prick the stylist with long needles when the hairdo wasn’t quite what she had in mind. Marriages were arranged, beginning when girls were as young as 12; over 20 you were a spinster, at 36 a jubilado.
Naturally I was interested in the living/dining room, the Dioeta. It has nine horseshoe-shaped beds where guests laid back to feast, so with three people to a bed it could accommodate 27 men (women ate in other dining rooms with different menus). For every guest there were two slaves who served the seven courses: appetizers (sea urchin, oysters, garden warblers), three mains (boar’s head, duck, hare), two roasts and desserts (flower cream, cookies). The tasters (praegustatores) ensured every dish, starting say with thrushes on a bed of asparagus, was cooked to perfection. You were allowed to vomit to clear your stomach and carry on. The beverage on offer was made of two parts wine mixed with three parts water, and normally you drank the number equal to the letters in your name—usually about twenty cups. Now here’s a little Latin we hope you won’t want to have to learn: Hora sexta (a hangover that lasts to midday). The romans believed wearing a crown of flowers prevented hangover headaches. Anyone tried that?
The mosaics in the Dioeta of Arione we found to be quite lovely. The musician Arione, after using his lyre to enchant seahorses, tritons and cupids, is shown being rescued by a dolphin. In the open atrium is a marvelous nympaeum with scenes of little cupids fishing.
Everyone’s interested in ancient bathrooms aren’t we? For personal hygiene, they used sponges attached to sticks. Urine was saved and stored in large urns, its high alkalinity ideal for curing the skins of rabbits and hares.
One of my favourite mosaics was in the Vestibule of the Little Circus. Here, each of four young charioteers is in a cart pulled by a pair of birds whose garlands symbolize and glorifiy the four seasons and circular nature of time. The race is on. The red flamingos pulling the cart with the charioteer dressed in red represent spring. Summer’s charioteer is dressed in white, his cart pulled by two geese. Peacocks garlanded with grapes pull autumn’s team. Winter is awarded the palm, the winner, the green charioteer driving a cart pulled by two doves.
“Rivalled only by Hadrian’s Wall,” is how guidebooks rate Villa Romana del Casale. We were floored by the place and can only imagine how stunning, more than seventeen hundred years ago, it would have been to be invited to stay for a week. Hee-haw. We’re more likely to have been working there full time, me cooking wild boar and making pistachio cakes, Magellan tracking the sale of wheat and calculating the precise amount of pine resin to best flavour the wine.
Di Giovanni, Giuseppe. Piazza Armerina Morgantina The Roman Villa of Casale. Italy: Arti Grafiche Campo, 2000.