Villa Romana del Casale
A luxurious Roman villa from around 320 CE
The Villa Romana del Casale is located about 5km outside the town of Piazza Armerina. It is the richest, largest and most complex collection of late Roman mosaics in the world. The Villa Romana del Casale is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Villa Roman del Casale was constructed on the remains of an older villa in the first quarter of the fourth century, probably as the centre of a huge latifundium covering the entire surrounding area. How long the villa kept this role is not known, maybe for less that 150 years, but the complex remained inhabited and a village grew around it, named Platia, derived from palatium. It was damaged, maybe destroyed during the domination of the Vandals and the Visigoths, but the buildings remained in use, at least in part, during the Byzantine and Arab period. The site was finally abandoned for good when a landslide covered the villa in the 12th century CE, and remaining inhabitants moved to the current location of Piazza Armerina.
The existence of the villa was almost entirely forgotten (some of the tallest parts have always been above ground) and the area used for cultivation. Pieces of mosaics and some columns were found early in the 19th century, and some excavations were carried out later in that century, but the first serious excavations were performed by Paolo Orsi in 1929, and later by Giuseppe Cultrera in 1935-39. The latest major excavations were in the period 1950-60 by Gino Vinicio Gentile after which the current cover was build. A few very localised excavations have been performed in the 1970s by Andrea Carandini.
Two other late Roman villas have been found in Sicily: The Villa Romana del Tellaro near Noto in the SE., and the Villa Romana di Patti Marina on the N. coast near Messina. They are smaller, but architecturally very similar, and like the Villa Romana del Casale adorned with beautiful mosaics.
The Latifundium and the Villa
In late antiquity most of the Sicilian hinterland was partitioned into huge agricultural estates called "latifundia" (sing. "latifundium"). The size of the villa and the amount and quality of the artwork indicate that the villa was the main centre of such a latifundium, whose owner was probably a member of senatorial class if not of the imperial family itself, i.e., the absolute upper class of the Roman Empire.
The villa has served several purposes. The villa contained some rooms that were clearly residential, others that certainly had representative purposes and a number of rooms whose intended use cannot be discerned today, though they are definitely not for production purposes. As such the villa would probably have been the permanent or semi-permanent residence of the owner; it would have been where the owner, in his role as patron, would receive his local clients; and it would have been the administrative centre of the latifundium.
Currently only the manorial parts of the complex have been excavated. The ancillary structures, housing for the slaves, workshops, stables etc, have not yet been located.
The villa was a single-story building, centred around the peristyle, around which almost all the main public and private rooms were organised. Entrance to the peristyle is via the atrium from the W., with the thermal baths to the NW., service rooms and probably guest rooms to the N., private apartments and a huge basilica to the E., and rooms of unknown purpose to the S. Somewhat detached, almost as an afterthought, is the separate area to the S. with the elliptical peristyle, service rooms and a huge triclinium.
The overall plan of the villa was dictated by several factors: older constructions on the site, the slight slope on which it is build and the passage of the sun and the prevailing winds. The higher ground to the east is occupied by the Great Basilica, the private apartments and the Corridor of the Great Hunt, the middle ground by the Peristyle, guest rooms, the entrance area, the Elliptical Peristyle and the Triclinium, while the lower ground to the west is dedicated to the thermal baths.
The whole complex is somewhat unusual, as it is organised along three major axes. The primary axis is the (slightly bend) line that passes from the atrium, tablinum, peristyle and the great basilica (coinciding with the path visitors would follow), while the thermal baths and the elliptical peristyle with the triclinium are centred on separate axes. In spite of the the different orientations of the various parts of the villa they all form a single structure, build at the same time. There are no indications that the villa should have been build in several stages.
Little is known about the earlier villa, but it appears to have been just a large, probably build around the start of the second century.
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