Just outside the town of Piazza Armerina is a Roman villa built in the early part of the 4th century as a luxury hunting lodge for a Roman aristocrat, or possibly even for the Emperor himself. Consisting of a complex of around 40 rooms, its main attractions are the incredible mosaics that grace the floors of almost every room and hall and nook and cranny, including the toilets! Piazza Armerina is about a two hour drive from Marina di Ragusa and we set out yesterday bright and early (not so bright, but early, around 7am) so that we could enjoy the site in the morning hours, have a light lunch and return home by dark.
The route we took confirms our earlier discovery that the area west of Marina di Ragusa along the coast is not particularly attractive and in parts quite industrial and unappealing. It started out great as we approached Comiso from the top of a hill and looked down on that city from an eagle’s perch but after that we were unimpressed. We will try to avoid using this route in the future, as there are prettier roads to travel. Once we turned north, getting past Gela and on towards Piazza Armerina, it became much more beautiful, breathtaking really, as the mountains are covered in shades of green with fields and farms, olive trees and deep green forests.
As we are enamored of Roman mosaics and have seen quite a few now, we were anxious to see the ones in this Villa, that were described as being the most extensive and beautiful of surviving Roman mosaics anywhere in the world. The villa itself was occupied from the 4th century to the 12th, initially by the Romans, followed by the Byzantines, the Arabs and ultimately the Normans, after which it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. A major landslide sometime in the 12th century buried the villa and its mosaics in mud until being partially uncovered by archeologists in 1881 and more extensively in the 1920s and 30s by Paolo Orsi (of Siracusa fame) with the majority of the excavations being carried out in the 1950s and 60s. The existence of the villa was documented in writings that date back to the 1600s. The layer of mud that covered it is responsible for the preservation of these priceless treasures. Even today, more excavations are being undertaken to unearth other parts of this vast estate that still remain buried. But amazingly, although the roof and upper parts of the walls are no longer there, the entire villa seems intact.
In order to protect the mosaics and what remain of the walls and the fresco remnants, they have erected plexiglass structures that keep out the rain and weather. Visitors can view the mosaics from extremely close vantage points, from walkways in the rooms throughout the villa. The style of the mosaics resembles those found in northern Africa and experts agree that it must have been the work of African masters. The mosaics cover a floor area of about 3500 square meters. (38,115 sq. feet if our calculations are correct) According to the guidebook we bought at the site, as many as 37 different colors were used, including 21 natural colors and 16 made of glass. One of most amazing, if only for the sheer size of it, is the Corridor of the Hunt, a passageway that seems to run the width of the villa, at about 200 feet long, a virtual explosion of scenes of the hunt, with wild animals being hunted and captured by men with horses who are loading them on ships. There is every mode of transport and details of nature surrounded by geometric patterns and details on every square inch of the floors throughout the villa. Absolutely every room was decorated in the most lavish style. The apartment of the woman of the house is decorated with laurel wreaths and all kinds of fruits and flowers. One of the images on the floor of the rooms of the owner of the villa show a couple engaged in a “romantic” encounter. Even the servants’ quarters are decorated with mosaics in complex geometric patterns. There is no shortage of animals, fruit, flowers, wreaths, cupids, fish, mythological creatures and groups of people doing every day things, like hunting, fishing, cooking and eating. It is a virtual storyboard of life in the 4th century! There is also the fun room that has the female gymnasts that is called the Hall of the Female Gymnasts in Bikinis because that is what it looks like they are wearing as they take part in sporting activities.
The villa had a spa area, complete with Frigidarium (cold bath), Tepidarium (warm) and Calidarium (sauna), which still has the supports of the raised thermae floor. The villa had what they called a “Basilica,” which we learned is not a church, but the place where they conducted the business of the villa, whose floor was covered not in mosaics, but high quality marble in every color and pattern they could find I think!
We stopped in a nice little trattoria in the town of Piazza Armerina for lunch where Bob enjoyed a penne with ragu, and I had their special with was a fresh tomato sauce with eggplant. The fresh penne was a lovely twisted shape stuffed with ricotta. The bread was yummy and doughy with a crispy crust just the way we like it.
We did a very short spin around the city since it was starting to rain and getting quite cold. We could see our breath! The color of the stones used in building this city are very warm and golden and the city had a more medieval feeling than here in Ragusa province and we attributed it to the fact that it must not have been affected by the earthquake of 1693 and did not have to be completely rebuilt at that time. We know that Jessica will want to see the Villa when she comes in March so we will be returning to this part of Sicily and look forward to it.
We took the “prettier” route home that goes past Caltagirone, south to Ragusa and enjoyed that ride. It was pouring rain as we arrived in Marina di Ragusa and I fixed us a dinner of sausages with peppers, onions and potatoes. We took a walk on the “Lungomare,” the road that runs parallel to the sea, all bundled up against the cold, but the rain had stopped by then and there was nothing but the night and the sea, with the lights of our little city twinkling around us.
Rosemary e Roberto