Monday, November 22, 2004

It's Good to be the Emperor

One of Sicily’s Top Ten (and there is a guide book by that name!) is the Villa Romana del Casale, a spectacular archaeological site of a Roman hunting lodge with “the best preserved and most extensive set of Roman mosaics in the world.” No wonder they are extensive, since it is speculated that the villa may have belonged to a co-emperor of the Roman Empire, Maximiamus. The reason they are best preserved, though, is because they were buried under a mudslide in the 12th century and only discovered again in the 20th. Since I adore mosaics and have been all over to see them, from St. Louis to Istanbul, this is definitely one of MY Top Ten places in Sicily, too.

This place isn’t easy to find. Both times I’ve been there I’ve had to wander around lost in the town of Piazza Armerina (also ancient and worth a visit in itself but not THAT ancient) until I hit upon the right sign and the right turn and then follow a narrow, twisted, cobblestone alley down, down, down the hill, out of town, into the countryside and finally come to the villa site. How tour buses get there, I don’t know, but they certainly do.

The Sicilians have a done a nice job of preserving the Villa Romana site and making it accessible for visitors. A modern glass roof supported by silvery metal beams shelters the entire 37,670 sq ft. of the villa—something like a life size Erector set. An ingenious set of raised walkways allows visitors to view every room, every floor from above, and, in some cases, from floor level. Visitors have the opportunity, then, to spend as little or much time in each area as they like.

It’s a time travel experience to go back to the Roman Empire in about 300 A.D. The only way it could be made better would be to have everyone don togas and sandals and maybe laurel wreaths beforehand. There are public and private rooms as well as courtyards, gardens, thermal baths, delicate pillars, frescoes, and, of course, the mosaic floors. It takes hours for me to take in all the mosaics. They think it took up to fifty years for the villa to be constructed and that the mosaicist was possibly from North Africa. It couldn’t have been just one mosaicist, but maybe one artist and a crew of dozens of tile cutters, sorters, layers, grouters, and finishers? If you’ve made a simple tray from tiles as a kid, you can imagine. The designs and scenes are spectacular and extremely varied--life-sized animals, birds, people, mythological characters, flora, boats, chariots, clouds, patterns, and designs--it’s impossible to describe really.

One huge, long hallway portrays all the animals and peoples of the Roman Empire. Another room depicts the trials of Hercules. The exercise room has ten “bikini babes” perfectly preserved in various forms of exercise. The bedroom floor shows a man and woman in a passionate embrace in the center. The workmanship of the scenes and patterns is incredible. With these tiny colored tiles, each smaller than one inch square, the artist is able to show perspective, depth, shadows, emotions, and action . . . .

In this day of wall-to-wall carpeting, hardwood floors, and linoleum, it’s hard to think of these works of art as FLOORS that people actually walked on every day! At the Villa Romana, there are some exposed places where we, the visitors, can do exactly that. And you should. Soon.


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