Mosaics of Villa del Casale, Sicily

Villa del Casale

The important Roman monument of Villa del Casale is best known for its very fine mosaics. See Piazza Armerina for general information, article below for detailed interpretation of the importance and symbolism of the mosaics at Villa del Casale.

Let's explore, in a few words, the decorative elements that most attracted the attention of the visitor, or the mosaics. With regard to the date of the villa, it seems that it had been accomplished in about twenty years: "Piazza Armerina can be placed in the first two decades of the fourth century [AD] with sufficient certainty” [See S. Settis, “Per l'interpretazione di piazza armerina”, in “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité”,  T. 87, N°2. 1975: 873-994. ]

We can see immediately some  marked stylistic differences  among the many mosaics, due to different patterns and even workers. According to Salvatore Settis, who made an exhaustive inquiry about the symbolism of the mosaics in Villa del casale, "[...] the geometric decoration of the room includes 29 fruit baskets, which tend to interpret it as the 'dining room'. In the  Cubicle in the same apartment, a pair of lovers is surrounded by some personifications of the Seasons and theatrical masks;  in analogous situation is the sequence of the rooms  n. 17 (the Seasons) and 18 (the Fishing Cupids).

The mosaics depicting the seasons and the lovers are 30, those representing the seasons and the Fishing Cupids are respectively 17 and 18. In each of these groups, the decoration is focused on a somewhat erotic topic; when to it joined the "Seasons", they indicate symbolically the 'eternity of love.’  To some sports activities are dedicated  the mosaics of the  “Thermae”.

The beginning of the most important  ceremonial  sequence is marked by the hall No 7, decorated with a mosaic representing a group of people in place to greet the "dominus" [Lord] who comes to Villa (...) To accept and honor him there are, in the preserved part, an old man holding the candelabrum, who could be a "lampadarius" [=  the leading servant with a torch ], and some young people, bringing twigs and they seem to cheer the owner of Villa (...) Such a rich and festive welcome indicates that the "dominus" of the Villa was a personage of high rank, but perhaps not necessarily an emperor [...] ".

The remark of Settis about the "Dominus" of the villa takes again the discussions among scholars about the owner of the villa, who, according to some scholars, might not be an emperor. On this aspect of the problem, controversy is ongoing:  "[...] about the identification of the owner of the villa (...) we agree with Cagiano that the house is rather like a private villa rather than as an imperial palace, but (...) for our part we continue to reject all proposed identifications, and how many more will be made which are not proven a by a literary or epigraphic source  [...]" [ See C. Ampolo, A. Carandini, G. Pucci, P. Pensabene, “La villa del Casale a Piazza Armerina. Problemi, saggi stratigrafici ed altre ricerche” in  “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité”,  T. 83, N°1. 1971: 141-281 ].

Settis, after the analysis of the themes of many mosaics and in particular those of Hercules, inclines to Emperor Maxentius [278-312 AD]. Let us follow Settis’ explanation: "[...] The repeated presence of children in the floor mosaics has led some scholars to interpret this  as a ‘children apartment': a difficult assumption to sustain, if we think that it has nearly double size of the 'apartment' A, reserved for use by  parents or for the owners of the Villa [...] ".

Settis explains that the presence of children symbolizes Eros. This is perfectly acceptable, as is demonstrated throughout the iconography of classical style, made up of  "puttos" who throw darts and break the hearts. With regards to the room No 10, namely that of the famous "girls in bikinis", the subject is basically only mentioned by Settis, dismissing the argument, calling it "too famous". That is, according to our interpretation, the mosaic is "too famous"  than the symbolic richness of other mosaics, which despite being "less famous",  they are much more qualifying in order to understand the overall significance of these mosaic works.

Focusing instead on hunting scenes, Settis states that "[...] the  ‘Great  hunt’ in the narthex No 25 offers the most extensive repertoire that antiquity has bequeathed us  on the  animal hunt: the fact that the animals were taken alive, without exception (the weapons are used only for defensive purposes), forces us to interpret this "Great hunt"  , as everyone has said, in purpose  of the Roman games (...) The  hunting and the capture of animals is a subject perfectly obvious in the mosaic floor of a villa in the countryside, and on the other hand in every iconographic and celebrative program about  the "virtus" of a man or  a prince [...] ". Then, there are numerous mosaics depicting the labors of Hercules.

In the Trilobate rooms of Villa del Casale Hercules is always wrestling against the Giants. The allegory is, according to Settis: "You do not conquer the sky with the force (as the Giants), but with virtue (as Hercules)." Both scenes of hunting and the continued presence of Hercules are  a constant exaltation of the Roman “virtus." Traditionally, it has been said that the Villa belonged to an emperor. But many scholars have attributed it to a reputed Roman owner . For the  "obsessive" presence of Hercules, many scholars conjectured about an Emperor devoted to Hercules: Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, called  Maximian (250-310 AD) and Maxentius are the best accredited assumptions. Settis believes that this emperor was Maxentius.

The general drift of this mosaic rich in battles, hunts, and love is summarized like this: "[...] Musarum quies defensione Herculis et virtus Herculis voce Musarum iuvari hornarique debent […] (Paneg. V = 9 [a. 298], 7.3). [...]"; That is, the relationship between Hercules and the Muses (the art in general) is beneficial for both: " The tranquillity of the Muses is defended by Hercules and the deeds of Hercules are given fame by the Muses." In fact, Hercules was called "Musagetes," or the "companion and leader of the Muses." That is the  progress of knowledge, of art and poetry can continue to live and exist only because to defend their peace of mind from barbarism there is the strength of "Hercules" (allegorically the Emperor).

For all these reasons, the idea that the owner of the villa was an emperor is not a wild idea. In addition to Hercules, in the villa there is the so-called "rota imperialis": "[...] The ‘rota’ [wheel] of porphyry which is located at the center of the apse No 33 has been viewed as a sure Imperial sign, as porphyry was prescribed by the ceremonial for the sole use of the Emperors. Against this interpretation, Pensabene rightly stressed the wide possibilities of trade and the use of porphyry by individual owners. However, what it is very important to establish the function of the wheel of porphyry is not only the material of which it is made, but, with it, its shape and placement (although the gold is now widely used and traded, a gold 'triple crown’ in a Catholic church in some way it'll always destined for a pope). Since all the other porphyry 'Rotae' notes from the literary tradition can be traced to an original imperial use,  an “Imperial” interpretation for the 'rota' of Piazza Armerina certainly can not be dismissed, but it should be reconsidered within a general interpretation of the Villa [...] ".