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The Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Many Roman villas, private residences, as well as public buildings, were lavishly decorated with mosaic floors. Mosaics served as a symbol of wealth and status, and many powerful and wealthy Romans commissioned them to impress their guests, choosing themes that reflected their status. Some depicted scenes from everyday life, such as athletics playing and ladies bathing. Others were full of drama and violence—gladiator fights, hunts and exotic creatures from mythological episodes. Like any work of art, floor mosaics are an invaluable record of ancient Roman life—the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the tools they used, the sports they played.

One of the most richest, largest and varied collection of Roman mosaics in situ are found at the Villa Romana del Casale, situated about 3 km from the town of Piazza Armerina, in Sicily.

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Mosaic of a woman playing with a ball on the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale. Image credit: Marco Ossino/Shutterstock.com

The villa was built in the early part of 4th century on the remains of an older villa, as the center of a huge agricultural estate. It is thought to have belonged to a member of the Roman senatorial aristocracy, perhaps a governor of Rome, or even Emperor Maximian himself. The complex remained inhabited for at least 150 years, after which it was partially damaged. The outbuildings remained in use until the 12th century when a landslide possibly triggered by an earthquake buried the villa and the site was abandoned. The villa was almost entirely forgotten after that. It was rediscovered in the early 19th century and excavated between the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. Small scale excavation around the site continue to this date.

The Villa Romana del Casale is famous for its mosaics, which cover some 3,500 square meters of floor area. The mosaics often reflect themes appropriate to the room they appear, for instance, mosaics of amorous couples in the bedroom. The most striking piece is in the floor of the corridor, where there is a great scene of hunt, where animals are being hunted, captured, caged and transported to different places as identified by the buildings and landscape. One can recognize the port of Carthage, the Italian coast, Egypt and the Nile.

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

A scene from the Great Hunt. Image credit: Andrew Malone/Flickr

Another major theme is the circus games and athletic competition, particularly visible in the mosaics of the gymnasium and in the baths. Here one can see the famous “Bikini Girls”—a scene showing ten young women wearing what appears to be modern bikinis. The scene actually depicts various athletic competitions—one girl is exercising with hand weights, one is just about to throw a discus and two are running. Underneath them are two more girls playing with a multicolored ball. In the center of the scene is the winner of a competition standing with a palm leaf in her left hand while she is placing a rose crown on her head with the right hand.

Today, the villa is open to visitors. Elevated walkways provide an above-ground view of the mosaics while protecting the delicate artwork from damage by footfalls.

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

The Bikini Girls. Image credit: K. Roy Zerloch/Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: lapas77 / Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Flickr

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Andrea Schaffer/Flickr

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: bepsy / Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Pecold/Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: lapas77 / Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Lev Levin/Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Marco Ossino/Shutterstock.com

Mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

Image credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Flickr

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