4th century

The golden age: the late antique villa

This was the period of maximum development of the residence, which was enriched with an impressive decorative programme, sumptuous state rooms and a large bath complex open to the public.

 

The theories about the dating of the late antique villa vary between the end of the third century and end of the fourth century, but the prevalent opinion is that the building was created in the first half of the fourth century. Most scholars agree that the villa and its decoration are both from a single phase, but differ as to the date because they start from different points of view. For example, art historians who have studied the style of the mosaic decoration have dated it to 320-360 [1]; Others, arguing that the villa was commissioned by the emperor Maximian [2] or his son, Maxentius [3], give a date between 290 and 312.

 

Historical sources have also revealed important information of possible relevance to the villa, namely that Sicily was struck by a series of earthquakes between 362 and 365 AD. These may have damaged the Villa del Casale, leading to restoration work or even complete reconstruction.

 

An element of considerable interest concerning the dating of the villais the obelisk depicted in the circus scene in the gymnasium mosaic. This mosaic features the Circus Maximus in Rome, where the emperor Augustus installed an Egyptian obelisk . in 10 AD. This obelisk, raised in the middle of the spina, was moved toward the curve in 327 in order to create space for another obelisk, larger than the first, that arrived in Rome just thirty years later, thanks to Constantius II.  The Piazza Armerina mosaic depicts only one, and it is off-centre: it seems to be the moment during which the first obelisk was moved, which would then place the execution of the work between 327 and il 357 AD.

 

Some scholars argue that the villa was built in a number of phases, around the same time and based on the same architectural ideas. This would help to explain the originality of the structure’s configuration. Of special interest is the ovoid peristyle, to the south of the residence, which seems to be an “extra” structure and off-axis with respect to the central quadrangular peristyle. The discovery of a coin from the rule of Constantius II (355-361 AD) in the foundations of the wall west of the ovoid peristyle [4] and the architectural investigation undertaken by Gullini [5] support the theory recently proposed by Guido Meli that there were three successive construction phases.

 

The first phase of the late antique villa involved the quadrangular peristyle and the rooms that coherently face onto it. The bath complex, for private use, was then added to this group, assuming a north-west direction since it is turned toward the Gela River, which runs perpendicular to its axis. At a later stage the villa took on a public character: the baths were provided with a new, exterior entrance and a large lavatory, and a grand monumental entrance for the villa was built, off-axis with the quadrangular peristyle but perfectly aligned with the new entrance to the baths and composing itself in a formal pattern with the ovoid arcade and the grand triapsidal hall. The latter, used as a place for entertainment and repose for special guests, replaced the two state halls of the quadrangular peristyle (the “hall of the small hunt” and the “diaeta of Orpheus”). It was probably during this third phase that the basilica was expanded and decorated with splendid marbles. All of this leads one to think that, over the course of the fourth century, the Villa assumed a position of considerable importance, in relation to the stature of its owner.

 

 

[1] Bianchi Bandinelli 2002.

[2] Gentili 1999.

[3] Kähler 1969.

[4] De Miro 1984, p. 73.

[5] Gullini 1984.

 obelisco

Detail of the obelisk in the gymnasium mosaic.

 Pianta

 

Plan of the villa indicating the structures added in the third phase on new symmetrical axes, as proposed by Guido Meli.