Introduction

The Villa, under UNESCO protection since 1997, belonged to a member of the Roman senatorial aristocracy, perhaps a Roman governor (Praefectus Urbi), although some scholars argue that it was instead built and expanded on direct imperial commission. In terms of its beauty and complexity, it can be considered one of the most important examples of a state residence in the context of its contemporaries in the Roman West. The high profile of its patron is eloquently celebrated through an iconographic program that was stylistically influenced by African culture and unfolds in rich compositions decorating an impressive number of the rooms, both public and private in nature.

 

A long history

The late antique fourth-century residence was built on top of rustic villa dating to between the first century and the second half of the third century AD. Attributable to this earlier structure are the destruction layers near the monumental entrance portal and the baths, as well as archaeological finds, including some ceramic works and coins datable to 250-280 AD.

 

Following the historical events of the fifth and sixth century, which changed the social and economic structure of the island as a result of the vandal invasions and the Greco-Gothic war, the structures of the Villa were adapted to defensive purposes according to a precise fortification programme this was revealed during the excavation campaign upon the discovery of support buttresses used for various rooms and of the closure of the surviving arcades of the aqueduct that was connected to the baths. The events of this period determined an initial process of abandonment and the functional transformation of the rooms, which would then come to be reoccupied in later centuries by new residences some built on top of the destruction layer of the pre-existing wall and others outside the perimeter of the late Empire building. Recent excavations have identified residential rooms datable to different phases of  Arab and Norman occupation (tenth-eleventh century and eleventh-twelfth century, respectively) in the area of the Villa as well as south of it, evidence of the zone’s return to its residential function after the historic flood around 1000 AD. The medieval village that emerged took the name of, variously, “Palàtia”, Blàtea, Iblâtasah, as defined by the Arab geographer Al-Idrīsī, later becoming known as Plàtia. Considered to be perhaps among the most extensive and articulated in Sicily, it was destroyed in 1160-1 during the reign of William I and, two years later, a new fortified city was built on the current site of Piazza Amerina. The persistence of highly-structured settlements in the area of the Roman villa is further evidenced in the fifteenth-century by a hamlet known as Casale, from which the Villa’s name derives.

 

Archaeological investigation fighting against oblivion

Over the course of time, the historical evidence found around the site occupied by the late antique villa increased the interest of many scholars, who began exploring its remains starting in the first years of the nineteenth century and then again in the first years of the twentieth century, with the excavations led by  Biagio Pace and Paolo Orsi, up to the major excavation campaign carried out in 1950s and early 1960s, with Vinicio Gentili, followed by numerous initiatives targeted to the consolidation of the mosaics.

 

The discovery of such constituent richness immediately necessitated its protection, a need filled by the design and installation of laminated plastic structures. This solution, considered innovative and effective at the time, was proposed by architect Franco Minissiwho, inspired byCesare Brandi, returned to the invention already implemented in 1941 by Piero Gazzola for the covering of the triapsidal hall. Futher systematic excavation campaigns were carried out in the successive decades, up until recent times, which unearthed the remains of an extensive medieval settlement next to the villa structure.

 

A new face

Starting in 2006, the site has been the subject of a systematic conservation recuperation intervention, the guidelines for which were written by High Commissioner Vittorio Sgarbi and implemented by the Regional Authority for Cultural Heritage, with funding from the European Union, on the plan of Guido Meli, Director of Works. The intervention concerns around 3000 square meters of mosaic and opus sectile pavement and numerous polychrome wall paintings, as well as the three-dimensional reconfiguration of the spaces. Different formal and material methods were adopted in order to best preserve and use this residence, considered one of the most prestigious monumental testimonies to antiquity in the Mediterranean.

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Covering designed by Minissi in the course of installation (photo 2207 of 15-06-1958, Archive of the Enna Office)

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Detail of the mosaic floor decoration known as the “small hunt”, with a scene of wild boar hunting.

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Buttresses in the eastern section of the basilica, in the apsidal area, perhaps added in the Byzantine period when the building was reinforced and protected by a wall.

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Detail of the mosaic flooring in the baths. Restoration of the vault of Cassio, a Syrian slave, in the massage room.