The archaeological excavations

Evolution over time

 

The memory of the late antique residence was kept alive over the centuries thanks to the presence of a number of later settlements on the same parcel of land, irrigated and made prosperous by the Gela River, from the Byzantine age to that of the Normans. During the Norman age, after the revolt of the Lombard barons, who were the feudal lords in this part of Sicily, William I destroyed the original residential nucleus of old Piazza,  identifiable, according to one of many theories, as the medieval settlement that rose on the ruins of the Villa. In 1163, this same Norman king built a new fortified centre on the current site of Piazza Armerina.  

 

These events – although they weakened the transmission of the cultural inheritance of this site, which was stricken not only by demographic depression and the depopulation of the countryside registered in Sicily in the late twelfth century, but also by natural events, like the earthquake of 1169 – were not sufficient to impede the reorganization of the area into a group of small agricultural settlements at the end of the fifteenth century, the development from which today’s name of ‘Casale’ derives.   

 

The early abandonment of the area and numerous alluvial layers full of debris – created by the overflow of the course of water that ran behind the habitation, today’s Nociara Torrent – confounded its historical identity to such a degree that it even disoriented some scholars who, starting in 1600, misidentified the archaeological site as the “Casale dè Saracini”.

 

The reawakening of interest and the rise of tutelage

 

The attention of local scholars to the architectural finds and valuable mosaics of the villa unearthed in the second half of the eighteenth century, during the first exploratory campaigns, confirms that in academic circles the site was believed to be the “vestiges of an ancient temple”[1].

 

In the early nineteenth century, recognition of the value passed down by such historical testimony necessitated the passing of laws against clandestine excavations and the naming of citizens suited to the protection of “national monuments”, as evidenced by the fulminatory letters against acts of vandalism written by the Syracusan Saverio Landolina, Royal Keeper of the Antiquities of Val Demone and Val di Noto. Nevertheless, just a few years later, Robert Fagan, consul general of the British government in Sicily and an expert in antiquarian studies, obtained a royal permit to freely conduct “authorized” excavation campaigns, on the mere display of the License released by the Sovereign, with the freedom to sell the finds thereby unearthed through public acts and without offering any compensation to the owners of the Casale property.

 

The first systematic excavations

 

Only in the last twenty years of that century was the need felt to proceed with rigorously conducted operations and, in 1881, as reported in engineer Luigi Pappalardo led an excavation, engineer Luigi Pappalardo led an excavation in the central space of the Triclinum, unearthing a section of the impressive mosaic of the Labours of Hercules.  From other work done in areas distant from one another but within the same area of investigation, there emerged: a square-slab pavement, a pavement with white marble slabs arranged in a circle and, especially worthy of note, a pavement “of a kind quite different from those discovered earlier”[2], the scholar declared, comprising  opus sectile, placed over a second white marble pavement. The latter, separated from the upper one by no more than a layer of loose sand without use of cement, revealed remains of glass material tesserae in various colours, some with gold or silver glaze, which “must have covered the internal walls of some now-destroyed building”[3], as the identification of the remains of an adjacent wall led one to suppose.

 

After this campaign, which was followed by the silting up of the discovered mosaics, in 1929, the Antiquities Office of Sicily entrusted Paolo Orsiassisted by Roberto Carta, with the resumption of exploratory excavations in the area of the Triclinium, extending the work to the nymphaeum of the ovoid portico and exploration of the nearby fourth-century necropolis on the slope of Mount Mangone.  The unusual architectural layout of the villa, made even more clear by the compositional richness of the mosaics and frescoes, began to appear in all of its complexity starting from the third and fourth decade of the twentieth century, when Giuseppe Cultrera discovered, with the assistance of Domenico Inglieri, the entire surface of the three-apse room, previously covered up by Orsi, a find joined in 1941 by the discovery of other ornately figured pavements in the north-west, north and north-east sectors of the site. These discoveries were followed by the first initiatives to protect and consolidate the site and, in the same year, a modern structure designed by architect Piero Gazzolawas placed on the site of the Triclinium. The conservation restorations of the mosaic of the Labours of Hercules were urgently continued by restorer Giuseppe d’Amico of the Antiquities Office in Syracuse, in light of the testimony of archaeologist Luigi Bernabò Brea explaining the causes of deterioration.

 

The ‘turn’ of the 1950s

 

The next decade signalled change for the archaeological investigation and research on architectural solutions for the protection of the ornate mosaics, which were still being discovered, toward preserving them from the weather. In 1950 an excavation campaign was begun by the Antiquities Office of Eastern Sicily that saw Gino Vinicio Gentili undertake the greatest exploratory mission to date. The excavation of the ovoid portico was concluded, having been begun previously by Cultrera, and the monumental portal, the zone west of the porticoed entrance arcade, the corridor of the “great hunt” and the rooms south of the peristyle were all discovered. In 1951, the extensive excavation related to the “great hunt” was completed, the Vestibule was identified and the porticoes located east and west of the Peristyle were discovered. 1952 signalled the conclusion of the discovery of the large quadrangular portico in the north sector and the beginning of the exploration of the bath area, completed the following year, followed by a deep investigation of the archaeological elevations in the zone to the east of the corridor of the “great hunt” and the Basilica. In 1955, the scholar’s attention turned to the whole eastern quarter.   The identification of the elevations – finally – permitted their attribution to a late antique Roman villa, to the detriment of still uncertain theories according to which the archaeological site was that of “a city of considerable size”[4]. The building revealed itself in all of its architectural aspects and superb mosaic decoration, as well as frescoes and polychrome marbles, which complemented one another in the “baroque movement of the plan”[5].

 

The years between 1955 and 1963 were dedicated to building systems for water drainage, further excavation projects in the area around the villa and consolidation of the mosaics that required a targeted conservation intervention that completely closed off the rooms and colonnades[6], at the cost of undermining the original transmission of historical identity, as underlined by Brea. The restitution of volumes, directed toward safeguarding the singular beauty of the mosaic pavement, was entrusted to architect. Franco Minissi , who began the process of transforming the site into a museum with the installation of transparent covers meant to “reshape” the spaces without “reconstructing” [7] them, in harmony with the surrounding natural context.

 

The continuation of the work in the area surrounding the villa, promoted by Gentili prior to his transfer to Emilia Romagna in 1964, revealed the remains of other walls in the south-west sector, not far from the monumental portal. This discovery led to the resumption of excavation work in 1970, which however only led to greater clarity about the chronology of the grand complex. Further campaigns, led between 1983 and 1988, yielded results concerning the succession of the stratigraphy and recognition of new structures belonging to the so-called rustic villa, which is to say the residence that preceded the fourth-century villa. It was only in 2004, when part of the medieval habitation built on top of the villa was discovered to the south, thanks to the close collaboration between the Enna Office and the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, directed by Patrizio Pensabene, that interest was reawakened among the intellectual community, which has, from that date, continued to unearth important evidence in the area south of the late antique complex.

 

 

[1] Arcangelo Leanti, Lo stato presente della Sicilia, o sia breve, e distinta descrizione di essa del sig. abate Arcangiolo Leanti da Palermo, e de’ patrizj di Noto. Accresciuta colle notizie delle isole aggiacenti, e con varj rami, aggiunte , e correzioni, per Francesco Valenza ,impressore della Ss. Crociata, in Palermo, 1761.

 

[2] Gino Vinicio Gentili, Piazza armerina,grandiosa villa romana in contrada «Casale», in « Atti dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Notizie degli scavi di antichità», S. VIII. IV,1950.

 

[3] Luigi Pappalardo, Le recenti scoperte in contrada Casale presso Piazza Armerina, Tip. Pansini, Piazza Armerina, 1881.

 

[4] A.Bonifazio, La  città di Piazza Armerina e suoi dintorni con speciale riguardo agli scavi archeologici del Casale,Tip. Estense, Ferrara,1950.

 

[5] G.V.Gentili, Piazza Armerina. Scavi nella villa romana del Casale, in «Fasti Archeologici»,V,1950.

 

[6]  ACS, DGAABBAA, Div.II,1952-60,b.28, Piazza Armerina. Villa romana del Casale. Protezione dei mosaici mediante strutture stabili di copertura.

 

[7] Franco Minissi, Applicazione di laminati plastici nella tecnica del restauro e conservazione dei monumenti, in Il monumento per l’uomo, Atti del II Congresso internazionale del restauro ( Venezia,25-31 maggio 1964), Marsilio, Padova, 1971.