Late antique villas in Sicily

To the north: Patti, Bagnoli and Settefrati

 

Along the northern coast of Sicily, a few Roman villas have been identified dating to the third to fourth century that were located near the Via Valeria that joined Messina to Palermo up to Lilibeo. These were seaside villas, suburban luxury residences for members of the Roman aristocracy.
few kilometres from the city of Tindari, on a plain near the sea, one finds the ruins of the villa of Patti Marina. Excavation work on the site has revealed that the complex underwent a series of construction phases, starting with the first building, datable to the second to third century AD, which was organized around a small peristyle, but was then demolished at the beginning of the fourth century, when a larger villa was built. It remains to be understood whether this change was due to a natural event, such as an earthquake, that destroyed the first building or if a deliberate choice was made to wipe out the traces of it.
Already in the second half of the fourth century, the villa was subjected to cave-ins and damage, probably due to the major earthquake that hit Sicily in AD 365, but it should be noted that, from the stratigraphic reliefs, the residence had been abandoned prior to the time of the earthquake. Finally, the site was newly inhabited in the medieval period, between the sixth and eleventh century.

 

Excavation work has unearthed a large-scale complex, hypothesized to comprise both the residential area of the villa and the service rooms. As was usual in Roman architecture, the rooms were organized around a large peristyle, with a portico of brickwork pillars, faced by a series of rooms. The most important among these are an apsidal room along the eastern side and a three-apse room which, located in the centre of the southern route and introduced by an arch resting on mighty pillars, must have played a dominant role in terms of both function and architecture. The mosaics found in the Villa of Patti Marina are of a style in-line with the North African tradition, which spread through proconsular Sicily between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century AD, but with characteristics and distinctiveness of its own.

 

In addition to the central nucleus of the peristyle, the excavations have unearthed other areas, identifying, in the north-east area, a bath system, considered contemporary to the fourth-century villa even though, as one can see, the walls were built using a different technique. South of the three-apse room, a particularly large apsidal room was found which recalls the Piazza Armerina basilica. But its east–west orientation, off axis with the peristyle nucleus, which runs north-south, places doubt on its function and dating, suggesting the theory that it might have been an actual church, built by the owner of the villa after converting to Christianity. But given the current state of research, this is entirely supposition and awaits confirmation through deeper analysis of the site. In contrada Bagnoli-San Gregorio, near the town of Capo d’Orlando, archaeological excavations have unearthed part of a seaside villa found by chance in 1986 during excavation work for the construction of a parking area. From the study of the ceramic materials and of the style of the ornate mosaic, the complex can be dated to the early decades of the third century AD. The rooms that have been explored belonged to a bath system decorated with floor mosaics, whereas the rest of the villa, not yet investigated because beneath modern constructions and a state road, must have extended north toward the sea. The six identified rooms are arranged in an east-west sequence. The most interesting among them are those to the west, which must have been used as a tepidarium (room 4) and as caldaria (rooms 5-6), one of which included a tub for hot-water immersion. These spaces are set up with the traditional Roman hypocaustum, heating system, comprising suspended floors and narrow tubes running through the walls, designed for the uniform circulation of heat throughout the room..The mosaics of the Villa of Bagnoli are characterized by geometric decorations that are stylistically close to some contemporary North African mosaics, and their incompleteness allows for the possibility that the compositions originally included figurative emblems. 
In the early 1990s, a few kilometres west of Cefalù, in Settefrati, the remains of a villa were found on the edge of a rocky spur falling sheer to the beach. Due to the precarious conditions and damage suffered over time, it is difficult to trace back to the exact structure and character of the villa. Nevertheless, the discovery of numerous fragments of precious marble, like serpentine, pavonazzetto and porphyry, lead to the supposition that the walls were faced in opus sectile and suggest that the residence was a seaside luxury villa, belonging to a rich landowner from nearby Cefalù
The greater part of the decorative scheme is lost, but a significant section of mosaico remains which, for conservation purposes, was removed, restored and put on display at the Antiquarium of Imera (PA).

 

To the south-east: Tellaro and Orto Mosaico

 

Among the most important archaeological discoveries in Sicily in recent decades is that of the Villa of Tellaro, located in the south-east region of Sicily, today in the province of Syracuse, near the mouth of the Tellaro River. It was found beneath an eighteenth or nineteenth-century farm, the foundations of which caused major damage to the masonry and mosaics. Nevertheless, “surgical excavation work” led by superintendent Giuseppe Voza has allowed reconstruction of the structure of the residence, organized starting from a peristyle around which are arranged the various rooms.

 

The floors must have been entirely covered in elaborate mosaic compositions, as in the Villa del Casale, but only those of three rooms and part of the arcade have remained. Considerable attention has been paid to the mosaic in the room north-east of the peristyle (1), which depicts the episode, narrated in the Iliad, of Priam’s ransom of the body of his son, Hector.In the next room, nearly square in plan (2), a vegetal composition frames a few figured squares. There are large vases in the corners, out of which emerge laurel festoons embellished with flowers and busts, framing a now-lost central scene. In one of the well-preserved lateral rooms, rectangular in plan, one finds a satyr and a maenad absorbed in a Dionysiac dance next to an altar decorated with vegetal wreaths. The girl is dressed in a light chiton and holds a tambourine, like in a fresco conserved in the Villa del Casale. The next room (3) features a figuration belonging to the iconographic tradition ofhunting scenes, but with a few elements that distinguish it from preceding examples.
In the peristyle arcade (4) part of a geometric decoration survives, featuring laurel festoons creating circular medallions alternating with octagons with curved sides, internally decorated with elaborate geometric rosettes. Generally speaking, the style of the Tellaro mosaics belongs to the North African stylistic current, but their more stylized and more expressionistic character, less attention to proportion and crowded composition place the dating of the mosaics to the second half of the fourth century, which is to say later than the mosaics of the Villa del Casale.
Between 1989 and 1990 and also in the eastern part of the island, a Roman villa was found in Contrada Orto Mosaico in the territory of Giarratana in the province of Ragusa. Excavation work has unearthed an area of the villa comprising seven rooms north of an arcade. Early research identified the presence of elaborate geometric mosaics which, together with other archaeological data, date the structure to the third or fourth century.
As also found in the Villa del Casale, here one finds a boat knot frame and the use of a continuous braid to delimit the geometric pattern of the mosaic plane. But the similarities stop there, since the layout is substantially different and only deeper analytic study of the site and its frequentation will be able to clarify the distinctive features.

 

Central Sicily: Geraci and Rasalgone

 

Last but not least, there is recently discovered archaeological evidence that testifies to the high level of activity in Sicily in the area surrounding Enna between the third and fourth century, revising the belief that the decorative richness of the Villa del Casale was unique to the area. In the early 1990s, near the municipality of Enna, the remains of a rustic villa datable to the third century AD were found along Contrada Geraci, unearthed by a natural canal created by the great flood of 1991, which caused a few sections of mosaic flooring to appear. The villa comprises five rooms, the largest of which is to the east and has a north apse, while the whole of the rooms, to the south and to the west, was closed by a peristyle. The sections of mosaic discovered in Geraci display careful workmanship and sophisticated colouring that evidence North African stylistic influence, anticipating the features and mosaic richness of the Villa del Casale. Other structures were also found, in part built on top of those of the rustic villa and attributable to a second phase of habitation around the tenth or eleventh century. The re-use of the Roman site in the Norman period highlights a widespread phenomenon in Sicily, which also touched the Villa del Casale. Also in the territory of Enna, traces of a late-empire villa were found in 1995 on Contrada Rasalgone, in the municipality of Piazza Armerina, again thanks to the collapsing of terrain caused by rains. This residence appears to have been built on many levels, following the architectural tendency to adapt structures to the terrain and to make use of slopes in order to benefit from the waters of the nearby Liano Torrent, channelled toward the villa though special lead conduits that are still preserved in the masonry. Only one floor mosaic is known, composed of a series of two-colour scales that can be directly compared to the ornate mosaic decoration of the entrance court of the Villa del Casale. The finds from these sites in the territory of Enna demonstrate the residential intensity in the area during the late empire, due to the creation of immense latifundia belonging to important landowners who did not limit themselves to managing their properties from afar but instead chose to reside in villas in the area. In the fourth century, therefore, Sicily was not merely the “granary of Rome”, but also became a favourite place of residence for families of the high Roman aristocracy, like the Nicomachi and the Caeionii, who brought with them the luxury and taste of the capital of the empire.

 

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1) General plan of the Villa of Patti Marina (source: P. PENSABENE, La Villa del Casale di Piazza Armerina: nuove e vecchie acquisizioni, lecture).  

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2) Bagnoli. Late-empire bath complex, excavations 1987-1994 (source: U. SPIGO, Prime considerazioni sui mosaici geometrici del complesso termale di Bagnoli S. Gregorio a Capo d’Orlando, in AttiIV Colloquio AISCOM [Palermo 1996], Ravenna 1997, p. 259-272)

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3) Tellaro. General plan of the villa with indication of the farm under which it was discovered, the perimeter of which is marked with a dotted line (source: V. VOZA, Nel segno dell’antico : archeologia nel territorio di Siracusa, Palermo 1999, p. 123)

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4) and 5) Tellaro. Detail of mosaic with a dancing maenad and satyr compared with the frescoed maenad in room 39 of the Villa del Casale (source: wikimedia.org and DL-VdC Reg. Sic. BB. CC. IS).

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6) Orto Mosaico. General plan of the excavation (source: G. Di STEFANO, Notizie preliminari sui mosaici della villa di età imperiale di Giarratana e della chiesetta bizantina di Kaukana nella Sicilia Orientale, in Atti IV Colloquio AISCOM [Palermo 1996], Ravenna 1997, p. 199-216).

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7) 7) Orto Mosaico. Detail of floor mosaic with circles created by a double-headed braid (source: G. Di Stefano, cit.)..

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8) Villa del Casale. Detail of the mosaic decoration in room 1 with braids shaped to form ellipses (DL-VdC Reg. Sic. BB. CC. IS).

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9) Geraci. Plan of the Roman phase with indication of the discovered mosaics (source: E. CILIA PLATAMONE, Rinvenimenti musivi nel territorio di Enna tra passato e presente, in Atti IV Colloquio AISCOM [Palermo 1996], Ravenna 1997, p. 273-280)