FEATURE SERIES: Quintessential Europe "Vila Romana, Sicily"
Around 1160 a huge mud slide in the Morgantina hills near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily buried an abandoned Roman Villa and its associated buildings. Fragments of exposed wall from the villa drew little attention until the 1950s when the site was excavated to reveal 3,500 square meters of exquisite Roman mosaics, the largest in the world, perfectly preserved by the mud. These are now part of Villa Romana del Casale a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Archeologists and academics have puzzled over who owned the Villa ever since its discovery. One thing they all agree on is that the fine Roman African mosaics were commissioned by someone very important. The mosaics have been dated to the first quarter of the fourth century AD. Then Sicily was partitioned into huge agricultural estates and the Villa Romana would have been at the heart of a very prosperous estate. The clothing and themes in the pictures point to Emperor Maximinianus as being the owner as has been identified by a scholars in several of the mosaics. Maximinianus co-ruled the Empire with Diocletian between 286 & 305 when he retired, maybe to Sicily.
The scale of the mosaics is breathtaking. Hunting scenes with lions and tigers fill a corridor 60 meter long. Animals are depicted from the 5 Roman African Diocese. Panthers from Mauritania, Antelopes from Numidia, Wild Horses from Tripolitana, the now extinct Berber Lion from Morocco and Wild Boar from Byzaena now Tunisia. They are all being trapped and loaded into ships to be transported to Rome for the games in the Colosseum. Two figures wearing traditional hats from the Pannonia Province Maximinianus came from stand watching the animals being put aboard a ship. Next to them is an Elephant which were reserved for the Emperors games in the Colosseum only. Next to the Elephant are the letters "MA" which stand for Maximinianus Augustus, lending more weight to this being the Emperor's Villa.
The floor of every room is decorated with lavish mosaics each having a different theme. The exercise room of the Villa has a gigantic mosaic of the Circus Maximus in Rome complete with racing chariots. Children's rooms have mosaics of children chariot racing at a miniature Circus Maximus. Mosaics in other rooms depict musician or mythical figures and the extent of the Empires influence is celebrated with depictions of people from as far away as India.
One of the most surprising mosaics for modern viewers is nicknamed the Bikini Girls. This shows 10 young women in bikini tops and bottoms (Stropkion & Subligar in Latin). They appear to be in competition with each other as one of them, presumably the winner, is about to be crowned with a laurel crown.
The lavish clothes and ornamentation in the mosaics give an insight into the lifestyle of Imperial Rome. The Bikini Girls show that some things have not changed much in the intervening 1700 years since these mosaics were made. Roman women seem to have to have been as addicted to the gym as much as modern women are.
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