After wandering through the Grecian temples of Agrigento, our next stop was just an hour and a half to the northeast, but hundreds of years further in time; for today’s World Heritage Site is of the Roman period, and generally acknowledged as the very finest anywhere surviving example of Roman patrician lifestyle:
Roman exploitation of the countryside is symbolized by the Villa Romana del Casale (in Sicily), the centre of the large estate upon which the rural economy of the Western Empire was based. The villa is one of the most luxurious of its kind. It is especially noteworthy for the richness and quality of the mosaics which decorate almost every room; they are the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world.
The Committee decided to inscribe this property on the basis of criteria (i), (ii) and (iii), considering that the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina is the supreme example of a luxury Roman villa, which graphically illustrates the predominant social and economic structure of its age. The mosaics that decorate it are exceptional for their artistic quality and invention as well as their extent.
If anything, that understates the beauty of the work here — above ground there’s not much to see, which is no doubt why these floors remained intact even though the outbuildings of the villa remained in use through the Byzantiine and Arab occupations until a landslide in the 12th Century, after which it was all but completely forgotten until the 19th century, and the first professional excavations were in 1929 — still ongoing today!
So who was it that owned this spectacular villa? Best guess so far, from Wikipedia:
The owner’s identity has long been discussed and many different hypotheses have been formulated. The owner was probably a member of senatorial class if not of the imperial family itself, i.e. the absolute upper class of the Roman Empire. The most probable owner is of the Constantinian period, Lucius Aradius Valerius Proculus, governor of Sicily between 327 and 331 and consul in 340. The games he organised in Rome in 320 as praetor were so glorious that their fame lasted for a long time, and perhaps the depictions on some mosaics (the “Great Hunt” in corridor 25 and the “Games of the circus” in the baths) recall this event…
We’re rather surprised this site isn’t better known — the description isn’t excessive in the slightest, to the best of our knowledge these really are the greatest surviving example of Roman mosaic work, and there’s very few if any villas of the period that have survived as well as this one has:
Absolutely when you’re next in southwest Sicily, make sure to visit both Agrigento and the Villa Romana del Casale!