Spotting symbols in the Villa Romana del Casale mosaics

I had heard friends talk about how wonderful the mosaics at Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale are, but nothing could really prepare me for finally seeing them myself. There is so much to take in at this site that it cannot really be described as a “gem” but more like a massive diamond.

Situated south-west of Piazza Armerina, a small town in central Sicily, the Villa Casale was built in the late third and early fourth century AD and used until the twelfth century, when it was covered by a mudslide. Excavations in the 1950s, 700 years later, revealed how well-preserved the vast colourful mosaics were.

It is not clear exactly what the villa was used for but it seems likely to have been a hunting lodge due to the many scenes of animals and hunting in the mosaics. Its owner may have been Maximianus Herculeus, who ruled Rome with Diocletian between 286 and 305 AD.

There is too much to say about the whole site in one blog, so I have chosen a few of my favourite details of the mosaics to write about.

When you first walk into the main villa, you arrive in a courtyard. The floors of its corridor are decorated with mosaics of animal heads in medallions. Each animal’s personality is reflected in its face: there are barking dogs, fierce tigers, proud lions and angry bears. It is a really impressive and amusing pattern that runs right around the large square courtyard.

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A lot of the mosaics in the villa’s rooms depict scenes of hunting or boisterous chariot racing. I actually preferred looking for the more romantic details. I liked the fourth room of the private flats, where the mosaics depict scenes of little cherubs out fishing. This was meant to symbolise eternal love, and fertility. One of the most well-preserved figures in the mosaic is the third cherub to the right below, who is pulling his fishing net out of the water.

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After seeing the violent images in the villa’s huge “great hunting scene”, it was much more pleasant to come across this interesting mosaic depicting ten female athletes. They are involved in different sports, including discus, weights, ball games and running. The girl in the middle at the bottom has received a crown and palm leaf for winning in her competition. I liked seeing a fourth century depiction of women looking strong and active.

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Below is another pretty interpretation of women: these two ladies seem deep in conversation as they prepare rose wreaths for the winners of another competition.

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Further on, I was intrigued by the mosaic below in the Vestibule of Pan and Eros. Pan, the god of the wild, is locked in a duel with Eros, the god of love. The people supporting Pan are maenads and satyrs, figures from the cult of wine god Dionysus. This is also reflected in the leopard skin thrown over the shoulder of one of the youths, another symbol of Dionysus. Meanwhile Eros is supported by a group of women and children, who may have represented the lady of the house. In the centre of the mosaic we can see a table holding the prizes for the victor.

Perhaps this mosaic represents the tussle between the wild streak in us and the need for love and stability on the other side. I have in fact read an interpretation that Pan could represent profane, worldly love, while Eros is a symbol of sacred, eternal love.

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In the private apartments of the villa, I came across this well-preserved mosaic of Polyphemus, a cyclops in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. It is quite a gory scene but I was still fascinated by it. Ulysses, the hero of the Odyssey, is trapped in the cave of the cyclops, who has eaten some of his men. Ulysses manages to trick Polyphemus by getting him to drink strong wine and putting him to sleep. You can see him offering the large cup of wine to the cyclops in the picture. While he sleeps, Ulysses blinds Polyphemus and then he and his men tie themselves under the sheep and escape when they are let out to pasture. You can see the flock of sheep depicted here in the foreground, symbolising the important role they will play.

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Probably my favourite mosaic in the whole villa was this floor in the master bedroom. I like the patterns and stars, as well as the raunchy scene in the centre. The kissing lovers have been identified as Cupid and Psyche, who go through a whirlwind of events before finally marrying. The golden vase to the right of them is a symbol of marriage.

The faces in the hexagons represent the four seasons: summer at the top, winter at the bottom, autumn to the left, spring to the right with the flower next to her. They represent time constantly ticking away. Combined with the erotic scene and the theatrical masks in the stars, they are meant to symbolise an eternal love that develops and survives the test of time.

Absolutely breathtaking!

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I have never seen any collection of mosaics that come close to those preserved in Villa del Casale. It is truly exceptional. It is not the easiest place to reach though. I also hear it can be worth checking that the villa is open on the day you go. We did not have any problem but we found another site we hoped to see nearby unexpectedly closed.

For more information on Villa Romana del Casale, see here

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