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We didn’t know much about Piazza Armerina until we looked for archaeological sites to visit within driving distance of us in Sicily. The guidebook indicated interesting mosaics at the Villa Romana de Casale near the town of Piazza Armerina. The mosaic floors of this villa, owner unknown but possibly the Emperor Maximian (250-310 AD), are wonderfully detailed. We’ve never seen anything like them in all our Italian travels. Why isn’t this site better known? OK, there were ten tour buses parked at the site when we left at 3:30 pm. But seriously, I had heard very little about this particular site and the mosaics are unparalleled.

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Hunting is a major theme, especially in the Great Corridor where a scene over 200 ft long shows the capture of exotic African animals that were shipped to Rome. There is detail in the shapes and colors of the animals, the individuals capturing the animals, and their transport (the elephant is wrapped in a net). Within the long scene are vignettes that accompany the tale. A slave is whipped, a tiger’s cub is stolen while she is distracted by a reflection. It is remarkable.

One of the most interesting rooms in the Villa Romana shows women competing in sports and being awarded prizes (crown, olive branch) for running and other games. I have not seen another depiction of woman in a palestra (gymnasium) or competition. Nicknamed “the bikini room”, this is popular even though the Blue Guide notes it is of “inferior artistic quality compared with the others.” I think it’s great.

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Other mosaics include various ways of hunting (nets, clubs), cherubs fishing, boats, children riding animal-drawn carts, children being chased by the animals they were pursuing, and the legend of Anios, who won a music contest in Sicily, was robbed by sailors on his trip home and thrown overboard only to be saved by a dolphin. Areas that were closed during our visit show people getting a massage in the bath complex, and the twelve labors of Hercules in a large atrium.

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Here are a few details. There are over 4,000 sq meters of mosaic floors in the Villa Romana. Some mosaics are so fine that they average 36,000 tesserae (pieces) per sq meter. The mosaics at the Villa Romana are considered to be Romano-African in style, and some may have been made in sections in north Africa (Libya, where there were large Roman colonies, for example) and shipped by boat to Sicily. The putative owner of the villa, Maximian, was known as a soldier and hunter rather than a statesman, interests that the mosaics support.

Another piece of evidence that is used to associate the structure with an emperor is the decoration of the room called “The Circus”. It depicts horse races around a track from the perspective of the emperor’s box at the end of the arena, where nobles look on from the sides.