We whizzed past orange groves and green hillsides on our way to the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina while listening to the Jiovannoti album over and over (as per the 5 year olds request) . We knew what was awaiting us (more or less) since we'd already visited the splendid villa with its incredible mosaic floors several times, but never with our boy and not since the museum had been reopened last summer.
As we entered Piazza Armerina, I was neither surprised or disturbed at the state of the town. I have been living here long enough to be able to accept the strange dichotomy that exists in Sicily, a place where extreme beauty and extreme distastefulness goes hand in hand. In order to get to the villa you must drive through the startlingly unattractive modern part of town and then wind through the decrepit yet appealing historical center, only to emerge into a large parking lot set smack in the middle of idyllic countryside. This of course inspires you to hop out of the car, stretch your legs and make a quick dash to the long path that will take you to the site. Along the way are plenty of vendors, a few of which caught our eye like the old man weaving these colorful baskets made form electrical wire (one of the tiny ones came home with us).
For the last few years the villa had been partially closed due to a major restoration that replaced the plexiglass roof coverings that protected the mosaics with something more suitable. I remember visiting the site one summer and how the sealed environment created an insanely hot microclimate while inside viewing the mosaics. Those kinds of temperatures are not good for the long term preservation of any type of cultural heritage.
The new coverings are very tasteful and give a sense of what a Roman villa may have looked like even though the materials used are modern in feel with the copper rooftops and modern lighting. More important than the aesthetic appearance, there is now a natural airflow and no direct sunlight on the mosaics. However, despite mesh coverings over the windows some leaves had blown onto the mosaic floors and there were also some bird droppings, so I do hope there is a good maintenance plan in place to keep the surfaces free of debris.
We all enjoyed crisscrossing along the elevated walking paths that allow you to peer down onto the mosaics. There are glass panels strategically placed in the otherwise non transparent walkway walls so that the little ones didn't always have to be picked up by an adult to see what details we we're admiring. It became a sort of game for the kids to find where the next peephole was, and no matter how many people were crowding the walkway they always managed to squeeze past to find their spot.
There are so many fascinating and beautiful mosaic patterns and images to absorb at the villa, which according to my Blue Guide contains 120 million mosaic tesserae in all. The mosaic pavement of these female athletes is one of the most famous and I too couldn't wait to lay my eyes on it again. Seeing an image of ancient Roman ladies working out, lifting weights and being athletic in bikinis just feels so contemporary. Other favorites were the chariots being pulled by birds and ducks, (are the birds giants or are the people tiny?) and of course all those African animals from the unbelievably long hunting scene that fills the Great Corridor.
It was a good day, sharing such an amazing slice of history with the 5 year old and some special friends. To appreciate this island of Sicily and the fact that these gorgeous mosaics are just down the road, an hour and half drive in the car is all it takes.