The island’s amnesiac heart

At the approximate heart of the island of Sicily there is a site which it is hard not to regard as its historical or spiritual centre, although it is far from the oldest dwelling known there, and certainly not unique in the political and economic power which it embodied – but of course such ascriptions are always spurious. It was constructed late in the Classical era, at least those parts that can be seen today were, and finally abandoned in the twelfth century, under Norman rule, when it was covered by a landslide. This sudden final occlusion accounts for the astonishing preservation of its frescoes, and especially of its famous mosaics. It’s probably unsurprising, given how much closer to Rome this is, but it still gave me pause to note how the size and degree of preservation of the site is so entirely unlike anything to be found in the UK, despite the long period of Roman settlement there. The mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale display such a profuse variety and volume of pictorial detail that they could occupy the viewer for hours or days, or at least they could under kinder conditions than the blistering heat during which we visited.

It has been speculated in the past that the villa was an Imperial site, although it is now believed to have belonged to a prominent senatorial aristocrat, situated at the centre of his latifundium, or rural estate. It’s easy to see how such confusion could arise, as the remains disclose a dwelling that is literally palatial in scale and grandeur – not in the usual Italian sense of the palazzo, which seems to include any residence with pretensions. The owner may not have worn the purple, but he was clearly close to the centre of power; as such, his home was to a large extent a public space, organised around an enormous apsidal audience hall and a large ambulatory connecting it to a grand formal triclinium and extensive family living quarters. A sense of domestic life still emerges, however, with the living and working quarters of various social classes clearly identified by archaeological evidence, and to some extent by the mosaics themselves, which are geometric (though still extremely detailed and beautiful) in servant quarters, kitchens and so forth, and pictorial in spaces where they might be seen by anyone of high status.

The grand hall is floored with an opus sectile array of the rarest and most beautiful marbles from around the Mediterranean, which was the most high status floor-covering of the day, but the almost equally grand ambulatory depicts another form of colonial appropriation, showing a wide and fantastical variety of animals being captured and loaded onto ships, bound for the Circus Maximus in Rome. Fantasy seems to play a large part, in fact, in the representation of power that is thematised across all of the pictorial mosaics. In the ambulatory there is an imaginative treatment of those animals not directly known to the designer, and the sheer number of animals in one place at one time is clearly fantastical. Greek mythology is deployed as a fully assimilated aspect of Roman culture (and I was interested to note the portrayal of Polyphemus the Cyclops with three eyes, rather than a single central one). The famous ‘bikini girls’ are also probably a sexual fantasy, as it was not considered proper for women to engage in athletic competition in Imperial Rome – and in contrast to many of the dwellings excavated at Pompeii there are no sexually explicit images here, suggesting that some pretext was required for the representation of women’s bodies. Fantasies of course are often about power, and power itself is a kind of fantasy, a frequently aestheticised mediation of the violence which is always its root.

In the Villa Romana del Casale it is possible to enter imaginatively into a mythic fantasia of its pictorial mosaics, but the fantasy of the villa’s master is not available to us, nor of the many lower status individuals that also walked there, for whom there can have been little liberating or escapist about the narrative of Roman imperial power. It seems prudent to be wary of such an absorption in the mosaics’ visual domain, without wishing to discourage any contemplation of their beauty, or any imagined immersion in the society which spawned them; not only might one obscure the violence and coercion that brings about such an opulent building in the late Roman Empire, but it also makes it easy to miss a compelling moral parallel with such cultural artefacts as the Trionfo della Morte, which we saw in Palermo’s Palazzo Abatellis. This opulence and potency was buried under rubble and lost for a millennium and a half, forgotten and unmourned, its master commemorated in the remains of his palace, but condemned to an anonymity in which all of his precious reputation is dispersed like trace gases in a vacuum. Death rode its skeletal horse through this place, casually discharging arrows to puncture its hubris and bring low the mighty.

The lesson of such a fresco as the Trionfo della Morte, or such a site as the Villa Romana del Casale, is  much more immediate in Sicily than in Britain, where there is so much less to forget. The protective superstructure beneath which the mosaics are viewed reproduces in wood and steel the geometry and dimensions of the building that once stood here, without attempting to imitate its fabric, giving an excellent sense of what it would have been like to move through the spaces enclosed by the villa, while scrupulously distinguishing its original and reconstructed elements. We can imaginatively transpose such movements back to the time of the villa’s occupation, but we can’t evade the amnesia that has fallen over those days; a continuous historical record extends for centuries on either side of the villa’s interval of existence, and yet it contains absolutely nothing that can connect us to its doubtless extensive administrative and political impact, or to the particular subjective biographies of its inhabitants.

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