Thinking of inland Sicily, the first image that comes to my mind is a treeless hillside, green with wheat, speckled here and there by the red dots of poppies in late winter and spring, then brown and desolate through the heat of the summer and fall. This image, of course, is no longer accurate. Today wheat is not the backbone of Sicilian agriculture. In many areas vineyards are rapidly taking the place of wheat fields; in others the fields lie uncultivated. Even the famous orchards of oranges and lemons of the north and east coasts and the Catania Plain are feeling the pressure of foreign imports.
There is another image of Sicily in the summer and early fall that is no less characteristic of the island in the distant and more recent past. This is the hunter in pursuit of small game. Indeed not only Sicilian landlords like the Prince of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Leopard but sportsmen from northern Italy came to hunt over the fields and limestone hills of the island. The area around Enna, the geographical center of Sicily, was particularly favored by hunters. And from time to time the hunters would encounter a small valley where the water from a spring made a sheltered oasis in the parched landscape.
One of the most pleasant of these valleys is situated a mile or so south of the town of Piazza Armerina. The spring feeds a small stream, and the valley is shaded by oaks and thick stands of alder. The air, even in summer, is refreshing. It is perhaps not surprising that this spot was chosen by a magnate of the Roman Empire as the site for a villa.
During the Roman Empire, town life in the interior of the island declined to a low ebb. But Sicilian grain and Sicilian pasture were as important as ever and the senatorial families who controlled immense estates in Sicily grew rich from the proceeds. The villa at Piazza Armerina, no doubt, was connected with one of these vast holdings. The location was also close to the road from Roman Catania to Agrigentum and near the village of Philosophiana, which grew up as a post station for couriers and travelers along the highway.
The villa is not a residence of the High Empire such as we know from the magnificent villas around the Bay of Naples and the grandest of all Roman villas, the retreat of the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli. The villa at Piazza Armerina belongs rather to the fourth century AD, to the Empire of Constantine the Great, when the initial barbarian invasions and civil war had already shaken the foundations of the Empire but there still remained protected and peaceful regions such as Sicily was to be until the invasions of the Vandals in the next century (AD 440).
The fame of this residence comes from its mosaic pavements. They cover some 3,500 square meters (approximately 32,000 square feet) and more than half of them are mosaics with figured decoration executed in the vibrant colors of this branch of graphic art. The walls of the villa were decorated too, with marble incrustation or with fresco painting. But these elements have perished almost entirely. The statuary and decorative marble work that would have added to the luxury of the building has also vanished, except for some fragments including a head of Hercules and the torso of a marble statue of Apollo based on an original by the Greek sculptor of the fourth century BC, Praxiteles. There is nothing remarkable in this, however, considering that the villa was occupied, in one way or another, into the period of the Norman Kingdom, which began in the eleventh century AD.
The villa is in every way a monument of the