Roman Mosaics (Villa Romana del Casale)
Set on a plateau almost 700 meters above sea level, about 35 kilometers from Enna and a bit nearer Caltagirone, the city of Piazza Armerina is not without charm. Founded during the Arab era, its historical quarter has some beautiful churches including a Baroque cathedral as well as a well-preserved fortress (Spinelli Castle), but most visitors come here to see the Roman Villa with its magnificent mosaics. Piazza Armerina is a charming town known for its Norman Palio - an annual summer pageant of medieval events - but the major attraction is its ancient Roman villa. Located a few kilometers outside town, the villa is one of the largest Roman dwellings of its kind to have survived antiquity, and probably belonged to a wealthy patrician. Depicting scenes from daily life, such as hunting, the mosaics are as remarkable for their sociological value as for their artistry. One of these mosaics, showing women clad in two-piece swimsuits exercising with barbells, could well describe a scene typical of the twentieth century.
The "Villa del Casale" was built between 330 and 360 AD. The identity of its owner remains a subject of debate; however, three individuals are usually mentioned: Proculus Populonius, governor of Sicily from 314 to 337; Caeionus Rufus Volusianus, also called Lampadius, an influential and wealthy man; and Sabucinius Pinianus, probably of Roman birth. There are 3500 square meters of mosaics on the villa's floors, and some surviving wall paintings. Many of the structure's walls are still standing. The style of the mosaics is said to be influenced by the North African motifs of the Romans. Some smaller finds from the site are housed in the Piazza Armerina archeological museum.
The art itself is impressive, but the visitor is also struck by the size of the villa, whose architectural style differs markedly from that of urban dwellings such as those of Pompei. The villa's buildings are arranged in sections, with an impressive entrance and numerous rooms of various dimensions, some quite large. There are remains of water pipes visible near the entrance, and beneath the villa the remains of a village have been found and dated to 100-200 AD.The remains of another village, Sofiana, ancient Proedium Philosophianum, have been discovered about 6 kilometers south of the villa. This includes baths, Roman and Byzantine cemeteries and the vestiges of a Paleo Christian church.
The scenic, mountainous area of Piazza Armerina is not far from Enna, a hilltop city some distance northward, past eucalyptus woods. Founded by the ancient Sicels, later populated by the Greeks, then conquered by the Arabs (as Kasr' Yanni) and subsequently ruled by the Normans. Nearby is Lake Pergusa which has been associated with the the Greek maiden Persphone. There are several exceptional guest farms (agriturismo) in the area.
Norman Palio: For four days beginning around the 12th of August Piazza Armerina celebrates its status as a city which during the eleventh century was ceded to the leader of the Normans who conquered Sicily (instead of becoming the fief of a petty baron). This meant that Piazza Armerina, governed by a council of local giurati or aldermen, answered directly to the king and had more control over its own destiny than it would have as a 'feudal' town; it even had its own bishop. The city's four districts (contrade) - Canali, Casalotto, Castellina and Monte - are represented in the competitive events of the Palio. Apart from processions and the reenactment of the mayor giving the keys of the city to Count Roger, there are four standing and equestrian events: hitting a Saracen's shield with a flail mace, throwing a lance at the shield, throwing a lance through a ring, catching a ring with a lance. There is also music, dancing, demonstrations of medieval arts, the sale of arts and crafts, and of course, plenty of delicious food.
Caltagirone, once the location of a Saracen fortress, is a high mountain town that was rebuilt following the earthquake of 1693. This means that the architecture of its churches is typically Baroque, and while that may be considered unexceptional in Sicily, many older towns here do have at least some medieval elements. Caltagirone has a certain small town Sicilian charm, but it's most famous for its ceramic art. In fact, Sicilians refer to the "Caltagirone style" in ceramic pottery as characterized by ornate traditional motifs using a limited palette. Today, however, there's little difference between the style of Caltagirone and that of Santo Stefano di Camastra, Sicily's other traditional ceramics center. Being rather remote, Caltagirone is worth a stopover if you're passing through the area, but Santo Stefano is more conveniently situated off a main road between Palermo and Messina, and even has a beach.