The site of the Roman Imperial villa at Piazza Armerina was buried by a landslide in 1161, and the remains went unnoticed until 1761. Serious investigation did not begin until 1881, and there were then professional excavations in 1929 and 1935-1939. It was not until the long campaign of Gino Vinicio Gentili in 1950-1960, however, that the main villa complex was exposed. A cover building was then constructed so that the mosaics revealed could be put on permanent display.
The landslide had limited stone-robbing and preserved in situ an astonishing collection of Late Roman art. The excavations revealed 62 rooms, 42 of them with polychrome floor decoration, representing 3,500m² (37,700ft²) of mosaic. The estimated 30 million tesserae used were of 37 main colours, and, given that a very high proportion were employed to execute complex figured scenes, the whole ensemble is likely to represent 21,000 working days of skilled labour.
The site is best interpreted as a hunting lodge in the form of a luxury villa. A more modest 2nd century AD house was expanded and redecorated in the late 3rd century AD, perhaps remaining in use until an earthquake in AD 346. The assumption is that it belonged at this time to the Imperial family. One of the figures on the Great Hunt mosaic is believed to be a portrait of the Emperor Maximian himself (AD 286-305).
The villa comprises a number of complexes terraced into the hillside. These are ranged around the main complex, which comprises a large peristyle courtyard with an ornamental garden. On the western (downslope) side is a monumental entranceway and an elaborate bath-house. On the eastern (upslope) side are the Imperial apartments, including a massive, rectangular, apsidal audience-chamber positioned on the central axis. On the southern side is a summer dining complex with a cavernous three-apsed triclinium (dining room) looking out on an open-air xystus (elliptical court).
The most notable feature of the site is its exceptionally numerous, elaborate, and well-preserved mosaics. The greatest of them is the Great Hunt mosaic, which runs the entire length of the eastern corridor, being 60m long by 3m wide (200ft by 10ft). It depicts an expedition to hunt, capture, and transport exotic African animals for display in the arena, with personifications of two continents in the exedrae at either end.
The Little Hunt, by contrast, which decorates a triclinium in the northern range, depicts the kind of hunting expedition that might have taken place in the hills around the villa itself. Other notable art includes the Circus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, the Fishing Cupids, the Labours of Hercules, Odysseus and Polyphemus, the Little Circus, the Myth of Arion, the Contest of Eros and Pan, and, perhaps most famous of all, the ‘Bikini Girls’.
The mosaics are likely to have been executed by African mosaicists. The style, the themes, and what Gentili calls ‘that taste for presenting anecdote and episode in pictures’ are all characteristic of Late Roman mosaic art in North Africa, particularly that of the Carthaginian school.
The themes are appropriate to the setting and the probable function of the villa as a hunting lodge for the Imperial elite. Hunting is, of course, a traditional signifier of landed aristocratic status, while the supply of animals to the arena is associated with Imperial patronage of the amphitheatre and the state policy of ‘bread and circuses’.
The myths are equally prominent, and these are classic signifiers of Graeco-Roman cultural identity, while the particular choice of the Labours of Hercules is likely to reflect the pretensions of Maximian, who claimed descent from the hero and styled himself Herculius.
The soft porn of the Bikini Girls and some of the other mosaics requires no explanation: Piazza Armerina was a pleasure palace for some of the most exclusive male groups in Late Roman Imperial society.