Living in luxury in rural Sicily

Sicily was famed in antiquity for its agricultural prosperity. An eloquent witness of its late Roman wealth is provided by the great villa near Piazza Armerina, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This, with its dazzling array of mosaic pavements, both geometric and figured, attracts (in normal times) thousands of visitors a day during the high season: the total in 2018 was 354,941. But the villa, built c.AD 320/330, is not unique in Sicily. Tucked away in the south-east corner of the island in the province of Syracuse, 5km south of the wonderful baroque town of Noto, is another rich Roman villa. It is not as large, but it was also constructed in the 4th century and also boasts fine mosaics. The site is little known, however, and barely gets any visitors at all. Roger Wilson is our guide.

The Caddeddi villa in rural Sicily is striking for the preservation of several spectacular mosaics, laid in the second half of the 4th century AD. This detail, from room 9, shows a panel featuring a satyr and maenad, companions of the wine-god Bacchus, whose bust featured in the centre of the floor. [All images: R J A Wilson, unless otherwise stated]
A view across the Tellaro valley from room 20. The stairway shows that the villa was a multi-level structure.

The villa lies in a rural district called Caddeddi or Vaddeddi on the south bank of the 45km-long Tellaro river, about 3km from its mouth on the Mediterranean. Locally it is called the ‘Villa del Tellaro’, but I prefer to use the name of the locality, since no doubt other villas await discovery along this lush and pleasant river valley. It is not a new find. A substantial 18th- and 19th-century farm stands on the spot, and it seems that its owners were already indulging in a little surreptitious digging themselves as early as the 1950s. A local guidebook, presumably not much circulated, refers in 1962 to Roman walls and ‘traces of mosaic’, revised in its 1970 edition to read ‘ample traces of mosaic’. That winter, the archaeological authorities in Syracuse intervened, and started expropriation proceedings.

The plan of the Caddeddi villa, with room numbers referred to in the text.

Three figured mosaics, already in part uncovered by the owners inside the east wing of their farm, were raised in 1971 and taken to Syracuse for restoration. Part of the farm was demolished, and a temporary shed was put over the Roman walling of the rooms where the figured mosaics had been found. Also within the shed was the mosaic in the corridor (7 on the villa plan) that formed the north side of the villa’s central peristyle – an ornate courtyard – but that pavement has never been lifted and remains in situ. For decades it was hidden by sand. It has a wonderfully intricate geometric pattern of interlaced laurel-wreath medallions, featuring two different types of elaborate rosette, each alternating between one circular medallion and the next. The octagons between the medallions contain an awning pattern (looking a little like a modern umbrella, seen from below). The figured mosaics were not seen in public until 2003, over 30 years after their removal from the site, when they were put on temporary show in a church in Noto. They were then returned to the site when a new cover building was finished, and the villa finally opened to the public in 2008.

The corridor mosaic at Caddeddi, which remains in its original position (it has never been lifted), features an intricate series of laurel-wreath medallions.
A grand design

So what do we know now about the Caddeddi villa? Excavation during the 1970s and 1980s has revealed most of its ground plan, but since part of it lies beneath the farm, and the farm buildings themselves are worthy of preservation as an example of Sicilian vernacular architecture (and could potentially serve as a convenient site museum), there are inevitably still some gaps. The main block forms a compact square about 60m by 60m, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard garden bordered by corridors on all four sides (7, 23-26, and another on the east). The main showrooms, as we shall see, are likely to lie on the north side, overlooking the river. There was a small apsed room in the middle of the south side (6), perhaps a reception room or a small dining room. Only part of its geometric mosaic survived, but, as it lay inches below the main entrance into the later farm, it was a miracle that any of it was preserved at all. The southern part of the west wing, ending in an apse (27), is lost below the farm. So we do not know, for example, if there was a bath-suite here (the apse could have accommodated a hot-water pool, perhaps), or whether the baths were in a totally separate building nearby, still awaiting discovery. Our ignorance of the whereabouts of this important facility (a sine qua non for any grand rural mansion in the Roman world) is one of many unanswered questions about villa Caddeddi.

Part of the early modern farm which overlies much of the Roman villa. Underneath the archway on the right, the apsed room 6 at the centre of the south wing was found, with part of its mosaic miraculously surviving just below the present surface.

The plan is slightly misleading, in that the Roman walls marked here are not all at the same level. The peristyle and the central parts of the west and south wings are on the highest, flat part of the site, also occupied by the later farm buildings. But the ground then falls away sharply on the north and the east, and what has been excavated here are the walls of rooms that formed the substructures of the villa, used for stores and service quarters. The upper rooms in this part, belonging to what we might call the piano nobile, are totally lost. So the splendid mosaic pavements of the north corridor (7), and in rooms 9 and 10, on flat ground at the higher level, survive in a good state of preservation, but many further floors that must have once paved chambers at the same level to the north and east of them have completely disappeared. A few fragments of mosaic were found collapsed into the basement rooms, but these have not so far been made available for systematic study. One day it might be possible to reconstruct from such pieces some of the floor designs of these lost upper chambers.

This photo shows the disparity in levels at the site: substructures are in the foreground (room 4 is at the centre), while the position of the mosaic pavement in room 8 at the higher level is indicated by the yellow arrow at top right. The early modern farmhouse can be seen in the background.
The entrance to the Caddeddi villa (1), with white marble steps leading to a lozenge-patterned mosaic floor. It is the only use of marble known in the villa.

So rooms 1-5, 8A, and 11-19, as marked on the plan, belong to the substructures of the villa, and while they hint at the likely position and size of some of the chambers above, we cannot be certain that the ground plans of the two floors matched one another precisely. For example, substructures 8, 8A and 11 are likely to reflect a single apsed hall (aula) at the upper level, the largest room in the villa (11m by 8m), and one wonders whether there was also just a single corridor or loggia, with splendid views over the River Tellaro, running the full width of the building over substructures 12-18. What we do know is that the entrance to the villa was at the north-east corner, convenient for access from the major Roman road along the east coast of Sicily, which passed a short distance to the east of the villa. The entrance was rather grand: a flight of seven broad steps in white marble led the visitor up to a small vestibule (1) with a simple lozenge-patterned mosaic floor; but how that vestibule connected with the rest of the rooms at the upper level is unknown.

The villa belongs to the second half of the 4th century. This seems clear from a small hoard of coins found under a floor level in a room off the south-east corner of the peristyle, the latest of AD 348, and from another of the same date reported as coming from under the mosaic in room 8. So the villa and its mosaics are likely to be after c.AD 350. The question is how long after. In July 365, a cataclysmic earthquake off Crete set off a vast tsunami: a contemporary writer, Jerome (the later saint), speaks of Sicily (presumably its east coast) and its offshore islands (the Aeolian Isles?) being overwhelmed, and of countless people losing their lives. One is reminded of the tragic, devastating effects over a vast area of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. We do know that there was an earlier villa on the site: some walls belonging to it on a different alignment are known under rooms 10 and 19 (see plan). Caddeddi lies on a low shelf above the wide river valley close to the sea – so could the earlier villa have been overwhelmed by the tsunami of 365, on its still-destructive course penetrating westwards inland? This remains at present no more than an intriguing hypothesis. If supported by future work at the site, the late Roman villa that we see today may be shown to have been a post-tsunami replacement for the earlier one, and constructed sometime around AD 370/375. Establishing a more precise date for the villa must be high on the agenda for any future research programme.

‘Ample traces of mosaic’

Let us turn now to the three figured mosaics that are the great glory of the Caddeddi villa today. The first (in room 8) is only a fragment, but that any of it survives at all is another miracle. Farmhouse walls, later demolished, were resting right on top of it: the oblique gash in the panel that we see now marks the line of one of those walls. The scene shows an episode from the Trojan Wars (in a variant version, later than Homer), when Achilles agrees to release the body of Hector on payment by King Priam of the equivalent in gold of the weight of Hector’s corpse. A large weighing scale dominates the scene, with the ransomed gold vessels in the pan at lower left; but at lower right only the legs of Hector survive, lying on what would have been another pan. To the left of the scales’ tripod stand Odysseus, Achilles (with peacock feather helmet), and Diomedes, while to the right of it are one of Priam’s sons (probably) and Priam himself, of whom only a single arm survives. This is gesturing at the gold, balancing Achilles’ arm, whichpoints to Hector’s body.

It seems likely that one further figure is missing from the scene, and that this was originally a square panel with just six figures, three Greeks and three Trojans, with the scales’ tripod at dead centre. A Greek inscription at the top aids identification. Careful measurement of the panel and the width of the two surrounding borders (the inner one surrounding each panel, and the outer one going round the walls of the whole room), as well as of the dimensions of room 8 itself, shows that there must have been 12 square figured panels adorning this magnificent room, perhaps all containing scenes from the Trojan War, or alternatively different episodes from the varied and eventful life of Achilles. The room must have been the grand showpiece of the villa, probably a banquet hall and the main reception room. The subject matter was no doubt chosen to highlight the literary erudition (or at least pretentions) of the villa’s owner.

The small room to the west (9), 4.80m by 4.70m, has a complex design consisting of a central square (with concave sides) and four festoons of fruit and flowers within a matrix of laurel leaves; these spring from large bowls (craters) at each corner. Overflowing from these are four different kinds of fruit – peaches, pears, pomegranates, and medlars. The central tableau carried a bust of Bacchus, god of wine, but only a shoulder and part of his accompanying thyrsus survives. In each of the four rectangular panels along the sides, a satyr wearing a fawn skin (nebris) attempts, not very successfully, to win the affections of a maenad. The craters are depicted in a rich brown suggestive of gold, and the whole floor celebrates the joys of wine and other fruits of the earth, perhaps in tribute to the local estate’s amazing fertility and productivity. The unusual X-pattern of the floor with the central panel reflects the powerful lines of a cross-vaulted roof, here transferred to make a decorative pattern underfoot.

The mosaic in room 9, with a central panel depicting Bacchus, four tableaux showing satyrs and maenads, and corner vases from which spill the fruits of the soil. The distinctive X-shape of the interconnecting laurel bands reflects cross-vaulted ceilings, a design found on several Carthage mosaics.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 105 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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