“Is that dog dead?” asks Maryann in a curious kind of a tone, pointing ahead of us. I follow her finger and see a large tan and white heap in the road. It doesn’t appear to be moving at all, but given the fact that we’re in a tourist trap, albeit off-season, you’d think someone would have moved it by now if it really *were* dead. We walk closer, until we’re standing over it. Still it hasn’t moved a muscle. I’m beginning to think that we’ve happened upon something far too grisly for a sunny spring afternoon, but then I notice a tiny rise and fall from his sides. This pooch is accustomed to hot weather and he’s conserving all the energy he can. There’s not even a twitch from his ears to acknowledge the fact that we’re standing right next to him, and only the merest flutter from his flanks to show that his lungs are still working. Sun worshipping in its most extreme form.
We continue along the road down towards the main attraction, Villa Romana del Casale, which is a Roman villa covered by a landslide in the 12th century AD and rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th. We’ve come to see mosaics, but so far there are only rows upon rows of white tents, flaps roped shut, blank fronts telling us that we’re here at the wrong time. Or maybe exactly the right one, depending on your point of view. In high season they’ll all open to hawk tat for the tourists, but today, in late March, it’s too early and there are too few visitors to make it worth most of the sellers’ whiles to turn up. Plus, it’s nearly lunchtime. Only mad (or semi-dead) dogs and Englishmen are out at the moment. A cheery man selling olive oils and artisan cheeses calls Buongiorno! and tries to tempt us in with tasters. Resolutely we walk on. We’ve got some mosaics to see, dammit.
There’s a gaggle of people perched on and around a bench next to a tiny kiosk, which seems to be where we need to go to be counted. As we approach, one of them, a man with wild grey curls and uber-cool sunglasses, gets to his feet and staggers towards us crying, Welcome! He then throws himself to his knees in front of us, holding his hands out for our tickets. We’re so glad to see you! Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for coming! You’re goddesses among women! The rest of the bench-dwellers are half-laughing, half-rolling their eyes at their companion’s antics. I hand over the tickets, giggling too much to be able to speak. Still kneeling, he rips them and bows his head as he passes them back to me. Please – enjoy your afternoon! A cool woman sitting on the bench rolls her eyes at me as she twirls her finger at her temple. But he’s mad, no? I laughingly agree, but add that he’s also rather wonderful. She raises an eyebrow in disbelief.
There’s borage growing wild along the path. Miniature sweet peas, too, in purple and pink. There are probably geckoes hiding in the undergrowth, but it’s not hot enough for them to be out yet. Wind rustles through the pines as we round the corner and get our first sight of the Villa. It’s bigger than I was expecting, and, pleasingly, looks like an archaeological site, rather than a polished tourist presentation. The inner areas are covered over with corrugated plastic rooves, while an outer part is open to the elements. I step over a wall footing and gasp as I realise that I’m standing on – not near, not next to, but *on* – a collection of the most beautiful animal mosaics. Maryann, who has been here before, points me towards some good specimens. “Look! There’s a pretty much complete bull over here. He’s just missing an eye.” I work my way along the path, marvelling at the casual way that this is left open for any Tom, Dick and Harry to walk on. Maryann chuckles beside me. “Back home we just don’t have this kind of history. The Italians have got it coming out of their ears. C’mon – this way …” She leads me up a set of scaffolding planked steps and into the first of the inner areas.
Those animals that seemed so impressive a minute ago? Nothing compared to this.
Naked, muscled gladiators race across the floor, blood spurting from spear wounds. Snakes wind around their feet while their horses fall, wounded, to the ground. The room depicts the labours of Hercules, but all I can think is that this was one hell of a fight. I’m not sure who’s come off worst, the hunted or the hunters; either way it was dramatic. The storytelling and artistry across this floor are as fresh as the day it was first put down, despite the damage – and, after 800-odd years covered by a landslide, there is some – to the mosaic itself. Gobsmacked is, I think, the best word to describe my state of mind right now.
And it’s not finished yet.
Glancing up I see a battered piece of A4 paper stuck to a wall. It’s pointing the way to one of the main attractions of the villa, informally known as the bikini girls mosaic. An A4 computer printout, for god’s sake. Ramshackle, downbeat and quite, quite perfect. We follow the sign into the main building. In the first building the sun was beating our brains into oblivion through the corrugated plastic, but in here it’s shady and cool. It’s also – impossibly enough – even more impressive than Hercules and his naked battling. As promised, there are girls in the Roman version of bikinis playing ball. However, a corner of their mosaic has been lifted to reveal that underneath there’s another, separate, floor, also covered in mosaic. And round the corner there’s a 60m corridor depicting a hunt from start to finish, in just as much intricate detail as all the rest, but with the bonus of being virtually undamaged. Maryann nudges me. “Look! There’s a guy in a crate!” Sure enough, behind the lion which I had been eyeing up making short work of a deer, there’s a gryphon guarding a small box with a metal gate on it. From the shadows inside the box emerges one half of a human face, eye rolling in terror. They didn’t go for moderation, these Romans.
We continue on, and so do the mosaics. “Ooh! An Emu! No, wait – that can’t be possible. No, it’s an ostrich. Still amazing, though.” Every inch of this floor is covered with animals. “I guess it’s like showing off, really,” muses Maryann. “Kinda like making everyone look at your holiday snaps when you get back home. Hey, look! A peacock!”
I could take days poring over all of this. My stomach, however, is protesting against the idea, and complaining that it hasn’t been fed since last night. Hard as it is to tear ourselves away, the mosaics will be here for thousands of years to come. Restaurants, however, only serve until 2. It’s time to go.
More information about Villa Romana del Casale here
Images by Kate Bailward – click to enlarge.