There are some places you expect to encounter crowds. The Eiffel Tower. The Vatican. Piazza San Marco in Venice (although there, it’s more the pigeons than the tourists that are the problem). All ‘must-see’ sites that are easy to get to. But after driving for over two hours with barely another car on the road to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, I really didn’t expect to find many other tourists. Sicily has lots of other UNESCO sites that in addition to being much easier to get to, are also close to at least one other great site.
I was wrong. The parking lot, which was who knows how many football fields large, was almost full. And it wasn’t just cars. There were dozens and dozens of huge touring buses.
According to the official website there are no guided tours, but at the top of the hill on the left, just before the washrooms (good idea to visit now…) there were several would-be guides milling around. By the number of groups I came across in the villa, they did a pretty brisk business.
You make your way through the villa along elevated walkways, which protect the floors and – did the archeologists think of this at the time? – afford us visitors a much better view of the overall designs. Although of a reasonable width, these walkways are much narrower than the stairs leading up to them. ‘Bottleneck’ is a pretty good word to describe the inevitable result, but I think strozzatura – strots-sah-tour-uh (literally ‘the strangling’) is even better. Many people complain about Italians not knowing how to form a line – an observation sadly not totally without merit – but in my experience, there are a lot of tourists who would do well to look in the mirror before they start trashing Italians’ relative deficiencies in queue-making. On a rainy day in Portofino, when neither the trains nor the boats were running, I saw a guide from a country which shall remain anonymous – not Italian – try to commandeer an entire public bus for her group. (I made sure she did not succeed.) At a bus stop in Positano a few years ago I watched a tourist, who was at least 20 people behind me in the long line-up, run around the back of the bus and push his way into the front of the line.
When I got to the top of the stairs, members of one of the groups were trying to block anyone else from entering while they stood there listening to their guide. I watched as a few solo visitors pushed their way through. I didn’t want to have my memories of the villa marred by any disagreeable encounters, but I also didn’t want to trudge around the villa behind that group. After a few minutes I went up to the guide, who had been speaking English and who I had of course been listening to while I tried to figure out what to do – our eyes had caught a few times – it was one of those weird situations where I feel like some kind of unwitting impostor – the guide for sure was wondering, does she or doesn’t she speak English? I asked her, ‘Mi dispiace disturbarLa…‘ ‘Sorry to bother you, but I can see that the people in your group are getting annoyed when others pass by them, but how does the ‘line-up’ work here?’ The slightest hint of surprise crossed her face, she sighed, and then she replied – in italiano – ‘Yes, the people in her group were molto irritati but – she shrugged her shoulders – they can’t expect all the visitatori soli like me to wait behind them while she explains what is going on in each room.’
With her blessing I slipped by the group. I was glad I did. There was plenty for a guide to say, even about the ‘simpler’ geometric designs.
The designs became increasingly complex.
The only wall mosaic I saw portrayed what I took to be some kind of procession, which in fact it is, but I would never have guessed where the figures were going.
They were setting out to have their daily bath, a leisurely, time-consuming ritual that had more in common with a day luxuriating at the spa than our quick showers. They would have started their ‘bath’ by spending a while in the Caldarium, from caldo which unfortunately for English-speaking tourists trying to cope with the various taps they encounter in their travels, does not mean ‘cold’ but the exact opposite, then moved on to the slightly cooler water of the Tepidarium and finished with a bracing dip in the Frigidarium (I might have skipped that part). Then their servants would have rubbed their (now clean, but frigid) bodies with soothing ointments – carried by the servant on the right – and helped them dress in fresh clothes, carried by the servant on the left.
Palestra means gymnasium and in the Sala delle Palestrite young female athletes compete in sports we 21st century visitors have no trouble recognizing. As for their outfits, they are not bikinis. Those ancient Romans could be surprisingly practical and their sense of modesty was obviously different from ours. I doubt that even the performers who appear on our stages in the most outrageous outfits would do so in their underwear, which is what these female athletes are wearing. It is a rather odd, fine line though isn’t it? I mean the difference between underwear and a bikini.
Along one side of the villa are smaller, private rooms. Bedrooms probably.
The scenes portrayed in the bedrooms are the most peaceful in the villa. But hardly the calm, stimulus-free environment we’re told we need to create in order to get a good night’s sleep.
There is so much going on in some of the rooms it’s a wonder those ancient Romans didn’t all end up with some kind of ADHD. I wouldn’t have had a clue in this room if it hadn’t been for the plaque. The main theme here has to do with Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre. Obviously there are a few subplots.
Below Orpheus, in the lower right corner two female figures manage to float along, trailing their long scarves, which for some reason do not get water-logged and drag them into the deep.
There are over 40 rooms spread out over 4,000 square metres. After visiting just a few of those rooms I’m afraid I was more relieved than disappointed to learn that entire areas of the villa complex – workshops, stables, housing for the slaves – had yet to be excavated. How much can we really take in at one go?
There was something else that was adding to the sensory overload. Surveillance at some of the sites I’d visited so far in Sicily had struck me as rather lax. Still, I thought it was highly unlikely that the guides would be allowed to throw water willy nilly onto the mosaics inside the villa. So how to explain the wet areas I’d seen in some of the rooms?
The mystery was solved in the Vestibule of Eros and Pan, where the horny old half-goat (Pan) and the winged cherub-like youth (Eros) are about to engage in a wrestling match. Why either should want to do this was – and remains – beyond me. As for the damp areas in the mosaics? A simple pass with a damp mop to bring the colours alive for us visitors.
I didn’t count, and it may be due to my aversion to the activity – have you ever noticed how how much of our attention can get taken up by things we find unpleasant? – but it seemed to me that the predominant theme was hunting. The entire floor of one of the larger rooms was taken up with the various stages of a hunt, starting from the releasing of the hounds in the upper left corner and proceeding to an offering to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, in gratitude for a successful outing, to preparations for an al fresco banquet (the red awning hung between two trees protected the diners), all the way down to the spearing of a boar in the lower right corner. This is the Sala della Piccola Caccia. Caccia (catch-chuh) is ‘hunt’ and you probably already know piccola is small. The Room of the Small Hunt.
As you may have guessed, the reason the room above is called the Room of the Small Hunt is because there is another, larger – much larger – mosaic, all 60 meters of which are dedicated to the gory depiction of the Grande Caccia. The Big Hunt.
This area, the Ambulacro, was undoubtedly the owner’s pride and joy. It sprawls across the width of the villa and was designed so that guests could perambulate up and down its entire length until they were suitably impressed with the images they had seen. Images of the ‘great’ (I use the word advisedly) hunt for big animals to be brought back from distant lands to be killed in the amphitheatres of ancient Rome for the entertainment of its citizens.
As throughout the villa, explanatory plaques along the ambulacro help us understand what we are looking at. This section is one of the saddest. And one of the most controversial.
I find two hours in any one site is all I can honestly take in. Apart from gardens. That’s a whole other thing. So after I’d seen all there was to see, instead of going through the villa again for one more look, I headed back to my car.
The second ‘must-see’ site I had planned for the day was Caltagirone, a baroque hilltop town about 30 k south-east of Piazza Armerina. I looked at the map again to check the directions – apparently having learned nothing from my earlier drive – and was a little unsettled to discover I would going back to the Val di Noto. Making matters worse, when I got to Caltagirone I would be only 70 k from the airport in Catania where I had landed a few days earlier. I was going around in circles.
On the drive to Caltagirone, to distract myself from thinking about what I had been thinking when I came up with this itinerary, I ruminated on the villa instead. This turned out to be a much better way to distract myself from what one friend calls ANT’s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) than I’d hoped, because after only a few kilometres I got one of those ideas that come seemingly out of the blue.
The essence of this idea was that the UNESCO site I’d just visited had a lot in common with another UNESCO site I’d visited 1,000 kilometres to the north – Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015) The Villa Romana del Casale was admittedly on a more modest scale, but we’re talking in relative terms here – it would be like comparing the mansions of a couple of One Percenters. Both were over-the-top, luxurious country retreats built by and for the personal enjoyment of extremely powerful and wealthy members of the Roman elite. In both cases the return on their investment, as today’s elites would probably put it, was poor. After only a few decades, the relative peace they had no doubt looked forward to – but given what they had done to others in the past, hardly deserved – was shattered by the first of many attacks by various ‘Barbarians’ – Vandals and Visigoths in the south, Ostrogoths and Byzantines in the north. During the ensuing centuries of warring, both villas were severely damaged. Centuries of pillaging and plundering followed for both. And eventually, protection from even further damage had arrived from the same unlikely source – oblivion.
As lovely as its Baroque churches and palaces are, I think it’s fair to say that most visitors don’t come to Caltagirone for its architecture. They come for its ceramica. The town’s name is derived from the Arabic ‘Qual at-al-jarar’ meaning ‘Castle of the Vases’ and pottery has been one of the most important activities here since time immemorial.
The other thing that draws visitors is the Scalinata.
But by now I was starving and in my experience, no site, no matter how extraordinary, looks half as good on an empty stomach. I walked by a lot of stores selling Caltagirone’s famous ceramica, but not a single place to eat. Finally, I went into one of those stores and pulling out a rather worn phrase, immediately apologized – Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma… ‘Sorry to bother you, but…is there somewhere nearby where I can get a simple lunch?’ The person who had been sitting behind the cassa (cash register) got up right away and without seeming the least bit disturbato, accompanied me to a little piazza-like area off to the side of the Scalinata and said that here I would have a very nice pranzo.
While I was waiting for what turned out to be an enormous platter of local delicacies, a young man walked by ringing a campanella. He didn’t have any of the gear carried by the knife sharpeners that until recently used to go up and down the streets of Toronto. He had no pamphlets to give out. He didn’t look ‘off’. What was he doing? I asked the couple sitting at the table next to me, who I knew were Italian because the tables were so close I couldn’t help overhearing them. They had no idea. In Caltagirone, they, like me, were turisti. At that moment the signore who I’d watched accompany a guest to his room down a side street nearby (I knew this because there was a B&B sign over a door close by and when the would-be guest had knocked on the door, a voice had called out ‘Arrivo,‘ and this signore had come out.)…as I was saying, at that moment the B&B fellow passed by our tables on his way back and overheard us. He stopped to explain. Every day the young man goes around the neighbourhood ringing the bell and taking orders. Later on, the people who have placed orders will go to the gelateria at the top of the Scalinata where their gelato will be waiting for them.
I felt badly and apologized for not being able to eat everything, which was delicious. The owner wasn’t upset at all and offered to pack the leftovers sottovuoto (vacuum pack) for a picnic the next day. Now I was ready to explore the town.
Time to check out those stores.
I defy anyone to leave Caltagirone empty-handed. I spent a lovely hour or so browsing and saw no end of tempting objets, but in the end reason prevailed and I limited myself to a couple of plates with an arabesque motif and a pigna, the pine-cone I’d seen in so many places I began to wonder if it was the symbol of Sicily.