Built between 310 and 340, this enormous villa of a rich and powerful landowner was the center of a vast agricultural estate. The villa was almost completely covered by a landslide in the 12th century, but this natural disaster turned out to be a blessing, because the mud preserved almost 38,000 square feet of mosaic flooring. Rediscovered in the 19th century, the villa was excavated and restored starting in the early 20th century.
The place must have been magnificent, more a palace than a mere villa, with 40 rooms, many of them clad in marble, frescoed, and equipped with fountains and pools. Heating the villa were terme, or steam baths (Rooms 1–7), with steam circulating through cavities in the floors and walls. The villa was built to impress, and the ostentation reached its zenith in mosaics of mythology, flora and fauna, and domestic scenes that carpeted most of the floors. Given the style and craftsmanship, they were likely the work of master artists from North Africa.
The villa’s 40 rooms are arranged around a garden courtyard, or peristyle. Take time as you wander through the rooms simply to enjoy the mosaics, noticing the expressions, colors, and playfulness of many of these scenes. Remember, the scenes were intended to delight visitors.
Corridors of the peristyle (Room 13) contain the splendid Peristyle mosaic, a bestiary of birds, plants, wild animals, and more domesticated creatures such as horses. Mosaics in the adjoining Palestra (exercise area, Room 15) depict a chariot race at Rome’s Circus Maximus. Along the north side of the peristyle is the Sala degli Eroti Pescatori (Room of the Fishing Cupids, Room 24), probably a bedroom. The occupant would have drifted off to a scene of four boatloads of winged cupids harpooning, netting, and trapping various fish and sea creatures. Just past these rooms is the Sala della Piccola Caccia (piccola caccia meaning “small hunt,” Room 25), where hunters in togas go after deer, wild boar, birds, and other small game as Diana, goddess of the hunt, looks on. In one scene the hunters roast their kill under a canopy.
The long hall to the east is the Corridoio della Grande Caccia, or Corridor of the Great Hunt (Room 28), measuring 65m (197 ft.) in length. The mosaics depict men capturing panthers, leopards, and other exotic animals, loading them onto wagons for transport, and finally onto a ship. They’re obviously bound for Rome, where they will be part of the games in the Colosseum. A cluster of three rooms east of the north (right-hand side) end of the Grande Caccia corridor includes the Vestibolo di Ulisse e Polifemo (Vestibule of Ulysses and Polyphemus, Room 47), where the Homeric hero proffers a krater of wine to the Cyclops (here with three eyes instead of one, and a disemboweled ram draped casually over his lap) in hopes of getting him drunk. In the adjacent Cubicolo con Scena Erotica (Bedroom with Erotic Scene, Room 46), a seductress with a side gaze and a nicely contoured rear end embraces a young man. Off the southwest side of the Grande Caccia corridor is one of the most amusing rooms of all, the Sala delle Palestrite, Room of the Gym Girls (Room 30). According to ancient literary sources, their skimpy strapless bikinis, which would fit right in on any 21st century beach, were standard workout apparel 1,700 years ago—the bandeau top was called the strophium, and the bikini bottom the subligar. The girls are engaged in various exercises—curling dumbbells, tossing a ball, and running.
South of the central block of the villa and peristyle, the Triclinium (Room 33) is a large dining room with a magnificent rendition of the Labors of Hercules. In the central apse, mosaics depict the Gigantomachy (Battle of the Giants), in which five mammoth creatures are in their death throes after being pierced by Hercules’ poison arrows.