Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Finding Familiar Stories in Sicilian Ruins

By Kelley Lindberg

A ocean scene mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale
near Piazza Armerina in Sicily
Standing in the remains of a palace built nearly two thousand years ago, I stared at mosaics on the floor depicting stories I knew. And those stories aren’t just two thousand years old. In fact, those stories were already a thousand years old when the Roman nobleman who lived here was yelling at his flooring craftsmen to hurry up and finish before the in-laws arrived for the holidays.

Those millennia-old stories are stories we still tell.

Sailors load an elephant
onto their ship
I was in Sicily this May, just outside the town of Piazza Armerina, walking through an incredibly well-preserved Roman estate called Villa Romana del Casale, thought to have belonged to a nobleman or perhaps even an emperor. The floor of every room in the palace is covered in mosaics reputed to be the most remarkable displays of Roman-era mosaics in the world. Created 1700 or more years ago, then preserved by an enormous mudslide 900 years ago, intricately crafted scenes of hunting expeditions and sea travels are vibrant in color and breathtakingly detailed. Forgotten for centuries, the buried palace was rediscovered in the 1800s and excavated over the next couple of centuries.

The floor of the "Girls in Bikinis" room
One incredibly long hall contains the mosaic called “the Great Hunting Scene." In it, a master and his assistants are rounding up an amazing number of exotic animals, including tigers, elephants, ostriches, giraffes, and jaguars, and loading them onto ships bound for the circuses of the Roman Empire. The detail in the mosaic is astounding. Another famous scene shows women competing in sporting events, wearing bikinis that would look right at home at the local swimming pool today.

Where there are children,
there are ABCs
A room used as the children’s playroom or school room shows children learning their ABCs (or rather, their Alpha, Beta, Gammas).

Odysseus tricks the Cyclops

But it’s the familiar stories that always make me catch my breath. One room depicts Hercules’ twelve labors. In another, Odysseus is offering wine to the giant Cyclops to make him fall asleep so that Odysseus and his men can blind him and sneak out of the cave disguised as the Cyclops’ sheep. In yet another, Pan and Eros are fighting in what some speculate is a timeless battle between erotic love and romantic love. An elaborate mosaic tells the story of Arion, a poet whom sailors threatened to rob and throw overboard, but who was saved by dolphins because of his beautiful singing and chitara-playing. Other rooms honor various Roman gods and goddesses whose exploits still entertain us and are retold every day in our modern books, video games, movies, and television shows.

To escape his impending murder, Arion
plays his chitara and escapes on a dolphin
No one knows for certain the name of the nobleman who commissioned these incredible mosaics. The real man is lost to time, but the stories he loved still live. And the medium he chose to tell those stories—tiny bits of colored tile on the floor—have long outlasted the written records that once declared him a man of immense power and wealth.

Never, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

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