Piazza Armerina, Enna, Sicily

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Villa Romana del Casale

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Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq metres of astoundingly well-preserved multicoloured floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing.

Following a landslide in the 12th century, the villa lay under 10m of mud for some 700 years, and was thus protected from the damaging effects of air, wind and rain. It was only when serious excavation work began in the 1950s that the mosaics, considered remarkable for their natural, narrative style, the range of their subject matter and the variety of their colour, were brought back to light.

The villa's recent restoration has covered almost the entire complex with a wooden roof (to protect the mosaics from the elements), while an elevated walkway allows visitors to view the tiled floors and the structure itself in its entirety. Architects report a dissatisfaction with the structure for the lack of light, and the shadows that obscure the colours and vivacity of the mosaics, but the condition of the mosaics has been much improved.

To the north of the villa's main entrance, which leads through the remnants of a triumphal arch into an elegant atrium (forecourt), is the villa's baths complex. Accessible via the palaestra, which has a splendid mosaic depicting a chariot race at the Circus Maximus in Rome, is the octagonal frigidarium, where the radiating apses contained cold plunge pools, and a tepidarium, where you can now see the exposed brickwork and vents that allowed hot steam into the room.

The main part of the villa is centred on the peristyle, a vast covered courtyard lined with amusing animal heads. This is where guests would have been received before being taken through to the basilica (throne room).

Of the rooms on the northern side of the peristyle, the most interesting is a dining room featuring a hunting mosaic called the Little Hunt – 'little' because the big hunt is over on the eastern flank of the peristyle in the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia.

On one side of the Ambulacro is a series of apartments, the floor illustrations of which reproduce scenes from Homer and other mythical episodes. Of particular interest is the triclinium, with a splendid depiction of the labours of Hercules, where the tortured monsters are ensnared by a smirking Odysseus.

Just off the southern end of the Ambulacro della Grande Caccia, in the Sala delle Dieci Ragazze, is the villa's most famous mosaic. It depicts nine (originally there were 10) bikini-clad girls working out with weights and dinky dumbbells, in preparation for the Olympic games.

The site is equipped with enough interpretive panels (in English) for you to explore the villa autonomously. If you do want to arrange a guide, however, contact the STS Servizi Turistici in Piazza Armerina; otherwise you can organise one directly at the site.