Spello: Villa dei Mosaici

Personification of Summer – Villa dei Mosaici.

Some tourist attractions are so new that they are not yet mentioned in any travel guide. This was the case with Spello’s Villa dei Mosaici, which opened its doors to the public as late as March of 2018. The great thing about Italy is that one just has to stick a spade into the ground and up comes the past. This is exactly what happened in July of 2005. During the construction of a car park just outside the walls of Spello, a room with mosaic decorations was discovered. Archaeologists soon discovered that it was part of a large villa from the Roman Imperial Age, when Spello was known as Colonia Julia Hispellum. The excavations continued until 2016 and led to the discovery of twenty rooms. It should be noted that this is not even the whole villa. The atrium is missing for instance, and so are the entrance hall (vestibulum) and the tablina or reception rooms. What we do have is the central part of the villa, adjoining the garden or peristylium.

It is clear that a very wealthy family once lived here. Unfortunately we do not know who had the villa built. It has, however, been established that there were at least two building phases, one during the Augustan age (27 BCE-14 CE), when Spello had just been granted the status of a Roman colony, and another in the second and early third century. It has been hypothesised that the owner of the villa was a rich wine merchant. Some of the mosaics in the villa could indeed be related to the wine trade. In the triclinium or dining room, we can for instance admire a wine pouring scene, and the so-called Amphorae Room also has a connection with the production of wine (see the images below). However, the presence of a wine pouring scene in a dining room could simply point to the fact that this was the location in the house where drinking parties were held. Amphorae were used to store and transport any type of food, not just wine. So in my view, we need more compelling evidence to conclude that the owner was indeed a wine merchant.

Mosaic in the Amphorae Room.

The Villa dei Mosaici covers a surface of some 500 square metres. Ten of the twenty rooms have mosaics; the others are likely service rooms. Of the ten rooms with mosaics, the most impressive is by far the triclinium. Apart from the aforementioned wine pouring scene with two servants, we see four figures personifying the four seasons: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. Unfortunately not much is left of Autumn, but the other seasons have been preserved fairly well. The personification of Summer (see the image above) even became the emblem of the Villa dei Mosaici: the mosaic features heavily on leaflets provided by the museum. The triclinium furthermore has mosaics of animals such as deer, rabbits, wild boars and more exotic animals, among them tigers and panthers.

Mosaic in the triclinium. Note the wine pouring scene in the centre.

Mosaic in the triclinium.

The Amphorae Room is to the left of the triclinium. The room has been identified as a private dining room or oecus. It adjoined the garden to the north and the so-called Bird Room to the south. This Bird Room is another beauty. It features lovely mosaics made from red, white and black tesserae. Six birds have been depicted, among them almost certainly partridges (one bird was lost). Even better is the so-called Radiant Sun Room, where we can admire geometric figures such as Solomon’s knots, as well as several more birds (and apparently a lizard) around a sun in the centre of the room. The museum has identified “a duck, a thrush, a lizard, and what appears to be a long-billed hoopoe, with the characteristic tuft of feathers on its head”. What is so great about this room is that even traces of the wall frescoes have been preserved.

Mosaic in the Bird Room.

Mosaic in the Radiant Sun Room.

Radiant Sun Room.

Geometric Mosaic Room.

The rooms discussed above have the best mosaics of the Villa, but do not forget to take a look at the Geometric Mosaic Room just north of the Radiant Sun Room, and at the Shield Room on the other side of the triclinium. The former room is just small and its geometrical decorations are several versions of the Greek letter gamma (Γ) in red and white. One may note that four of these gammas glued together form a shape that closely resembles a swastika. This tetra-gammadion is very old and has nothing to do with either Hinduism or Nazism. The Shield Room is named after the decorations on the edges, which somewhat resemble the crescent-shaped shields used by Greek peltasts.

Even though mosaics are obviously the main course at the Villa dei Mosaici, I also enjoyed some of the fine bronze items on display at the museum. These are apparently not from the Roman villa itself, but from a nearby necropolis. They are also much older, dating back to the third and second century BCE. Very good is a decorated bronze mirror. It features a drunk Dionysos and two other figures: a winged figure that prevents that drunkard from falling and a woman playing the Greek kithara. Also of interest is a bronze censer that could be used to burn incense.

Mirror and censer.

For more information about the Villa dei Mosaici, please consult its website.

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