The picturesque town of Desenzano on the shores of Lake Garda once had an imposing Roman villa. Like all Roman villas, this villa was primarily an agricultural estate. The part where the buildings related to agricultural production must have stood has not been excavated. The residential part has, although the purpose of some of the rooms that have been discovered is yet to be established. The main interest of the villa lies in its many mosaics, some of which are heavily damaged, while others are in fairly good condition. In the antiquarium next to the excavations several objects have been put on display, ranging from simple utensils to sculptures from the mid-second century.
The villa was situated just a little south of Lake Garda and just north of a Roman road. That road connected the cities of Bergomum (Bergamo), Brixia (Brescia) and Verona and is commonly called the Via Gallica. The name derives from the fact that this part of Italy had for centuries been called Gallia Cisalpina, ‘Gaul on this side of the Alps’. The road was used to transport agricultural produce to the aforementioned cities. As regards the villa, several building phases have been identified. The first version of the complex was probably built in the first century BCE, but the parts that can still be visited nowadays chiefly date from the fourth century CE. In other words, we are dealing with a villa from Late Antiquity. Most of the mosaics also date from this era.
So who was the owner of this large complex? It is sometimes suggested that a villa in nearby Sirmione once belonged to the poet Catullus (ca. 84-54 BCE) or his family. In the case of the Desenzano villa, some claim there is a link with a certain Magnus Decentius, after whom the town itself could have been named. This Decentius was the brother of the Roman general Magnus Magnentius. In 350 Magnentius had the Roman emperor Constans murdered, who was a son of Constantine the Great. He then took possession of a large part of the west of the Roman Empire. What followed was a three-year war (350-353) against Constans’ brother, Constantius II, in which Magnentius was ultimately defeated. In the end, both Magnentius and Decentius committed suicide. Before his death, Decentius had served as Caesar (junior emperor) and in 352 as consul. He ended his life in Sens in present-day France. There is no direct evidence that he ever visited Desenzano del Garda, nor that the villa belonged to him. The theory that it did is interesting nonetheless.
Excavations and the layout of the villa
Between 1921 and 1923 section A of the villa was excavated and then restored at the end of the 1920s. New excavations took place between 1963 and 1976, when the sections a (the antiquarium), B and C were brought to light. After 1988 the first piece of part D was found, and the excavations are ongoing. It is assumed that, in the fourth century, section A of the villa mostly had a social function (receiving guests), while the living quarters were in section B and the baths in sections C and D. Nevertheless, several questions remain unanswered. At the end of the fourth century a large room with an apse was built into section B. Was this a Christian basilica or did the room have another purpose? We simply do not know.
In section A visitors entered an octagonal vestibule with a splendid mosaic floor (see the first image in this post). The vestibule gave access to a peristilium or garden. From the garden visitors entered an atrium, which was rectangular and had semicircular apses on the two outer ends. The large room with three apses behind the atrium has been identified as a triclinium or dining room. The rooms alongside the peristilium probably served as bathrooms, as here the remains of a floor-heating system (hypocausta) have been found. Behind the dining room was a second garden, also known as a viridarium, to which probably only the inhabitants of the villa had access. On either side of the viridarium were more rooms, and in the rooms on the left the floor mosaics and painted wall decorations have partially been preserved.
As was already mentioned, the mosaics in section A date from the fourth century. We see many geometrical patterns, but also human figures. Many mosaics feature winged erotes. They can be seen sailing in little boats, fishing, harvesting grapes and driving around in little carts. We furthermore see tigers hunting gazelles and girls making floral crowns. And then there is a heavily damaged mosaic of a man in a bucolic landscape with animals. It has been suggested that he is the Good Shepherd or Orpheus, but so little of the scene is still there that this all sounds like a wild guess. It is, in fact, not inconceivable that we are in fact looking at a portrait of the master of the house. The scene of the erotes on the water reminded me of a wall fresco below the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. That fresco was likely painted around the same time and apparently represents a theme that was popular in the fourth century. It should, by the way, be noted that the mosaics we see in Desenzano have been heavily restored, and not necessarily very well.
Section B of the complex has a complicated history. A machine for pressing grapes or olives probably once stood in its southern part. The remains of a floor-heating system have also been found here. The living quarters of the northern part date from the fourth century. Here we see nice floor mosaics again, but now without human figures. The large apse that I mentioned previously could have been part of a Christian basilica, but it may just as well have belonged to a room with a social function. After all, the atrium and triclinium in section A also have apses.
Unfortunately many archaeological remains in sections C and D have been lost as a result of illegal building activities in the 1970s. These sections were probably living quarters originally, but they were turned into a bath house in the fourth century. Again the remains of a floor-heating system have been discovered. See the image above, which features the suspensurae, the small columns that supported the floor. The suspensurae allowed the hot air underneath the floor to circulate.
The most interesting objects in the antiquarium are the sculptures. They date from the second century and were probably reused when the villa was rebuilt in the fourth century. The sculptures were then no doubt set up in the gardens of the complex. I particularly liked a statuette of the bearded Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in the Roman pantheon). The hero is naked, but he has draped the skin of the Nemean lion around his head and neck. The object in his left hand has been identified as a horn of plenty. Lastly, the antiquarium has some splendid wall frescoes, but it should be noted that these are modern reproductions.
Source: website of the villa and several brochures.