Good wine needs no bush

The Villa Romana del Casale in the center of Sicily, a few kilometers from Piazza Armerina, is one of the largest preserved mosaic ensembles of the ancient world. The senatorial owner of the Roman villa from the early 4th century adorned his huge mansion with over 3,500 square meters of first quality mosaics. Since the villa, built away from all settlements in a wooded valley, was first and foremost an elegant hunting lodge where the owner and his friends or clients retired to refresh themselves from Roman political life, most of its mosaics depict hunting. The floor of the guest suites displays hunting for local game, so the guests can dream about them before they pick up the compulsory hunting equipment at dawn and go to the woods. And on the floor of the large common space between the suites of the guests and of the dominus, mosaics depict hunting for exotic African and Indian beasts which the dominus probably dreamt of, or perhaps he also procured such animals for the Roman Circus.

All of these will be discussed in a future post. Now I just want to talk about the scene decorating one of the dominus’ suites. To be exact, the antechamber of the domina’s bedroom (marked with a red dot on the floor plan). This mosaic shows a story that you do not want to dream about. It is the episode from the Odyssey where the Greeks venture into the giant cave of the one-eyed Polyphemus – which is known to have been in Sicily –, and the terrible cyclops begins to devour them. Then Odysseus walks up to him, offering him a large jug full of night-colored wine, and, having made him drunk, puts out his single eye with a sharpened and heated stick.

Obviously, the terrible scene is made suitable for the antechamber of a bedroom by the soporifer, dream-bringing nature of wine. It is also conceivable that in this room the domina had wine with the dominus before bedtime. More to the point, this antechamber leads not only to the one-person female bedroom, but also to a cubiculum to the left, whose function is made clear by the scene in the mosaic floor.

This depiction is special not only because of its explicitly erotic nature. But also because the woman here wears a bikini just like the female athletes in the villa’s fitness room or the sea goddesses in the Arion room, which are the oldest bikinis documented in Europe. And that it also offers a clue to the scholarly problem of cultural history as to which intimate garment was first removed in ancient Rome.

But every honey runs out once, as the Italian proverb holds. The villa, already devastated by the Vandals, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans, was covered by mud in a landslide in the 12th century. This layer of mud preserved the mosaics until excavations began in the 1920s. The survivors of the disaster moved to the nearby mountain, where they took with them, too, the name of the village established around the villa, Platia (palatina, “belonging to the palace”).

The new settlement, Piazza (since 1862, Piazza Armerina) inherited not only its name from the villa. The little town strives to extract all the benefits from the World Heritage site belonging to it. Hotels, restaurants, public buildings are decorated with replicas of the ancient mosaics. Clothes shops are highlighted by the bikini pictures, bus stops by the female figures of the relay race. And the cheap pub in the main square obviously uses the scene of the drunk Polyphemus as a signboard.

However, the message of the signboard is ambiguous. It can refer to the excellence of the wine offered by Ulysses, but also to its unpleasant consequences. The polyphemi gravitating around the pub door – as in the above photo – uncomfortably reinforce the latter impression.

Polyphemus with a drinking cup. Boeothia, 5-4th c. BC. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

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