Set on a plateau almost 700 meters above sea level about 35 kilometers from Enna and a bit nearer Caltagirone, the city of Piazza Armerina is not without charm. Founded during the Arab era, its historical quarter has some beautiful churches, including a Baroque cathedral, as well as a well-preserved fortress (Spinelli Castle), but most visitors come here to see the Roman Villa, with its magnificent mosaics. Piazza Armerina is a charming town known for its Norman Palio, an annual summer pageant of medieval events, but the major attraction is its ancient Roman villa. Located a few kilometers outside town, the villa is one of the largest Roman dwellings of its kind to have survived antiquity, and probably belonged to a wealthy patrician. Depicting scenes from daily life, such as hunting, the mosaics are as remarkable for their sociological value as for their artistry. One of these, showing women clad in two-piece swimsuits exercising with barbells, could well describe a scene typical of the twentieth century.
The “Villa del Casale” was built between 330 and 360 AD. The identity of its owner remains a subject of debate. However, three individuals are usually mentioned: Proculus Populonius, governor of Sicily from 314 to 337; Caeionus Rufus Volusianus, also called Lampadius, an influential and wealthy man; and Sabucinius Pinianus, probably of Roman birth.
There are 3500 square meters of mosaics on the villa’s floors, and some surviving wall paintings. Many of the structure’s walls are still standing. The style of the mosaics is said to be influenced by the North African motifs of the Romans. Some smaller finds from the site are housed in the Piazza Armerina archeological museum.
The art itself is impressive, but the visitor is also struck by the size of the villa, whose architectural style differs markedly from that of urban dwellings such as those of Pompei. The villa’s buildings are arranged in sections, with an impressive entrance and numerous rooms of various dimensions, some quite large. There are also the remains of water pipes, visible near the entrance. Beneath the villa the remains of a village have been found. These have been dated to 100-200 AD.
The remains of another village, Sofiana, ancient Proedium Philosophianum, have been discovered about 6 kilometers south of the villa. This includes baths, as well as Roman and Byzantine cemeteries and the vestiges of a Paleo Christian church.
The scenic, mountainous area of Piazza Armerina is not far from Enna, a hilltop city some distance northward, past eucalyptus woods, founded by the ancient Sicels, later populated by the Greeks, then conquered by the Arabs (as Kasr’ Yanni) and subsequently ruled by the Normans. Nearby is Lake Pergusa, associated with the the Greek maiden Persphone. There are several exceptional guest farms (agriturismo) in the area.