Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pixels Somewhere in Time

Pixels Somewhere in Time
There are times I feel I'd have been comfortable in the bleacher seats of the Coliseum during an afternoon event, avoiding chariots while walking along Via Sacra in ancient Paestum, or enjoying a healthy portion of fermented gurum fish sauce on the Decumanus Maximus, there by the water trough in Herculaneum.  Funny, I felt that same sense of place when we finally arrived at Villa Romana del Casale in the town of Piazza Armerina, just about smack-dab in the center of that triangular shaped island of Sicily. 
I can't say it had been a torturous ride following our departure from Ortigia, but strange roads, misleading GPS directions from Margaret, and the anticipation our destination was just around the next corner made for a long morning drive.  From the planes of the coast, we'd entered a rugged mountainous serving of Sicily deep in the interior and got so turned around that contrary to what that rental agreement might say about off-road travel, we at times found ourselves moving along by what I'll best describe as cross country mode.  The occasional contadina's head swiveled in wonderment at the sight of our bright red Ford Fiesta.  "What could it possibly be doing along that crater-pocked goat trail?", only adding weight to the adage ... never, never buy a used rental!
Before we’d get to visit Villa Romana, however, we first needed to find where we’d be staying overnight.  It was a countryside agriturismo, this one named Agriturismo Savoca situated on landscaped gardens within a functioning farm.  We never found out what they actually did on this farm during our brief stay but they were clearly busy.  Their guest accommodations consisted of twelve rooms laying side-by-side, all in a row like a 70’s motel.  An angled roof running the length of the building provided a cooling shadow over a stone patio and made for a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the scenery and the occasional tractor that might pass by.  We were surprised to find flocks of peacocks, if ‘flock’ is the proper term for a group of peacocks, roaming the grounds and passing close, too close, by our open door.  Just maybe they were peacock poultry and egg farmers.  It was clear we were definitely on a farm and would need to keep our door shut to discourage any unwelcomed pecking visitors. 
Our first order of business after settling in, it being still early afternoon, was to have lunch.  We were directed to follow the dirt road that ran in front of our apartment to the function facility at the end of the road.  It proved to be a pleasant walk past flowering hedges, blooming cacti, and a young tree-stand of ash all neatly aligned; a forest already grown tall enough to shade the occasional passers-by like us. While a statuesque figure atop a pedestal may have been in order here, instead there rose a majestic monument befitting the owner's labor.  The relic of a tattered tractor, almost tank-like in its appearance, rested on a series of boulders in testament to the work it undoubtedly had taken to have culled this country estate, on the order of the Cartwright’s “Ponderosa” or JR Ewing’s “Southfork Ranch” from nature’s grasp.
Arrived at the dining facility, we saw a flurry of activity underway.  While others worked to decorate the patio, fork-toothed tractors made deliveries of tables and chairs.  Inside, buffet tables, tablecloths, formal chair covers, and place-settings were being arranged.  Something big was afoot.  When the family who operated the farm arrived to have their lunch, we learned there was a wedding reception scheduled that evening.  What this meant for us, since apparently we’d been left off the invitation list, was that we’d need to find somewhere else for dinner that evening.  It was the matriarch of this extended family, nona Savoca, who gave us some suggestions of which the da Nino steakhouse sounded best.
We decided that when we left for the restaurant, we'd also try to find the Villa Romana.  Hopefully, this would make things easier in the morning.  The Villa Romana del Casale was advertised to be only five kilometers away, but that may have been an estimation based on how a bird flies, in a straight line.  I’d be hard pressed to admit that this estimate was even close for we searched for at least 20 km before finding it.  Waiting until morning might have been best, for like a trail of breadcrumbs, there most certainly would have been a line of traffic to follow.  As dark and as late as it was, seeing no respectable Italian thinks to eat before 9 pm, it made for a difficult time.  I could easily blame Margaret but signs, if there were ever any more than the scant few we did manage to find, seemed to have simply disappeared.  Besides, as I said, it was dark, so instead of relying on our wayward GPS or inadequate signage, my strategy was to drive a ways and ask, drive a ways and ask again, ad infinitum.  When we finally did find it, I went to a hotel by the entrance road to ask for their address so we could load it into Margaret to use the following day, in hope that it would be easier to find.  Inside, after talking with three different people, I still had no address.  Hopefully, their mailperson knew their address.  This just might shed light on why the Italian postal system is notorious for its slow delivery.
Now somewhat familiar with the area, we easily made our way into town, to the da Nino.  Finding it was the easy part, where to park was another matter.  The restaurant’s parking lot was filled with earlier diners,
something I thought on the equivalent to a Florida “Early Bird Special”.  Apparently, its success had outgrown its parking space.  Also apparent, at least here, I was all wrong about not eating before nine, but then, these were Sicilians who might never admit to being Italians!  Narrow streets, with parking reserved for residents, only compounded the issue.  I'd pulled over opposite the entrance, in front of some homes, their garage doors with signs I imagined threatening to turn your car over to a chop shop if you dared park there.  Honestly, Boston's North End Italian District came to mind.  I was about to leave and call it a dinnerless night when a young man exited from one of the homes.  I called to him in my childish Speak & Spell Italian, explaining our plight, asking where we might park for an hour.  Again the kind-hearted nature of the average Italian emerged when he told us to park right there for as long as we needed.  Praying he wasn’t just the pizza delivery boy, we did just that.
The steakhouse was packed.  It was one of those places where instead of choosing your lobster or fish from a tank, you chose the chunk, tip, slice, hunk or slab of meat from whatever beast that most appealed to you.  After enjoying the pleasant surprise of an amuse-bouche, pizza-like appetizer sprinkled with pine nuts, Mare went with her standard favorite, agnello (lamb) while I, after a diligent search for peacock, chose a cut of beef.  But it was not our meals that made this night special.  We would soon forget what we ate that night but not what would become the hit of our evening.
True to form, in the lively, slightly chaotic atmosphere of this informal restaurant we soon struck-up a conversation with the threesome at the table alongside ours.  It was because of the pizza Livia, the mother, ordered.  It was such a large pizza, topped with "rocket", better known as arugula that caught my eye.  A third party would have seen me staring at it as I wondered how such a small woman could possibly consume such a pie.  Her husband, noting my interest, asked with a simple gesture of his hands if I'd like to try a slice.  I declined the offer but this was enough to start a conversation.  We soon learned that this family was from Piazza Armerina.  Livia, and especially her daughter, Alessandra, spoke English, while the father continued to communicate with gestures and the occasional help of their translations.  Alessandra could have passed for an 18 year old, when in fact we learned she had already graduated from university as an architect.  We chatted on and off as the pizzas and carne (meat) all managed to disappear.
We were about to leave when our neighbors asked if we'd like to go with them for gelato.  As late as it was by then, I honestly wondered if it would be wise to get into a car with total strangers in such unfamiliar terrain.  Just a step removed from hitch-hiking, who knew where we might wind up.  I'm guessing mothers still council their children about things like this.  The council aside, we paid no heed and agreed to come along.  We were delayed somewhat when Maria Elena spoke to a man at the opposite table who had been staring at her the entire evening, but when we emerged they were still waiting for us.  As we got into their vehicle I was glad to see our car still there in front of the garage.  It could wait a little longer for there was adventure afoot.
The rest of the evening, a testament to Italian conviviality, unfolded as advertised.  We were hosted to a tour of the town, which ranged from the town square overseen by a statue of General Cascino, panoramic overlooks, and a Baroque cathedral in addition of course to cones heaped with ice cream.  It was only after all this serendipity, as we were getting back into their car to return to the da Nino that I remarked that we didn't even know their names!  Only then did we learn their names to the laughter of just how ridiculous this had all been, but such is life when unrehearsed. 

Although we got “home” late that night, we were up and well breakfasted by early the next morning.  As opposed to cruise ships along the coast that spawn thousands of visitors at a time, this far inland we hoped to beat the busloads of tourist also headed for the Villa Romana.  I actually passed a bus closing on the entrance and sped down the now familiar road alongside the hotel without an address.  Parked and with tickets secured, we approached the villa on foot.  Descending along a curving tree-lined road, we noted the remains of an aqueduct to one side that among other things once supplied water for the villa’s needs, especially for its extensive thermal bath complex.  What lay ahead had to be something special, for who ever heard of an aqueduct for a private home?  Maybe a city or town but someone's home?  We continued our gradual descent into what was clearly a furrow between mountain ridges and abrupt hills, wondering what lay ahead.  It was unapparent where exactly it happened, but somewhere along that trail time warped from now to then.  
As we approached the sprawling complex, still ageing in place, I imagined its Roman master likewise arriving from the mainland for a long summer stay in the 300 A.D. timeframe ahead of a procession of attendants and undoubtedly a cavalcade of baggage carts.  Approaching the complex, thoughts of the immense upkeep needed to maintain the vast complex that once covered some 37,000 square feet and consisted of 60 rooms on four levels fitted to the sloping terrain flashed by in a heartbeat.  Such an undertaking would have been impossible without the use of slaves …
I am Popillius, slave of the family Volusianus, a wealth merchant family whose vast holdings here in Sicilia provide the grain that feds Roma.  Paterfamilias Rufius Volusianus, father of the family and his wife, Domina Junilla, will arrive soon.  By now their ship, which hugged the coast from Neápolis south, would be crossing the Strait of Messina.  Prayers have been offered to the household gods that the sea monsters, first Scylla and then Charybdis, will let them pass unharmed to Catana.  Days ago, the household was alerted to their imminent arrival.  In preparation, the domus is alive with activity.  I am involved with gathering vast stores of wood for the fires of the hypocaust, which heats the many rooms of the thermae beginning with the caldarium and the tepidarium.  Arrival of the master has also accelerated completion of the floor patterns they call mosaic.  The freedmen from Carthage have been working day and night to complete the remaining floor pictures in the great hall and sport arena.  The small colored cubes of stone and tile they awaited from Agrigentum arrived only last week.  By candlelight, in the early hours before dawn, I have seen the drawings of the animals and athletes they prepared that are now being brought to life as the tiny stones fill the scrawled images.  The children will be especially pleased.  Their daughters Atia and Valeria will marvel at the scenes of the maiden athletes shown tossing a ball as they sometimes do, while their son Gaius will be likewise amazed at the sight of the Great Hunt he so loves to join in while here.  Hopefully, all will be in order by the time the Dominus arrives at the horse changing station along the Statio Agraria Philosophiana that leads here from Catana.  The gods b….. 
As the annals of history close only to open once again, so to ownership (maybe better described as possession) of this imperial estate frequently changed hands, one plunderer to another.  The villa, which grew larger with time, was first inhabited by Romans who saw to its construction in the 3rd and 4th century A.D. during the time of Roman Emperor Maximian Herculius.  By the end of the Roman Empire in approximately 475 A.D., it was sacked with the arrival of the nomadic Germanic "V" tribes - the Vandals and Visigoths.  For several centuries afterwards it was occupied by Byzantines who in turn were expelled with the arrival of the Saracens who conquered Sicily in 827 A.D.  There is more, for Normans lived in the villa following the expulsion of the Saracens. Their stay ended when a landslide covered the estate with mud sealing it for posterity to the extent that even local people, as was the case with Paestum and Tiberius' villa in Sperlonga, lost track of its very existence.  Today, its new owners, the region's archaeological establishment, apparently by the rule of “finders-keepers” have replaced slave labor with a pay to enter tariff.  We, current and former slaves to today's workplaces, simply laboring elsewhere for some corporate dominus, still manage to pay for its upkeep.  Even now, in the subtext of an unscripted invasion, this one daily, there is added panache ... the fee to enter, 10 Euros each.
We’d arrived at one of the most important monuments of the Ancient Roman world where the magnificence of Rome is portrayed in a country estate depicting 4th century Roman civilization, art and history.  Unlike many similar relics from the past, the building complex is covered with roofs that serve a dual purpose.  The first is obviously protection from the elements.  As the original roofs had, today glass structures resembling giant greenhouses afford protection.  Additionally, like a guide book with plastic overlay pages that allow you to flip back and forth to envision what the structure had originally looked like, verses its present state, this skeleton of tubular elements, sheathed in glass and plastic, check our wondering imaginations and add that missing dimension needed to appreciate the true grandeur of this villa.  Yet these thousands of years later, its once opulent character remains patently evident in the form of one outstanding feature that doesn't need the help of flipping pages to appreciate.  For here we discovered hundreds if not thousands of mosaic floor decorations. 
The villa centers on an immense four-sided peristyle portico surrounded by 32 Greek Corinthian columns that enclose a fountain and now empty pond.  Covered walkways along each side began our appreciation for the lavish mosaic layouts depicting everything from epic tales to hunts, for which Villa Romana del Casale is world known.  Today a World Heritage Site, UNESCO declares this villa “especially noteworthy for the richness and quality of the mosaics which decorate almost every room; they are the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world.” 1  More than in any other known single building in the Roman Empire, their numbers, their size, their detail, their state of preservation are nowhere else to be found.  From this central point the mosaics, in precise detail, serving as carpets, spread out in every direction.  Even the toilets, both private and public have mosaic floor decorations.
These mosaics were high-tech decor in their day, what we'd call a grouping of pixels today.  Zoom in close enough on most pictures and they decompose into individual dots or pixels, something the Romans called tesserae.  Even then, smaller was considered better.  These 1mm squares were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, pottery, stone and even shells.  Exactly how these floors were prepared and the composition of a glue strong enough to hold the bits and pieces together through the centuries soon found me delving into subjects on Roman concrete (opus caementicium), Portland cement, and the ancient schools and workshops for this art form.  Far short of the credit needed for an associate degree, I nevertheless discovered that Roman concrete was the most durable type of cement of its kind due to its incorporation of volcanic ash, which prevented cracks from spreading.2  As opposed to my notion that they'd used some sort of special glue to secure their designs to the base, I discovered that the colored tesserae "pixels" were set into a layer of this concrete.  The sizes of the floors we saw also meant that they'd have to be quick about it, for there would be little time to insert each pixel of stone or glass one at a time.  Instead they developed (or borrowed from the Greeks) a variety of techniques to lay down a design in mass.  A popular technique saw these craftsmen setting the tesserae first in sand then temporarily gluing a cloth to its upper surface.  Once the glue had set, the complete mosaic was lifted from the sand and set into the wet cement. When the cement was dry, the glue was dissolved with hot water to reveal the design.3  This approach allowed large designs to be made in sections, then assembled.
Another characteristic of Villa Romana was the evident attention to hygiene represented by the baths.  Telling from their extent, 4th century lifestyle gave considerable attention to the baths, for in addition to their
sauna-like features the complex included adjoining preparatory rooms and vestibules for exercise, dressing, massages and rub-downs.  Beginning with a set of three wood burning furnaces that heated water, to include the engineering detail of terracotta tubes (used because they wouldn’t expand with heat) for a supply of hot air, it was clear that the baths garnered major attention in this society.
It is difficult to properly describe the Villa's  grandeur.  A network of elevated walkways guided us through the structure, permitting us to peer down from above into the various functional rooms.  These birds-eye glimpses into now empty rooms, save for the decorated floors, served one after another to overwhelm cat-walk observers like ourselves.  Certainly here was a home for an emperor, if not a king.  When would the patterns and pictures end?  It seemed, never.  
There were so many decorated surfaces it is difficult to choose from among them which was best.  It remained a personal decision.  There were two in particular that at least for me stood out – one for its extent and
another for its uniqueness.  The first is called the “Ambulatory of the Great Hunt”.  Its title is fitting for this massive scene extends for an amazing 100 feet along a hallway that connects cubicles for the dominus, domina, and their children as well as a living room and a basilica, the largest area of the villa, used for receptions and which once held a gigantic statue of Hercules as well as a throne.  While the individual rooms are spectacular, it is the extent, subject matter and detail of the hallway mosaic floor that eclipses all others.  Like many a country estate, the hunt is its theme.  Unlike a typical hunt, however, it depicts an African hunt for beasts used in the circus of Rome.  From left to right it presents the phases of the hunt beginning with their capture.  Next, amidst a countryside as exotic as the captured panthers, antelopes, and lions, they are seen being crated, shipped and loaded aboard ships in Carthage, destined for Rome’s port of Ostia.  Interspersed throughout this seemingly never ending sequence, we could also make out various functionaries - officials, soldiers, supervisors, centurions, and sailors.  It remains not only an unflagging testament to their owner's prosperity but to the nameless craftsmen who composed this one-of-a-kind storyboard.  
Clearly the Roman era was a man's world.  The numerous mosaic hunting scenes throughout the villa serve as anecdotal evidence to this fact.  It was therefore refreshing to come upon scenes of female figures in a small gym, called the Sala delle Dieci Ragazze (Chamber of the Ten Maidens) engaged in various sport disciplines.  Evidently the daughters of the dominus exercised there, in the activities depicted on the floor, to include discus throwing, weight lifting, and running.  But there was one added twist that earned my endorsement for most unique.  One of the depictions presented the girls playing some sort of handball game, if not simply catch.  Maybe it was because our granddaughter, Gabriella, plays volleyball during the school year and in summer plays the beach variety that got my attention and helps explain my vote.  All that was missing was a net!  Even more of a surprise, the female athletes are wearing what would pass as bikini-like clothing, the sort I’d associate with Bridget Bardot,
or to better mask my age, a modern Victoria Secret model.  Thus the ten maidens, in keeping with more modern vernacular, have been dubbed the "Bikini Girls".  The advent of Christianity, with its fondness for puritanical layer upon layer of cloth in an attempt to disguise the female figure, apparently succeeded in covering-up pagan nudity to the point that we think the bikini is of recent secular vintage.  Apparently not.  Back then, Ancient Romans, ever the fashion setters to this day, referred to the athletes “bikini” briefs as subligar and to their halter-like breast band as a stropkion.  It was while experiencing a fabric shortage in 1946, that French engineer, Louis Réard first designed the bikini to commemorate the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests then underway. 4  My guess is he had no idea that the Villa Romana del Casale contained an even earlier illustration of what he had in mind.  In fact, the two-piece swimsuit goes back even earlier to 1400 BC to the Greco-Roman world where bikini-like garments worn by women athletes are depicted on urns and paintings. 5  Just goes to show you not to throw your old ties away for they're sure to come back into style. 
Villa Romana del Casale was a virtual city, certainly justifying an aqueduct of its own.  Much of it, like Pompei and Herculaneum, still remains to be unearthed.  Its influence certainly extended far and wide throughout the region.  Walking back up the hill to our lipstick-red modern "chariot" through the relics of an empire, I remained stranded in my meta-state somewhere between then and now, past colliding with contemporary.  Still confused, my transference back to the present somehow delayed, my mind flipped a plastic overlay of confused thoughts ... for lunch, will it be some ancient style gurum fish sauce dip or a modern-day buffalo mozzarella caprese salad  ... , I continued to fantasize on who the original occupants of this villa had been.  Certainly not my made up characters, though undeniably wealthy, privileged, and important individuals in their day.  Could their images be somewhere among the pixelized images, hidden in the hunt or among the female athletes, their soliloquy bound-up somewhere in silent stone?  Whoever they were, from the collective images they've left us, they provided an invaluable window into what Roman life was like, how they lived, and what was important to them.  The wonder of it lay beneath our feet.

From That Rogue Tourist

3. by John Olbrantz