A UNESCO World Heritage since 1997, and Regional Archaeological Museum since 1999, the Villa Romana del Casale is one of the biggest reasons for tourists’ interest in Sicily: the beauty of the colorful mosaics and harmony of the structure, and its surroundings, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. After six years of restoration, at a total cost of 18 million Euros, the villa was reopened in its entire splendor in July 2012.
The Villa of Casale, only 5 km away from Piazza Armerina, is a complex structure that extends for 4,000 square feet, built during the Roman Imperial period (III-IV century AD). For the size of the building and the beauty of the decorations, the building was supposed to belong to some illustrious personage of the time, probably Maximian, co-emperor Diocletian set in a secluded position with respect to the centers of the time, the mansion was the summer residence from which they organized many hunting trips. But not solely for that, assuming from the presence of its many rooms, it was also used to carry out administrative functions and representation.
Its excellent state of preservation is probably due to a landslide that covered the Villa, protecting it for over 700 years. Its discovery, in the 1950’s, remains among the most important archaeological finds in Europe.
The structure of the complex can appear difficult to interpret. However, it is possible to distinguish the Villa in four different environments:
What to see in Piazza Armerina
The Cathedral is located in a wide and homonymous square, reachable from Via Floresta.
The construction was undertaken on a pre-existing structure in the early years of the seventeenth century and completed one hundred years later. Its measurements are remarkable: 70 meters long, the building is dominated by the majestic dome, which rises up to 76 meters in height.
The bell tower, soaring to 44 meters, is the original of the previous building dating back to 1420. The style of the building is Gothic-Catalan, although there are references to the Baroque.
The interior has a single aisle: of particular relevance is its marble arch (dating back to the previous construction), a wooden temple on the left side of the structure, two silver reliquaries and an altar stone, marble and lapis lazuli, of which the tradition has it that it was donated by Pope Nicholas II to King Roger in recognition for having expelled the Arabs from Sicily.
The Church of St. Andrew
The Church of St. Andrew, located outside of town, is the oldest Christian building in the city. Built between the late eleventh and early twelfth century, it was donated to the Order of the Holy Sepulcher in 1148. It has a solemn appearance, with a compact, simple, and typical architecture style of the Middle Ages.
Inside it has been resurfaced, and thanks to the restoration of the second half of the twentieth century, it shows its richly colored frescoes, dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century. Examples of Benedictine painting depicting a series of events of Christ, the saints and the Virgin Mary.
The Church of St. John the Evangelist
The Church of St. John the Evangelist is located in the north of Largo S. John. Built as structure attached to the Benedictine Monastery in the fourteenth century, it was heavily restored in the eighteenth century, appearing today in the Baroque style. The interior is tastefully decorated with frescoes by a Dutch school: in the time from the virtues of Mary the Immaculate, on the right and left respectively are the Epiphany and the Adoration of the shepherds.
The Aragonese Castle
The Aragonese Castle of Piazza Armerina was built by King Martin I in the fourteenth century. It had to play an important defensive role, even if it was actually used often as a residence.
In the following centuries, its rooms were used as a garrison, which is why its internal structure was completely changed. Today the building appears quite stout, though at the time the ramparts and corner towers, along with the missing part of the complex, formed a towering structure. Purchased from a private individual, it is still for sale and closed to visitors.
Historical Background of Piazza Armerina
The fertile area where Piazza Armerina stands today, hosted permanent settlements from the eighth century BC. However, we have little information about the period preceding the destruction of the city, operated by William I King of Sicily in 1161.
Rebuilt on a different site by William II, Piazza Armerina saw an increase in its prestige during the medieval period, thanks to the strategic position of its location and the fertility of its soil, which offered security and prosperity for its inhabitants.
As confirmation, the city was chosen as the venue of a meeting of the Parliament in the last years of the thirteenth century. In the following centuries, Piazza Armerina had a reduction of its influence on neighboring centers, remaining, however, an important administrative center.