Restoration of “Casale di Piazza Armerina” Roman Villa


Casale Roman Villa is a late roman residential building, commonly called “villa”, although it does not have the proper features of the countryside roman villa, but rather those ones of the urban imperial palace. The remains are placed about four kilometers from Piazza Armerina, a small village in the heart of Sicily. From1997 it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Villa belonged to a representative of the roman senatorial aristocracy, probably a governor from Rome (Praefectus Urbi). Instead, according to some specialists, it was built and expanded on direct imperial patronage. Considering its beauty and the complexity of its plan, it is considered one of the most significant examples of representative dwelling, compared to other contemporary ones of the Roman Western Empire. The high profile of his owner is celebrated, in a very eloquent manner, through an iconographic program, conditioned in its style by the north-african roman culture, that is displayed with a compositional richness in many rooms, both public and private ones.

The first museological arrangement was planned at the end of ‘50s by the architect Franco Minissi that, with the knowledge of that time, worked for protecting the Villa and its mosaics from the bad weather. He designed a cover, definitely modern and innovative at the time, using iron posts and trusses and plexiglass sheets covering the roof and closing the perimeter wall of the Villa. It was the age developing new materials, and plexiglass, flexible and versatile, was suitable on the purpose. Then arch. Minissi designed a cover recalling the third dimension, the volumes of the Villa. Even this was an innovative choice, along all the scenario of the contemporary coverings in the italian archaeological sites. Moreover He assembled the external wall using wooden sheets, closing the external perimeter, and invented the ingenious solution of the footbridges, installed on the internal crown walls. It was a very useful system for visiting the Villa, that allows walking the tour around the rooms and enjoying the view of mosaic from above.

Unfortunately the system did not work long, because the sun deteriorated plexiglass, and the water continued to enter from the inner portico, that was left open. So arch. Minissi, claimed several times to solve the problems complained, replaced the side walls plexiglass sheets with glass ones and with the previous ones he closed the large space of the portico. These changes, if from one side tried to solve the problem of rainwater, in another one transformed the Villa in a huge greenhouse, with in addition the presence of the velario, a plastic curtain, installed in the rooms to quench the shadows threw by the transparent cover on the floorings. Practically the false ceiling, closing the space under the roof, has created the conditions for a heat accumulator.

The survey on all the decays of the Villa, through several components, has allowed us to provide a comprehensive response to the alleged issues. The project springs, indeed, from all the information provided by the various technical specialists, chemists, physicists, biologists, technologists, that in an interdisciplinary way have contributed to solve the different decays.

The restoration intervention
The intervention aimed to recover the original idea of arch. Minissi, giving back life to the spirit of the project, replacing the materials, used originally for the covering, with others more suitable for conservation.
In detail the work was focused on the visiting walkways, the covers, the perception of light and shadow relationships within the Villa, the research of compatible materials for the construction of the roof and the restoration of the mosaic decorations and painted plaster.

The mosaic surfaces
The conservative restoration of floor and wall decorations ensured a general conservation aimed to stop or considerably reduce the decay processes. The necessary operations, for performing the restoration, were supported by all laboratories’ tests, useful for a correct intervention.

Concerning the mosaic carpets, the painted plasters and the statues, specific methods for the execution were settled, considering the peculiarities of each case and the different issues for 120 million tesserae, assembled in about 4000 square meters of mosaics and marbles. The cleaning and restoration of the mosaics were carried out by technicians and specialists coming from the local market, from rest of Italy and abroad. For years the restorers worked continuously in alternate shifts, developing innovative methods and techniques. It was a real health clinic for tesserae and floorings, populated by white overalls technicians and experts. First were removed old silt layers, mold, algae, bacteria, fungi and salts; cleaned the tesserae, damaged by aggressive products of earlier restorations (waxes, encrustations, resins); detached small mosaic portions to intervene on the reinforced iron bars of cement screeds, now rusty; leveled the gaps and infiltrated into the substrate consolidating products, as barium hydroxide that has been injected with needles inserted between the tesserae, using hundreds of drip bottles. It allowed the removal of some salts and the cohesion of the support.

The next step was the reconfiguration of the gaps, using the technique of carved tesserae for the geometric decorations, and the neutral base for the figures. It allowed recovering the legibility of most of the original mosaics.
In the Villa, for the first time, a precious reconstructive technique of the gaps was implemented, carried out in some details of small dimensions figures, using chromatic dispersion carved mortar, according to the primary colors on the edges, borrowing this technique from the pictorial reintegration of paintings and frescoes.


[by Roberta Bianchini, Laura Franci]