The Roman Villa at Vacone (Rieti)

Mosaics, plasters and two presses for the production of oil. A rich archaeological heritage perfectly preserved. A Spasso con Sara to discover the Roman villa of Vacone, a town in the province of Rieti 55 km north of Rome.

 

In a grey Friday in August…

The best discoveries are made by chance. And the story I tell you today is nothing more than the confirmation of this commonplace.

It all starts on a grey Friday in August when Francesca (my friend and talented archaeologist) and I leave Rome with a rather uncertain weather and arrive at Vacone after an endless ride (never trust the navigator!).

The rain surprises us on the way and we look at ourselves uncertainly, wondering if there was anyone ready to explain something to us. Let’s park the car in a flood of mud, take the umbrellas and start. Here we are welcomed by a kind gentleman who with a smile leads us to the excavation area.

Speaking with him, we discover that he is Dr. Roberto Renzi, Major of Vacone, a tiny town, as well as all the hills and villages of the Sabina Tiberina, the side facing the Tiber of the much wider historical sub-region Sabina, characterized by a hilly landscape of rare beauty, among the most beautiful in Central Italy.

Maps of Sabina Tiberina. Location of the Roman Villa of Vacone and its geographical position on the Italian peninsula (Upper Sabina Tiberina Project)

The enthusiasm shown by Dr. Renzi (and I assure you that I have met many mayors) in describing and showing me the treasures of his beloved land have prompted me to tell you about this archaeological site that today, as unfortunately every year, after being excavated and studied, was again covered by the earth.

 

Dr Roberto Renzi, Mayor of Vacone, while showing me some details of one of the mosaics found on the site of the Roman Villa at Vacone

 

How it started.

The presence of a Roman villa at Vacone, situated in the locality of Sassogrosso, on the southern side of Monte Cosce, was already amply attested by literature.

Its “rediscovery”, however, took place in the sixties of the twentieth century during the construction of a nearby road, thanks to the emergence of some structures identified as ancient.

Thus, between 1986 and 1987, the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici del Lazio undertook a restoration and static consolidation of this evidence and, through some excavation tests, found floors, mosaics and even traces for the installation of machines for the production of wine or oil.

Graphical representation of the mosaics found by the Superintendence during the excavation between 1986 and 1987 (from the SBAL Archive). The mosaic was removed and taken to Tivoli.

 

But a systematic scientific investigation only began in 2012 when Rutgers University (NJ, USA), led by Professor Gary D. Farney, Director of the Upper Sabina Tiberina Project, started a new excavation of the Roman Villa at Vacone. Since that year, every summer (the last excavation campaign ended the other day), dozens of American students have excavated and studied the villa, giving, with their work, a fundamental contribution to the knowledge and discovery of this wonderful archaeological site.

 

Professor Gary D. Farney with some of the young people who participated in the excavation of the Roman villa of Vacone

 

The Villa

In the research campaigns carried out over the years, the traditional archaeological excavation methods have been flanked by the most recent new technologies applied to cultural heritage (such as laser scanners), which have made it possible to create three-dimensional documentation of the archaeological layers and the structures and decorative devices found.

Investigations have confirmed the presence of a large Roman villa in the countryside, on several levels and with breathtaking views over the valley below.

The residence, subjected to various restorations and building interventions by the various owners who followed one another over time, was inhabited for a long period of time roughly between the second half of the first century BC and the third century AD.

Like all Roman country houses (villae), Villa di Vacone was divided into two distinct areas: on the one hand there was the so-called “representative” area (pars urbana), that section of the country house where the landlord and his family lived, ate, slept and received their guests; on the other hand there was the so-called “productive” area (pars rustica or pars fructuaria in Latin), destined, instead, to the shelter of tools for agricultural activity, to the conservation and processing of wheat and other products, to the shelter of animals, and to the residence for staff dedicated to work on the estate.

Vacone, Roman villa, plan as of 2016 excavation season (photo USTP).

 

Stone Carpets

As far as the late republican phase of the residential part of the villa is concerned, we can say that very little is preserved. Remains of a floor with coloured limestone tesserae were found where the breakthroughs made in modern times for the planting of vines have damaged the most recent layers.

Most of the testimonies  date back to the Imperial Age and consist of a wonderful series of well-preserved mosaics characterized by sometimes very small tesserae and original, geometric, colored and refined motifs.

Cottanello stone, with its reddish colour, is the protagonist of many of the mosaics found that, like precious stone carpets, covered the floors of the urban pars of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

Various types of floor mosaic found during the archaeological excavation campaigns held in Villa di Vacone (Credits: Villa Romana di Vacone on Facebook)

A different floor adorned each room and the passage from one room to another of the house was marked by thresholds that were also mosaic. Among these elements of separation, I would like to point out the discovery, in the course of the latest excavation campaign, of a threshold with a meander motif. It so happened that part of the decoration was lost, revealing the scheme and the design on the basis of which the workers arranged and put into place the coloured tesserae that made up the mosaic. It is a unique testimony, capable of catapulting us directly into the building site of the time, shedding light on the way in which the workers of the time operated.

Marble threshold found in the last archaeological excavation of Vacone, which ended a few days ago. In the left part the preparatory scheme of the mosaic is clearly visible

Worthy of mention is the extraordinary mosaic with a white background bordered by an elaborate braid. In the middle, in the heart of the room, there is a refined representation (emblem). In a box bordered with black, vine shoots and leaves, interspersed with birds, depart from a vase. The decoration, very refined, was probably made separately by the master of the workshop and then assembled in situ, as the traces on the floor suggest.

 

 

 Details of the beautiful mosaic found in the last excavation campaign of Villa di Vacone

By way of exception, some fragments of plaster have also been preserved that allow us to reconstruct the appearance of the walls of the rooms. In one of them, white garlands were painted on a lively red background. The ceiling, with very few fragments found, was instead to be decorated with roses.

 

 

Fragments of wall decoration found in previous excavations. Their quality and colours suggest an idea of the beauty and refinement of the Roman villa of Vacone (Credits: Villa di Vacone on Facebook).

The recent excavation campaign has also revealed interesting information about the cryptoporticus, the underground warehouse that surrounded the villa (from one of the rooms there emerged a passage that led to the cryptoporticus below), and also about the portico above, where instead, for a time, was placed the official entrance of the villa. A red and white diamond mosaic, fragments of plaster with white flowers on a red background, windows overlooking the valley below, a pillar with shaped stucco, are the material traces that give a less blurred idea of this section.

 

Not just luxury…A great production centre

The findings made in the part of the excavation near the area already investigated by the Soprintendenza, tell us that this beautiful residence also had a highly developed production, probably intended for the production of oil, product of excellence in the Sabine territory.

Archaeologists of the Soprintendenza had already found a press, two channels in opus spicata (a floor that can withstand a heavy workload) and two tanks. But the removal of the preparatory layer of a late pavement surface in 2013 revealed further valuable details. There are actually two presses for pressing olives and two housings for the levers. The presence of five presses in total is considered possible, data that currently make the Roman villa of Vacone one of the largest oil production plants in Lazio.

 

 

Archaeological excavation in the productive section of Villa di Vacone. Traces of presses used for pressing olives are still evident (USTP)

Reconstruction of an oil press with torcularia and accommodation for the levers (Credits: Martín e Bayés 2007).

Who was the owner of the Villa?

It comes as no surprise at this point that the question arises as to whether we have the name of an owner. Tradition helps us. The villa we are talking about is in fact commonly referred to as “Villa of Horace” and contrasted to the other famous villa of the Latin poet that would be found instead in Licenza, in the province of Rome.

The latin poet Horace (Credits: artspecialday.com)

From sources we know that between 33 and 32 BC, Horace received a gift of a country farm from Maecenas, director of cultural policy of Augustus and his dear friend. The poet, originally from Venosa, would have retired here to devote himself to writing and a simple lifestyle.

This link between Horace, the town of Vacone and the ancient remains found is well rooted in time. The first to establish it was in fact Flavio Biondo in the fifteenth century, who linked the name of the town of Vacone to that of the sanctuary (fanum) of Vacunae that the Latin poet describes as located near his residence in the countryside, so as to go there often to write his poems.

Antiques and travelers, fascinated by this mystery, tried to witness the attribution of the villa to Horace through some inscriptions. And two inscriptions, found during the excavations in 2013 and 2014, bear the very name of Horatius. However, a more detailed examination of these documents has shown that they are false documents relating to a practice which was intended to use forged epigraphic evidence to attribute the villa to the poet Augustus.

 

In 1703  Carlo Bartolomeo Piazza quoted as evidence even three inscriptions, one of which also mentioned patron saints.

Near the villa is the fountain Bandusia, the source in a famous Ode the Poet promises libations of wine, wreaths of flowers and the sacrifice of an animal.

The Bandusia Fountain in Vacone (credits: appasseggio.it)

Going up the village and returning the view from the site of the villa you can finally see the Soratte, the famous mountain sung in the Ode at Taliarco.

Monte Soratte seen from Vacone (Credits: iluoghidelsilenzio.it)

It is only a matter of suggestions and, as we know, archaeology is based on material traces, on certain evidence. But we do not care here. Perhaps most important is the extraordinary pride with which the Mayor and all the inhabitants of Vacone are committed every year to protecting, studying and making known the remains of this wonderful villa. My contribution wants to be just another voice to push as many people as possible to visit these wonders (the ideal period is in July, during the excavations) so that one day Gary and his boys no longer have to cover the excavation area, but take care of it permanently and continuously, like a real open-air museum, available to the public and to the enjoyment of those who want to come to Vacone (like in this last beautiful photo).

People visiting the archaeological site of Villa di Vacone (Credits: tripadvisor.it)

Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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