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Ruins of luxurious imperial Roman villa

Ruins of luxurious imperial Roman villa to share its majesty once again

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The ruins of an imperial Roman luxury villa that had heated floors, lavishly decorated rooms and a dramatic marble staircase leading down to a beach, is ready to share its majesty with the world once more.  The ancient villa has reopened to the public after 15 years. The villa, on an island off Tuscany, Italy, has been under renovation since 1989, but red tape has slowed its reopening.

Villa Domitia is on the 4.83 km (3-mile-long) island of Giannutri in the Tuscan Archipelago. Discovery News describes it as a rocky crescent of an island inhospitable to humans because of a lack of water. In ancient times laborers carried water from the mainland to the luxury villa.

"The villa was built on a harsh, uninhabited site," said Paola Rendini, an archaeological superintendent in Tuscany, to Discovery News. "There is no water spring on the island, and raw materials had to be carried from the mainland. It was a huge task. Giannutri was the first island after Ostia, the port of Rome, thus relatively easy to reach. The villa was likely used by the emperors Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian.” These men ruled Rome between 81 and 117 AD.

Map of Tuscan archipelago with Giannutri at the southernmost end.

Map of Tuscan archipelago with Giannutri at the southernmost end. The island has no spring, so in ancient times rainwater was collected in cisterns. Laborers also carried water from land to the Roman aristocracy who visited the villa on the island. (Norman Einstein map/Wikimedia Commons)

Today the island, the southernmost in the Tuscan Archipelago, is still largely privately owned. It is home to seagulls and a small number of villa owners, who catch rainwater in ancient cisterns and carry water from the mainland. The Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage has the villa and its annexes under its control.

“Today the ruins represent a bright yet fragmented evidence of the once sumptuous villa, showing impressive flights of steps, granite columns, intricately-sculpted capitals, pieces of precious marbles and long stretches of thick walls in opus reticulatum (small squared stones laid diagonally to form a net-like pattern). Spreading for about 10 acres, the villa was built on different terraces on a property which most likely belonged to the prominent Domitii Ahenobarbi, Nero’s family,” Discovery wrote.

“Although the villa has been the focus of several restoration and conservation campaigns since 1989, overlapping regulations have basically prevented its opening to the public, slowing procedures and interventions.”

The residence had bedrooms and a large living room with a view of the sea built on three terraces around a courtyard or peristylium. The columns have Corinthian capitals.

The residence had bedrooms and a large living room with a view of the sea built on three terraces around a courtyard or peristylium. The columns have Corinthian capitals. (Photo by Paola Agazzi / Rossella Lorenzi)

Rendini said it was a luxury or otium (leisure) villa with many comforts, including cisterns that still collect rainwater for the island's residents, a heating system under the floor, two harbors and a facility for salting fish. The complex included slave quarters.

The villa was rediscovered in 1928 when a flight of marble steps going to the sea (see photo at top) was excavated by woman visiting the island and an archaeologist. They also found rooms with frescoes, mosaics and polychrome marbles. One mosaic showed a marine vista with dolphins and another showed the mythological figures Theseus and Ariadne in the minotaur's labyrinth at Knossos. These artworks have been moved to the archaeological superintendency's storerooms, but Rendini wants to open a museum on the island.

The island may be visited by 75 people per day in three groups of 25 at a cost of 8 euros ($9) per person.

Featured image: The Roman port on the island of Giannutri off the coast of Tuscany, where the ruins of a leisure villa owned by Nero's family is being opened to the public. The villa has been under restoration and conservation since 1989, but red tape has slowed the work and prevented the villa's opening to the public. (Photo by Aldo Ardetti/ Wikmedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

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