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Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public

The remains of one of the most prestigious maritime villas from Roman times are set to reopen July 2 in a small, almost uninhabited island off the Tuscan coast after been locked for 15 years.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
When the villa was built at the end of the first century A.D. on a property which
 most likely belonged to the prominent Domitii Ahenobarbi, 
Nero’s family, Giannutri was a harsh, uninhabited site
[Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
Commonly known as “Villa Domitia,” the imperial complex stood magnificently 2,000 years ago on the island of Giannutri, a rocky crescent about 3 miles long with thick areas of Mediterranean vegetation.

"The villa was built on a harsh, uninhabited site, "Paola Rendini, of the archaeological superintendency of Tuscany, told 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."

Despite such difficulties, the Romans managed to shape up a sprawling "otium" (leisure) villa, lavishly decorated with precious marbles, mosaics and frescoes.

The majestic complex marks Giannutri’s most glorious time. Today the southernmost island of the Tuscan archipelago is almost empty -- populated by a huge colony of seagulls and, in summer, by a group of villa owners who rely on rain water and water shipped from the mainland.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
The residential quarter, which included the bedrooms and a large room with stunning 
views over the sea, was spread on three terraces around a peristylium, or open courtyard. 
This featured a basin for collecting rainwater, surrounded by six impressive
 granite columns boasting intricately carved Corinthian capitals
 [Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
The island has a complex recent history, marked by legal and administrative issues. A number of authorities coexist on this piece of land which is fewer than 4 square miles in size.

Part of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, the island belongs to the municipality of Giglio island and is largely privately owned, apart from some areas owned by Italy’s Ministry of the Environment. The Villa Domitia and its annexes are under the control of Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage.

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.

"Finally, this jewel can be seen. We are very proud of this reopening," Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of Giglio and Giannutri islands, told Discovery News.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
An underfloor heating system allowed  a pleasant winter stay at the villa,
 which was also equipped with thermal baths 
[Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
A year after the removal of the Costa Concordia shipwreck, Giglio is struggling to restore its well deserved reputation of unspoiled island rich in food, wine, traditions and history.

"The opening in Giannutri goes in this direction. In hard times, focusing on culture always pays off," Ortelli said.

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.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
Built on different terraces, the villa has been only partially excavated. Lack
of fundings has prevented any digging -- work on the site since 1989 
has focused on conservation and restoration
[Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
Brick stamps recovered at the site attest to three major building phases: the first dates to the end of the first century A.D., in the late Flavian period (A.D. 69–96), another to the early second century A.D. and the third to the reign of Hadrian.

"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," Rendini said.

Rendini, who has been working on the site since 1981, noted Villa Domitia represents one of the most intelligible evidences of a leisure imperial residence, fully equipped with all comforts.

Relying on large cisterns, a sophisticated system collected rainwater and solved the problem of the lack of springs on the island. Indeed, those cisterns are still in use today to provide water on Giannutri.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
Large black and white mosaic, depicting Ariadne and Thesesus and the labyrinth of Knossos,
 was found at the entrance of the villa, possibly meant to impress the guests 
[Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
An underfloor heating system allowed a pleasant winter stay at the villa, which was also equipped with thermal baths.

The complex had two well protected harbors, one on Cala Spalmatoio on the eastern coast, and the other at Cala Maestra, on the western side. Near this harbor, remains of a structure for the production of salted fish have been found.

The residential quarter, which included the bedrooms and a large room with stunning views over the sea, spread on three terraces around an open courtyard. This featured a rectangular basin for collecting rainwater, surrounded by six imposing granite columns boasting intricately carved Corinthian capitals.

On a much higher level, toward east, are the remains of the slave quarters.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
The image shows in detail the white marble base for the granite columns 
and one of the finely sculpted marble Corinthian capitals 
[Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
Only partially excavated, the villa was first brought to light in the 1920-1930 by Bice Vaccarino, a woman who had rented the island, in collaboration with archaeologist Doro Levi.

"In 1928 a great marble flight of steps that goes down to the sea first emerged, revealing the importance and the (wealth) of the villa," the journal Emporium wrote in 1931.

Reporting on Vaccarino's archaeological efforts, the account described newly unearthed rooms with polychrome marbles and geometrical patterns and impressive mosaics such as one showing a marine scene with two dolphins.

Another large black and white mosaic, depicting Ariadne and Thesesus and the labyrinth of Knossos, was found at the entrance of the villa, possibly meant to impress the guests.

Ancient Tuscan villa on Gianuttri island reopens to public
The southernmost island of the Tuscan archipelago, Giannutri boasts an unspoiled 
interior and a rugged coastline with rocky cliffs interrupted by grottoes 
and a few coves [Credit: Paola Agazzi/Rossella Lorenzi]
These features are no longer in the villa. Fully restored, the labyrinth mosaic, along with other marble and fresco fragments, is now in the Superintendency deposits. Soon, Rendini hopes to set a small museum on the island to display all the precious features recovered at the villa.

Villa Domitia is not freely accessible and some rules apply. Franca Zanichelli, director of the Tuscan Archipelago national park, explained that until Oct. 12, the site will be opened to 75 people daily – split in three groups of 25. The timetable for each of the three visits will match the arrival of the ferries from the mainland (Porto Santo Stefano) and from Giglio island.

Author: Rossella Lorenzi | Source: Discovery News [July 02, 2015]
TANN

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