“Nearly finished,” he replies. “But don’t worry, I’m not out of a job yet, there’s years more work ahead.” He nods toward the towering crane poised above the cathedral of San Nicolò; its dome is surrounded by scaffolding.
Fifty miles northwest of Noto, the world’s finest concentration of Roman mosaics are to be found near the town of Piazza Armerina. At the Villa Romana del Casale, there are 38,000-square-feet of vivid mosaics, many documenting the lives of fourth-century Roman aristocrats hunting, banqueting, celebrating religious festivals, chariot racing. The country house is so lavish that archaeologists speculate it may have been owned by Maximian, Diocletian’s co-emperor.
The mosaics’ remarkable state of preservation, architect Filippo Speranza tells me, is, ironically enough, the result of a cataclysmic landslide in 1611, which buried the villa until its excavation in 1955. “Now that the villa is exposed to the atmosphere, the packed earth [still] surrounding the walls allows moisture to seep into the mosaics and frescoes,” Speranza says. To eliminate this seepage, the site needs to be excavated to its original level, an enormous task that will require digging out another five feet around much of the villa.
Apart from a cavernous banquet hall adorned with images of the 12 labors of Hercules, the villa’s most impressive work illustrates an African and Indian safari. An elephant struggles in a net, a wounded lioness attacks a hunter, a panther sinks its teeth into an antelope. Although the mosaic undulates like a wave across a partially caved-in floor 200 feet long and 10 feet wide, it has remained miraculously intact.
Speranza believes that only a small fraction of the Roman settlement has been uncovered. “The villa was far more than the hunting lodge most people thought at first,” the archaeologist says. “In reality, it served as an important administrative center to represent Rome’s interests at the periphery of the empire.”
Leaving Villa Romana, I retrace my route northwest, bypassing Palermo to reach the coastal nature reserve of Zingaro, about an hour and a half drive west of the capital and the site of a showdown more than two decades ago that put the brakes on Sicily’s chaotic overdevelopment.
In May 1980, some 6,000 demonstrators, representing local, national and international environmental groups, blocked a proposed highway through forested headlands near the coves of the Castellammare del Golfo. As a result, the regional assembly set aside six square miles for the reserve. Since then, some 90 regional nature reserves, parks, wetlands and marine sanctuaries have been created around the island.
Along the road to Zingaro lies Scopello, for centuries a center of tuna fishing until overfishing did it in during the 1980s. Inside a two-room visitors’ center 200 yards from Zingaro’s entrance, a man in his late 60s perches on a stool, weaving a basket from palm fronds. When I ask how long it will take him to finish, he lays down the knife he is using to plait the fronds and rotates the zigzag-patterned basket admiringly in one hand. “A day,” he says at last. “But since there are no more tuna for me to fish, I’ve got plenty of time.”
Inside the car-free sanctuary, dwarf palms and purple cornflowers edge a rust-red dirt path snaking along a rocky bluff above the coast. Far ahead, slender eight-foot-tall stalks of wild fennel poke above the scrub brush on cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to the sea.
I pick my way down to a pebbly cove. The crystalline waters are fringed with red and orange algae; in a darkened grotto, incandescent shrimp glimmer in tide pools. Beyond the promontory of 1,729-foot MountGallo, rising into gray clouds, lies Palermo, only 35 miles away, with its labyrinthine streets, markets and hushed churches alongside exuberant piazzas bristling with outdoor cafés and ice-cream stands.