A late antiquity Tuscan villa revealed


Vue générale du site d’Aiano-Torraccia di Chiusi

For 13 summers, Marco Cavalieri, UCLouvain professor of Roman archaeology and researcher at the Intitute for the study of civilizsations, arts and letters (INCAL), and his team have conducted excavations near the city of San Gimignano in Tuscany. They have gradually revealed a huge villa dating from late antiquity. By 2021, an archaeological park and a museum will highlight this long-running excavation.

We’re in San Gimignano, Tuscany, 80 km from the Tyrrhenian Sea, 60 km south of Florence and 30 km north of Siena. Almost every summer since 2005, Prof. Cavalieri and his team have conducted archaeological excavations of the gigantic 10,000-square-metre Aiano-Torraccia di Chiusi villa. The site is a journey back in time, from the first phases of Romanisation (1st century BC) through late antiquity (4th-5th centuries AD) to the Early Middle Ages (6th-7th centuries AD).

What was life like in late antiquity?

This major project, led by UCLouvain and initiated in 2005, has aimed to better understand the settlement and lifestyles in the rural area of ​​Val d'Elsa, particularly within the perimeter of what is today the San Gimignano municipality. Indeed, historically, the place has a lot to tell us: ‘Through excavation, we wanted to better understand the world of late antiquity and the passage between paganism and Christianity’, Prof. Cavalieri says. The aim has been to define more precisely the Roman presence in a territory with scant archaeological remains, by excavating and studying the villa. For this, Prof. Cavalieri, the project’s leader, has been able to count on many people of different backgrounds, above all those involved in excavation (researchers, students, volunteers) and those who analyse data or manage practical aspects. Most are Belgian or Italian. The team first used an excavator, then carried out a thorough stratigraphic excavation.

A buried villa

As of today, the team has excavated 3,500 m². Why is it taking so long? The explanation lies in the villa’s complex geographical location. In antiquity, it was at the foot of a hill, on a large terrace overlooking another valley through which the Fosci Rover still flows. By the ninth century, landslides had covered it, preserving it but also auguring the titanic task for archaeologists, who had to dig two metres to reach the villa.

Discovery of production area

The latest find occurred this summer. Prof. Cavalieri says, ‘We found the villa’s production area, composed, for the moment, of four rooms where we found “dolia”, which are very large vessels, two to three metres deep. They were used to store oil or wine.’ While he’d considered this summer the excavation’s last, the find has renewed his curiosity. Product typology and archaeometric analysis dated the vessels to between the late fourth and early fifth century AD.

Photo aérienne de la villa d’Aiano-Torraccia di Chiusi avec l’indication de différentes pièces  
Luxurious living in a period of decline

Each year of excavation revealed parts of the villa as well as objects. Rooms are decorated with sectilia, pate de verre plates, representing fish, crustaceans and jellyfish. Analysis revealed they were produced in Alexandria, Egypt, far from Italy. ‘At the time, they were luxury items’, Prof. Cavalieri says. ‘But late antiquity is considered a period of decline. The villa shows that this was not the case everywhere.’ Their discovery wasn’t guaranteed, given that since the fifth century, shortly before the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Ostrogoths had settled in Italy, taken possession of the villa and destroyed or recycled many objects. In the High Middle Ages, for example, they melted pate de verre to make jewellery. Archaeometry confirmed this hypothesis.

From skeleton to decor

Many other discoveries were made. At the beginning, the team identified elements of the villa complex: a pavilion (composed of a hexagonal room) with three sides delimited by exedrae, whose entry is preceded by a vestibule via which one accesses the central room as well as an ‘ambulatio’ (promenade) with five lobes. This hall-ambulatio complex is connected to the villa structure via corridors and/or passages leading to separate rectangular rooms. Based on this understanding of the room arrangement, excavations became more precise, leading to the discovery of the mosaic paving of the villa’s large room. ‘The mosaic suggests not only the villa’s “skeleton” (walls) but also its decorative system’, Prof. Cavalieri says. The mosaics date from the second phase of site habitation, from the late fourth century through the first half of the fifth century AD. During other excavations, the team found lamps, amphora, ceramic tableware, marble decorations, bricks, terracotta wall coverings, glasses, coins, and even a smithy.

Photo aérienne de la pièce tri-absidiale Reconstruction d’un poisson en verre polychrome découvert dans la villa romaine
What we learn about the period

All these findings offer an exciting playground for Prof. Cavalieri, who could draw some conclusions about the historical period. The Aiano-Torraccia di Chiusi villa is rare evidence of the meeting of Roman and medieval worlds. ‘We also learned more about the evolution of the Tuscan environment: it was completely different at the time. There were no cypresses or vineyards like today. The landscape has changed completely.’ Lastly, the great insight of the excavation undoubtedly concerns the so-called decadent phase at the end of antiquity. ‘Given the immensity of the spaces and objects of great value, the villa is an exception to this phase of gloom and economic contraction. It also indicates that it was a place of power more than it was a leisure home.’

What next?

While this summer should have been the last for excavation, the latest finds will add another two years. And Prof. Cavalieri won’t stop there: ‘In the months and years to come, we’ll highlight the site and make it an open-air archaeological park for the public. We’ll also renovate San Gimignano’s archaeological museum, reproducing the villa in 3D. It’s an important work of popularisation and education which seems to me essential for a researcher. Our role also has a societal dimension: we must bridge the gap between who we are and who we were.’

Lauranne Garitte

A glance at Marco Cavalieri's bio

Marco Cavalieri is an Italian archaeologist and historian of the art of classical antiquity (Greece, Etruria and Rome). He first studied at the universities of Parma and Bologna (1996). After an advanced course at the University of Florence (1999) and a PhD at the University of Perugia (2003), he worked in Paris as a visiting researcher at the École pratique des hautes études and the École normale supérieure.

Hired by UCLouvain in September 2003, he teaches the archaeology and history of the art of Rome and the Roman provinces as well as Etruscology in the Faculty of Philosophy, Arts and Letters (FIAL).

His research, which covers a broad field as evidenced by his publishing record, includes the study of ‘romanisation’. This process of acculturation results from the adoption of Roman culture by very different populations within the Roman Empire’s immense area of influence.

Since September 2018, he has been the president of the Institute for the Study of Civilisations, Arts and Letters (INCAL).

Every summer, Prof. Cavalieri returns to ‘his’ excavations in Tuscany (near San Gimignano, in Siena Province) where, with a group of passionate students and researchers, he uncovers remains of a fourth-century Roman villa. One could say he has his feet not only on the ground but in it, with one foot in the fourth century and the other in the 21st. This is the challenge for humanists today, whatever their discipline. Since the summer, he has also been leading a second archaeological research project in Rome’s ancient port of Ostia: excavating the ‘Tuff atrium house’, in collaboration with the University of Namur.

Published on November 05, 2019