The ambulatory of the “great hunt” captures our attention not only for its large size, but also for the rich narrative described in the floor mosaic. It seems to be a cartographic representation of the imperial possessions of the time and a celebration of the power of Rome. The figurative scenes describe the capture and transport of ferocious and exotic animals to be exhibited in the circus shows that took place in the Flavian amphitheatre. From Mauritania to Egypt and the faraway lands of the East, landscapes and animals are depicted amidst the presence of military hunters, transport servants and officials in charge of operations. In the episode that takes place in North Africa, a skinned kid, inside a trap, is used as bait to attract panthers and, a short distance away, a leopard bites an antelope with great ferocity. Large wagons such as the angaria, used in the Roman postal system, contained the captured beasts. In a marshy landscape, perhaps located in present-day Tunisia, wild boar hunting takes place. It is a lively picture interrupted, above, by a lion at rest, crouched on a large boulder. In the next scene, another cart pulled by oxen exhausted by the effort contains, in dark crates, other animals perhaps destined for shipment to the most famous North African port of call in antiquity: the port of Carthage. Characters become more and more defined by the presence of shadows on the ground. Colours such as red and brown, as well as the use of glass pastes, prevail. Italy, the “land between the two seas”, the destination of hunting booty, appears in front of the entrance to the Basilica, where three characters stand out from the others because of their particular clothing. Below, the impetuous movement of a buffalo, forcibly pulled along a walkway, is striking in its realism. The actions follow one another with sharper tonal transitions and the variety of colours used decreases. The various scenes, to the north and south of the ambulatory, are arranged with refined symmetry: hunting, transport, loading and unloading of animals. In a landscape that can be traced back to the Nile Delta, humans and animals fit into a marshy or lake landscape. Even marine animals were required for circus performances!
The penultimate section of the narrative unfolds in a swampy setting. At the bottom left, there is a group of three figures, including the central character who appears to be gazing deeply. Perhaps he is a high-ranking military man or the dominus of the villa himself? The luminous effects of the capture episodes are rendered with greater refinement, through the juxtaposition of chiaroscuro to create shadows, even in the drapery of the garments.
The final episode is characterised by its dynamic and tight composition. It takes place in the East, in a schematic landscape with a tendency towards saturation of space. Among the animals captured through the use of various expedients, there is also a griffin, a mythical figure with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. The colours used in the juxtaposition of the tiles are reduced with a prevalence of brick red and yellow.
Who is that woman with the dark skin and thick, curly hair? She dominates the centre of the southern apse of the corridor of the “great hunt” and perhaps represents Ethiopia or India. This underlines the desire of the patron of the villa to depict the entire world known at the time, from the extreme West to the extreme East, showing how the power of Rome was reflected even in such distant territories.
Wandering along the edges of the corridor of the “great hunt” is like taking a journey through the senses. The dynamism of the scenes represented also seems to evoke their sound dimension. Don’t you feel like you can hear the clanging of the laurel-crowned military hunter’s shields as they stand in a compact line in North Africa while capturing panthers? The orderly military efficiency alternates with episodes of wild animals fighting: a leopard is about to bite an antelope while, behind them, a panther reaches what could be one of its cubs.
No noise is heard coming from the wooden crates, placed on top of the wagons destined for shipment. The lack of light has calmed the animals kept inside, and all they hear are the moans of an indolent servant beaten, a little further on, by the rod of an official with a mushroom-shaped stick.
In the depiction of Italy, the “land between the two seas”, the ship that occupies the entire height of the mosaic field is so realistic that it calls out to us to listen to the sound of the rigging in the wind, overlaid by the cries of the beasts destined for the shows in the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome.
As the loading of animals from the East and the capture of others in the Nile Delta continues, the voices of the coordinating officials and military hunters engaged in the effort to bring the beasts and pachyderms on board serve as the background, while the squeak of the slowly advancing wagons’ wheels can be heard in the air.
From the southern apse you can hear the rustle of some different coloured strips, hanging from a branch used to frighten and capture animals. A scorching wind seems to feed the radiant sun of a phoenix, a mythical being symbolising continuous rebirth.
The landscapes depicted in the corridor of the “great hunt” are so realistic that even the characteristic scents that pervade the scenes come alive, starting with the flourishing outline of the African vegetation and the beasts that live there, together with the smell of the meat used as bait to catch them. The endless expanses between Mauritania and Numidia and the marshy terrain of the palus tritonis in the ancient region of Byzacena, modern-day Tunisia, immerse us in an incandescent atmosphere, in which the scent of the soil, mixed with the dust raised by hunting parties and the flight of animals, seems to sprinkle in the air. The hilly contours of the next scene, full of plants and trees rich in essences, provide the backdrop for the attack by a leopard and a panther on their way to two antelopes condemned to a bloody end. A pungent stench emanates from the crates, loaded on to a ship, containing the captured wildlife, made even more intense by the lapping of the sea water. In the Eastern lands, the increasingly dynamic actions transport us to dusty scenes amidst the pungent smell of the iron spears and shields used by the military hunters. The last episode, featured in the apse, spreads the scent of an incense tree, located next to a young woman with particularly dark skin, perhaps indicating that she is from Ethiopia or distant India.
The refinement of the clothes covering the female figure depicted in the north apse seems to visibly evoke their texture. The woman, in a standing position, is identified as the personification of Mauritania. She wears a rosy chiton and carries a pardalis on her shoulders, fixed to her chest with a large, gold buckle decorated with a shiny precious stone. A succession of dense woody plants with leaves covered in whitish tones, perhaps due to the deposit of salt crystals, forms the backdrop. As we look further ahead, the landscape becomes more deserted and seems to be inhabited by a small, scattered vegetation cover and by smooth rocks shaped by the warm gusts of African wind. Even the wooden crates containing the captured animals are overheated by the intense sunlight, making it necessary to speed up the loading operations at the nearest port. A group of military hunters pull the ropes that drag the animals on board, their strength deriving from the natural fibres of which they are made, able to withstand the effort required to reach the ship. It stands out amidst the sparkling waters of the port, emanating blinding reflections from the metal parts that protect its hull. Further on, in an eastern landscape alternating between small dwellings and rocks dotted with a few shrubs, against a hilly backdrop of tall trees, a tiger chases a glass sphere reflecting its image. The animal is the victim of a daring scheme to snatch her cub, now held by a soldier on horseback. The steed, shown in a powerful race, crosses a walkway made of wooden planks that absorb the clatter of its hooves. The dark-skinned young woman, who occupies the floor mosaic of the south apse, is adorned with armillas and a torque with a pendant placed in the middle of her neck. A pinkish drape, of a light and transparent texture, descends from her waist to envelop her legs. She is surrounded by a wrinkled-skinned elephant and a tiger with a soft coat, evoking distant lands touched by the echo of imperial exploits.