Hunting scenes for circus performances
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.