During work to replace gas pipes in the northern Italian city of Verona, archaeologists have unearthed a stunning 5th century mosaic which they now claim was part of a huge villa which could have belonged to King Theodoric himself.
Montorio: Home to Many Archaeological Treasures in Verona
Montorio, located in the northeast of Verona, is not new to archaeologists. This Veronese hamlet has produced a plethora of important artifacts over the years dating back to the Roman era, including several from the very same villa which once contained the stunning so-called Theodoric the Great mosaic.
In fact, the first findings from this auspicious site were discovered back 1908. Many of these discoveries are on display at the Archaeological Civic Museum at the Roman Theater of Verona and in the deposits of the Superintendence of Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Verona, Rovigo and Vicenza.
“For decades, in Montorio, pieces of mosaics, spas and residential complexes have been emerging in a scattered way,” explained Vincenzo Tinè, the Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Verona in Montorio Veronese . For that reason, when the AGSM AIM Group, who distribute electricity, gas and other utilities, decided to conduct work to replace gas pipes in Via della Logge in Montorio, archaeologists from the Società Artech commissioned by the Superintendent were on standby. They were not disappointed.
Theodoric the Great mosaic being excavated in Montorio, Verona. ( AGSM AIM Group )
Unearthing Mosaics from a Veronese Fortified Palace
During the excavations, the archaeologists spotted sections of mosaic flooring that once belonged to an enormous fortified villa dating back to the Late Antique period, from between the 4th or 5th century. “The motifs of the mosaic fragments found are characteristic of the end of the IV-VI century and refer to the north-Italian tradition,” announced the Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape .
“From the first results, the mosaics are of good quality and seem to represent figures that recall the marine environment,” reported the Montorio Veronese . Experts have therefore hypothesized that the mosaic could actually be part of a spa complex. “A goblet-shaped object that could represent a fountain and probably an eye of a dolphin in one corner is clearly recognizable.”
In order to reach further conclusions archaeologists have stressed that more research and resources are needed. This is rather complex due to the location of the find, surrounded by residential housing and discovered under a vast network of old pipes and other utility installations.
The ancient fortified palace discovered in Montorio over a hundred years ago has not been fully excavated for the same reason. While archaeologists believe that it covers an area of about 15,000 m2 (161,000 ft2), and that it included reception rooms and a spa, they are still in the dark as to its true footprint. Without further, and less piecemeal, excavations, they may never truly understand the nature of the vast villa.
Mosaic depicting Theodoric the Great. (Ввласенко / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Why Theodoric the Great?
According to Archaeology World , there is no “direct evidence,” or any inscriptions to provide archaeological clues, that the fortified palace once belonged to Theodoric the Great, “but given the extent and wealth of finds, it is reasonable to think that it was a villa referring to the emperor Theodoric or the highest-ranking prime minister of his collaborators.” In other words, the fortified palace at Montorio could have belonged to Theodoric, or possibly someone from his entourage.
But, how have archaeologists come to such a conclusion? Theodoric the Great was once the ruler of a vast empire which reached from the Adriatic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Born in 454 AD to the Gothic king Theodemir, Theodoric became the founder of the Ostrogothic dynasty in Italy from 474 AD onwards. Sent by his father to Constantinople as a hostage, Theodoric was raised in the Greco-Roman education system, and learned the ways of governing and running an empire during his time there.
This Roman-style education had a huge impact on Theodoric the Great . During his rule he invested huge resources into the rebuilding of Roman cities and in preserving their ancient monuments throughout Italy. He also built new palaces for himself, in Ravenna and other Italian cities such as in Verona. While he was not a Roman emperor, he was King of the Ostrogoths from 475 AD, King of Italy in 493 and he became king of the Visigoths in 511. For that reason, he has been remembered as Western Roman Emperor every sense of the word, despite the lack of a formal title.
Theodoric’s memory has been immortalized by his mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy, which historians view as an architectural testament to the transition of Italy from the Roman to Gothic periods. It is actually one of the few surviving examples of barbarian, or non-Roman, architecture from the 5th century AD, with some claiming that it was inspired by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Mausoleum of Theodoric is particularly noted for having combined Roman and Byzantine artistic styles with Gothic ones, a visual reminder of Theodoric’s own role in the transition from the Roman period into the early Middle Ages. The fascination with such an architectural masterpiece makes one wonder what we could learn from the excavation of a fortified palace built by the very same ruler in Verona.
A mosaic believed to be part of a villa once owned by sixth-century AD Ostrogothic ’emperor’ Theodoric the Great has been unearthed outside Verona, Italy. #MosaicMonday https://t.co/OHia4UrJpK pic.twitter.com/6wNdyCPak3
— European Association of Archaeologists (@archaeologyEAA) April 18, 2022
The Future of the Theodoric the Great Mosaic
The complicated nature of the excavation is frustrating for all involved. “According to the archaeologists it would be important to be able to expand the excavation by a few meters to get more information on the finds,” reported Montorio Veronese who stressed that further funding is needing to continue work at the site of the Theodoric the Great mosaic.
“The growth of modern Montorio prevents that overall perception that it would be nice to have,” noted Vincenzo Tinè. “We could think of connecting all these stratigraphic windows of the villa of Teodorico di Montorio to a virtual system that tells how great this villa was,” he continued in Montorio Veronese .
The AGSM and the Superintendence are now working together to spread the word about the importance of this late antique palace complex. Locals however are worried that the finds will simply be covered up and forgotten, as they have in the past. Images of the utility installations show that they were once located right above the ancient mosaic, so this is almost certainly not the first time they have seen the light of day in modern times.
“We are happy that the AGSM AIM Group, with its works in the area, is discovering treasures that Verona is rich in,” enthused Stefano Casali, President at AGSM. “With the mayor and the superintendent we will study the most appropriate choices to make to make these important findings usable and visible to our citizens and tourists.”
Vincenzo Tinè, the Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Verona. Went one step further. “We should think of a dedicated museum exhibition, supported in parallel by a grouping of all the data in a virtual system, the only way that can enhance the grandeur of the villa which is now fragmented and hidden among the houses of Montorio,” he decried in an AGSM AIM Group press release.
For now, the Theodoric the Great mosaic will be mapped and then re-covered while the authorities decide what to do. Some locals have suggested it be covered in Plexiglas to allow locals to view the fragments. While this has been done in other parts of Verona, the location of this particular find, covered by a crisscross of pipes and with residential housing on all sides, makes it rather unlikely.
Top image: The Theodoric the Great mosaic being excavated in Montorio, Verona. Source: AGSM AIM Group
By Cecilia Bogaard