In a vineyard in Italy’s fertile Veneto region, a team of archaeologists are hard at work unearthing the distant past. Almost a century earlier, experts digging in the same region stumbled upon an incredible find. But then the discovery was lost, its existence merely rumored for decades to come. Now, this slice of ancient Rome has finally been uncovered.
As far back as the 19th century, the owners of this slice of land knew that something precious was hidden beneath the grapevines. And in 1922, an excavation revealed a vast swathe of beautiful mosaic – likely the remains of a Roman villa. But as time marched on, the discovery was forgotten, and the field put to use once more.
However, the story of this rich discovery hiding beneath the surface did not completely disappear. And over the years, farmers and archaeologists shared rumors about the grand mosaic. Without an exact location, it was difficult for anyone to pinpoint the remarkable discovery – until one team finally hit the jackpot after 100 years.
Located close to the town of Negrar di Valpolicella in Veneto, Italy, the vineyard sits on a hillside some 10 miles north of Verona. Today, it is a sleepy region known mostly for its wine production, while the city is famous for its connections to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But back in the Roman era, this was a part of one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known.
Founded around the second century B.C., Verona was initially believed to have been inhabited by people from Gaul. But by 89 B.C. it had become a colony – an outpost of the Roman Empire. Located at the point where the roads connecting northern Europe and Italy crossed, it soon grew to become an important city.
When the Romans first took over Verona, their civilization was still a Republic, governed by elected officials. But within decades, the kingdom would descend into violence and unrest. Eventually, in 27 B.C. an emperor was crowned, marking a new chapter in the long and complicated history of Rome.
Under this new system, the Roman Empire prospered, as did its outposts across Europe. And in Verona, a great city began to take shape. Thought to have been designed by the military architect Vitruvius, the streets were laid out in the same grid-like pattern that could be found across much of the realm.
In the third century A.D., the emperor Gallienus installed huge walls that encircled the streets and buildings of Verona. And over the years, a number of grand structures sprung up throughout the city. With monumental gates, many temples, a theater and an amphitheater, the settlement soon earned itself the nickname of Little Rome.
However, some 500 years after the Romans arrived in Verona the empire finally came to an end. And as the Visigoths conquered Rome, their counterparts in the east, the Ostrogoths, descended on northern Italy. In 489 A.D. king Theodoric occupied the city, building a castle on the banks of the Adige River.
Despite the demise of the Roman Empire, Verona remained an important settlement for centuries to come. However, it would never quite recapture the significance that it had revelled in at the height of its power. And as the years passed, its once-grand buildings decayed into ruins, becoming a mere shadow of their former glory.
For hundreds of years, Verona and the surrounding area continued to undergo many changes, falling under the control of various empires and dynasties. Eventually, in 1866, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy, an allegiance that continues today. And it was just 20 years after this historic moment that workers in Negrar di Valpolicella stumbled across a relic from the region’s distant past.
By that time, the area around Negrar di Valpolicella had become famous for its fine wine. And it was while they were digging in one of the town’s vineyards that workers made the surprising find. There, buried beneath the earth, were a number of mosaics believed to date back to the Roman era.
Back then, there were no conservation laws in place, and there was nothing to stop the owner of the vineyard from selling the valuable discovery. And so, he struck a deal with the local authorities, who removed the mosaics and put them on display. Today, they can be seen at Verona’s Archaeological Museum.
For several decades, the land where the mosaics had been discovered remained undisturbed. And in time, a new owner took over the vineyard, inheriting whatever treasures were buried beneath. Finally, in 1922, local authorities sponsored an archaeological excavation of the site – and something truly incredible was revealed.
After excavating a 3,000 square foot area near Negrar di Valpolicella, archaeologists found a number of additional mosaics from the Roman era. According to reports, they once formed part of a villa and originated from five different rooms – or possibly more. And as well as the tiled artworks, the dig also revealed sections of painted walls.
At the time, archaeologists documented the discovery by taking photographs of the Roman villa. However, no attempt was made to remove the mosaics. Apparently, money was supposed to arrive to fund further excavations, but it never materialized. And ultimately, the land owner lost interest in the ongoing project.
“The owner of the field grew impatient and decided to rebury the mosaics and farm the land,” archaeologist Gianni de Zuccato told The New York Times in May 2020. “He planted a vineyard, and all was forgotten.” In fact, if it wasn’t for persistent local rumors, the villa might never have been rediscovered.
As the years passed, local farmers continued to tell stories about the Roman ruins beneath the field. And every now and again, a piece about the villa would appear in an academic publication. But for most of the residents of the region, the scrap of land outside Negrar di Valpolicella was simply a vineyard and nothing more.
Then, a neighboring resident installed a cellar on their property, digging up the surrounding land. And for Zuccato, who heads up the Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Verona, the risk was too great to bear. Afraid that further development could cause damage to the buried mosaics, he proposed a professional excavation in 2019.
However, there was a problem. Back in 1922, archaeologists had not recorded the exact location of the mosaics. And despite a number of prospective excavations over the years, a statement by local authorities claimed nobody had managed to track it down. However, Zuccato and his team were determined to succeed.
Despite their determination, the archaeologists had no idea where to begin digging for the mosaics. And that wasn’t their only problem. In 2020 the global coronavirus pandemic hit Italy, and work on the excavation was closed down for a number of months. Eventually, in May 2020, archaeologists were able to resume work at the site.
To begin with, the team used ground-penetrating radar to try and track down the location of the mosaics. However, that approach ultimately failed. In an interview with The New York Times, Zuccato explained the difficulties. “[It] didn’t go well because the terrain and the vine roots disturbed the reading,” he said.
When that technique didn’t work, the archaeologists turned to a more traditional approach. And so, they dug a number of exploratory trenches in the hope that the mosaics would reveal themselves. Apparently, this had the dual purpose of protecting the valuable vines from too much damage during the excavation.
Eventually, on May 18, the archaeologists struck gold. Just 150 feet from the spot where work had begun, at a depth of no more than five feet, a section of mosaic was uncovered. For Zuccato, who recognized the design from photographs of the 1922 excavation, it was an incredible moment.
“It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Zuccato explained in an interview with The New York Times. “I had the sensation of entering a time machine, of coming into contact with reality that’s long gone, so many centuries ago, and yet having the imprint of humankind.”
Zuccato continued, “I cannot help but think of the people who laid the mosaics, of the people who lived there – not only the aristocrats but the dozens of servants and farmhands who lived on the land. “That deeply moved me.” But who was it that inhabited the villa centuries ago, back when the region was a thriving hub of the Roman Empire?
Back in 2007, Federica Rinaldi, an archaeologist who now works as the director of Rome’s famous Colosseum, published a book about mosaics. In particular, she focused on artworks located in Veneto, the region of Italy that encompasses Verona and the surrounding area. And even though the Negrar di Valpolicella pieces had long been lost, she included them in the discussion.
Using photographs dating from the 1922 excavation, Rinaldi was able to estimate the date when the mosaics were laid. And after comparing them with other artworks in the area, she gauged that they were constructed at some point during the third or fourth century A.D. At that time, the Roman Empire had begun to decline, but Verona was still an important city.
When archaeologists finally relocated the mosaics 13 years after Rinaldi’s book was published, she was thrilled. “It’s an important find,” she told The New York Times. Apparently, the inhabitants of Roman Verona were known for their “unique taste in flooring,” which has made the discovery even more significant.
According to Rinaldi, the mosaic is a particularly fine example that remains in surprisingly good condition for its age. “Few villas have been found with such well-preserved and well-executed examples,” she explained. But what can the discovery tell us about the people who once lived in this grand home?
As the latest excavations have confirmed, the mosaic features a geometric design of red and blue tiles. Typically, these artworks were forged from tiny pieces of enamel or glass, although it is not clear which material was used to construct the Negrar di Valpolicella find. However, experts believe that the villa was likely the home of someone who enjoyed a reasonable degree of wealth.
Yes, the style of the mosaic suggests that it was built for a relatively rich and influential Roman. In fact, some experts suspect that the entire region, known for its picturesque natural beauty, may have functioned as a getaway destination. As such, the villa could have been constructed by a member of Verona’s high society, who used it as a holiday home.
In a statement published by the local authorities on May 26, officials confirmed that the lost mosaics had finally been relocated – after “countless decades of failed attempts.” According to the announcement, the archaeologists set out to “identify the exact extension and exact location of the ancient building.” And thankfully, they succeeded.
Moving forwards, the statement explained, the authorities will be working closely with the Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Verona to determine the future of the mosaic. However, they acknowledged that “significant resources” would be required in order to fully excavate and preserve the discovery.
In local newspaper interviews, the authorities confirmed that preserving the mosaic is high on their list of priorities. Speaking to the newspaper L’Arena, Roberto Grison, the Mayor of Negrar di Valpolicella, explained, “We believe a cultural site of this value deserves attention and should be enhanced.”
“For this reason, together with the superintendent and those in charge of agricultural funds, we will find a way to make this treasure enjoyable,” Grison continued. But despite the claims of the town’s mayor, Zuccato and his team were quick to note the difficulties involved in preserving the mosaics.
“If we bring everything to light, we have to make sure that we can protect and conserve the site, even before we speak of possibly transferring it to a museum,” Zuccato explained. Currently, the team is considering different possibilities for the future of the mosaic. “We are mulling over our options,” the archaeologist added.
Interestingly, the incident at Negrar di Valpolicella isn’t the only time that a lost Roman treasure has been rediscovered after many years. You see, back in 1727 a steward found a mosaic dating back to the fourth century A.D. in the grounds of Littlecote House in Wiltshire, England. Featuring the ancient Greek poet Orpheus, it was considered an exceptional example of the craft and an engraving was made of the design.
Somehow, however, this jewel of Roman Britain was lost. And for hundreds of years, experts puzzled over its possible location. Eventually, in 1977, a local archaeologist stumbled upon evidence of the mosaic on the banks of the River Kennet. And even though animals had caused devastating damage to the artwork, specialists were able to use the engraving to restore it to its former glory.
Today, Littlecote Park’s Orpheus Mosaic is one of the region’s top tourist attractions, providing a fascinating glimpse into life under the Roman Empire. But will Zuccato and his team be able to secure the same future for the Negrar di Valpolicella find? Currently, the fate of the ancient artwork remains undecided.