A Pristine Roman Mosaic Is Discovered Deep Beneath a Vineyard. Was It from an 1,800-Year-Old Winery?

An extraordinary find in incredible condition has excited archaeologists in northeastern Italy. But local winemakers told us why it's a special moment for them too

A Pristine Roman Mosaic Is Discovered Deep Beneath a Vineyard. Was It from an 1,800-Year-Old Winery?
A portion of the mosaic unearthed in recent weeks. The Roman owner of the villa would have been well-to-do—or better. (Sap Archeologia srl and Comune di Negrar di Valpolicella)
Jun 1, 2020

For more than a century, the residents of the little comune of Negrar in northeastern Italy’s Veneto region knew there was something special in the terroir that yielded its acclaimed Valpolicella wines. Evidence of ruins from a vast ancient Roman villa first surfaced in 1887, but most of the site was reburied under bureaucratic woes and then dirt; for decades, the town couldn't locate some of the old finds and hadn't sought new ones. But excavations in the past few weeks have turned up ornate mosaics as vibrant as they looked 1,800 years ago—right under the storied vines of today.

As the town’s government announced May 26, “After countless decades of failed attempts, part of the pavement and foundations of the Roman villa located north of the capital, discovered by scholars over a century ago, has finally been brought to light.”

Lead archaeologist Gianni De Zuccato and his Società Archeologica dug more than 13 feet in some places to find the incredibly intact Roman mosaic, the villa’s floor, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. The geometric and floral designs add color to the vineyard rows now, but what's more, Unfiltered has learned that the villa likely had a direct connection to winemaking going all the way back.

Roman mosaic in Negrar di Valpolicella
The lost Roman wine villa always turns up in the last place you looked: A researcher unearths. (Sap Archeologia srl and Comune di Negrar di Valpolicella)

“The Roman villa itself has a structure that highlights a pars rustica for the processing and conservation of agricultural products, in particular the 'Rhaetian wines' so famous in the Roman world,” a rep from the office of Daniele Accordini, general director of the town’s wine cooperative Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, told us via email. (The pars rustica was the part of a Roman country house devoted to agricultural work; Rhaetian wine is what Romans called the bounty of what is now the Veneto up to the Danube). “Studies also highlight other evidence that the villa area [where the mosaic was found] was particularly suited to the cultivation of vines.”

It's early days—just a few trenches have been dug—but we had to wonder: What happens to the 2020 A.D. vineyard up top? Winemaker Manuele Bronzo, who oversees one of the plots, owned by his uncle, told us he's as excited by the find as anyone right now. “It’s a wonderful finding,” Bronzo said Monday. “I mean, in Verona there are a lot of those sites all over the city …. Finding something that nicely preserved inside our vineyard was a little bit shocking, but it was good, it was cool.” (As it happens, the vineyard provided grapes for a cuvée from the co-op a few years ago, featuring a label with one of the mosaics found earlier.)

There’s always the possibility that vines will have to be removed for the excavation to continue. “If they want to uncover all of it, we have to take off some of the vines. But it’s just a small site, about probably 50 plants. Not much,” said Bronzo. And the discovery has been a thrill for the family and the community in the sleepy area. “We worked with the archaeologists in the digging procedure, and it was very exciting,” said Bronzo.

Roman mosaic in Negrar di Valpolicella
Detail of the mosaic (Sap Archeologia srl and Comune di Negrar di Valpolicella)

Negrar mayor Roberto Grison and the cantina’s president are already discussing the best way to display the mosaic, and the local government is working with vineyard owners to see what can be done, though nothing is certain at this point, said Bronzo; a museum is being considered. As the co-op rep told us, “the extraordinary news of the archaeological discovery has increased the international visibility of our small town and its great wines": The ancient masterpiece has already become a source of modern pride.


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