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The Centcelles monumental complex we see today was built at the beginning of the 5th century AD. Over the centuries it has been put to diverse uses that have resulted in its current appearance.
In the Middle Ages, the buildings were converted into the church for the town of Centcelles, which was abandoned in the 14th century. Later they were used as a hermitage dedicated to Saint Bartholomew. In the 19th century, the monument passed into private hands. The new owner, Antoni Soler, turned it into a farmhouse and divided the dome room into three floors.
In 1959, the German Archaeological Institute of Madrid purchased the building and began archaeological excavations, as well as major restoration and consolidation work on the dome mosaics. In 1978, the complex was ceded to the Ministry of Culture and a new stage began with the monument open to the public.
Tarraco was a strategic enclave for communications and access to the Iberian Peninsula. Two main roads passed through the town: the Via Augusta, which ran along the coast, and the so-called Via De Italia in Hispania, that connected Tarraco to the interior via Ilerda (Lleida) and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza).
The name of the road –De Italia in Hispania– demonstrates the importance of the port of Tarraco as an arrival point for vessels coming from Italy and other points of the Empire. Once disembarked, the goods or people could continue their journeys inland on this via, the first stretch of which followed the River Tulcis (Francolí).
Although we do not know the function of Centcelles, we can confirm that it was in a strategic position, very close to the town of Tarraco, near the river and on the road that led to the interior.
If we had had the opportunity to see the monumental complex of Centcelles in the 5th century AD, we would undoubtedly have been rather impressed. We would have been looking at a large building with an architecture designed to make an impact the visitor.
Extraordinarily thick walls built with stone, bricks and a large amount of lime mortar; large rooms crowned by a dome; paintings and mosaics decorating the walls and ceilings; heated rooms. In summary, a true expression of wealth and power.
Who lived in Centcelles? We still cannot answer that question. What we can say is that part of the building was used as a residence. An interior courtyard (atrium) gave access to a series of rooms and a baths complex of considerable size with hot and cold pools (caldaria and frigidaria).
There was even another smaller baths complex with another cold-water pool and three small bathtubs for hot water. The caldaria were kept warm by a heating system (hypocaust), which is still visible today.
The most spectacular part of the Centcelles monumental complex is the so-called dome room. The degree of conservation, the decoration and the impressive architecture allows us to imagine the past splendour of this monument.
Already in Roman times, the dome room was the most important part of the building, situated right in the middle and taller than the rest of the complex. The space was richly decorated and had a heating system. At one end of the room, steps led down to a small underground crypt.
If we look up, we can see the true jewel of Centcelles: the remains of a mosaic made with nearly one million tesserae that covered the whole interior of the dome. If we look at it carefully, it is still easy to identify some of the subjects depicted in it, such as a large hunting scene, various scenes from the Old and New Testaments (the Good Shepherd, Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lion Pit, and the Story of Jonas, among others). The seasons of the year were also depicted, although now only spring and autumn remain. Other scenes, that are now difficult to see, show four enthroned persons who have given rise to multiple hypotheses on the function of these buildings.
What purpose did Centcelles serve? Why was this magnificent complex built? These are still unanswered questions, despite the fact that, over time, many scholars and scientists have contributed their theories about the site.
Was it a religious building? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain scholars suggested that Centcelles had been a late Roman or Visigothic place of Christian worship.
A mausoleum? After a meticulous study of the dome mosaic, the researchers from the German Archaeological Institute of Madrid suggested that Centcelles may have been the mausoleum of the Emperor Constantine, who was assassinated in Hispania in 350 AD. The usurper to the throne, Magnentius, would himself have had the mausoleum built on the structure of an unfinished villa.
An aristocratic villa? Various researchers have interpreted Centcelles as a country house. The people depicted on the dome mosaic could, according to some, be the owner and his wife (dominus and domina), or, according to others, the Bishop of Tarraco.
A military encampment? A recent hypothesis is that Centcelles was the nucleus of the military base for the Imperial armies that, in the 5th century, attempted to bring back under the control of the legitimate Roman Empire the whole of Hispania, much of which was then occupied by Barbarians.