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This is the second blog post highlighting the release of Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. Volume 2. The Decorations: Painting, Stucco, Pavements, Sculptures. Thanks to series editors John R. Clarke and Nayla K. Muntasser for contributing these blog posts.

The first blog post, “Rediscovering and E-publishing the Foremost Luxury Villa Buried by Vesuvius,” introduced the history of the Oplontis Project and contextualized the work represented in the publications. Further blog posts will look in greater detail at aspects of the Villa’s decorations studied and documented in Volume 2. In this post, the editors introduce and describe some of the fresco paintings of Villa A.

Volume 2 is the second of three open access publications in a series offered exclusively by ACLS Humanities E-Book live on the Fulcrum platform. Find more resources below.

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Villa A boasts 99 excavated living and garden spaces. Of these, 61 retain some of their original frescoes, giving visitors a vivid sense of how luxurious and well-appointed the villas of the Roman elite were. Volume 2 stands out among studies of ancient Roman wall painting for its detailed and wide-ranging study of the Villa’s dazzling decorations. To do justice to this embarrassment of riches, twelve authors have tackled different aspects: descriptive catalogues; studies of specific motifs; digital reconstructions of whole schemes; pigment chemistry; and the way these painted walls participated in affecting the experience of ancient viewers, from slaves negotiating the service pathways to elite guests enjoying the garden views. What began as Regina Gee’s aim to record all the painted surfaces in their actual state became a journey of discovery.

Thanks to the Fulcrum digital platform, readers can follow this journey with unique images of whole walls and a wealth of intriguing details. These photographs were produced by Paul Bardagjy over a two-season campaign of blanket photography of the Villa in 2009 and 2010. Most dramatic was the discovery that what were thought to be rooms painted around 50 BCE turned out to be careful imitations carried out almost a century later (below Fig.1, comparison of different renderings of alabaster columns, room 5). Further specifics of painting methods emerged from the close study by Zoe Schofield, Domenico Esposito, and John Clarke; these authors identified painting workshops and even individual hands.

While the volume begins with overviews of the three distinct temporal styles of painting present in the Villa itself, the pattern that emerges is one of shared tastes among the elites living both in Rome and in the Bay of Naples. At the same time, while participating in this common stylistic language, the artists of Villa A deployed the vocabulary in their own special way. For example, Eric Moormann underscores the fact that each of the Villa’s five Second Style rooms has a decorative language of its own. Whereas the atrium, with its representation of a two-story façade evokes the grandeur of a royal palace, the smaller triclinium (14) brings us to three sacred groves, each enclosing a shrine of a goddess. Oecus 15 returns a viewer to the grandeur of the atrium while presenting a view into a massive sacred precinct with fine marble colonnades that frame a garden with a tall pedestal surmounted by Apollo’s golden tripod. The images of groves and shrines extend to cubiculum 11, but this time on an intimate scale, emphasizing human activities with miniature landscapes. The other relatively intimate space is oecus 23, with a closed-wall system like that of the scaenae frons (the stage-front of the theater). Here we find a blue monochrome landscape in the middle zone, with theatrical masks and bowls and baskets of fruit poised on trompe l’oeil ledges in the upper zone.

Despite the differences in size and decorative scheme, these five rooms do form a harmonious set of contemporary luxurious spaces. They have in common their color palette as well as the rendering of the architectural details, birds, and freshly collected fruits and branches. No mythical scenes, let alone human beings, populate these walls unless as parts of landscapes and friezes; it is therefore unlikely that the Second Style walls of Villa A were intended to convey political or social meanings as may be the case in other villas.

Clarke’s chapter on the decorations of the early Third Style combines an interpretive essay of the standing decorations in fresco and mosaic with a catalogue of fragments, some found during the original excavations but never attributed to a specific room, and others emerging from the Oplontis Project excavations. By including all of this material, Clarke succeeds in expanding our knowledge of the repertory of decorations in the Villa. He concludes, on the basis of comparisons with other Third Style decorations both at Rome and in the Vesuvian region, that they belong to the Candelabra Style of 15-1 B.C.

Domenico Esposito’s chapter frames the Villa’s FourthStyle decoration in relation to similar decorative ensembles in the Vesuvian area, with special attention to its chronology and the workshops that produced it. In this way, he underscores both the affinities and the differences between Oplontis and its peers.

One of the greatest challenges for the study of frescoes at the Villa was a stockpile of over 5,000 fragments that did not find their way into its reconstructed walls and ceilings. Clarke explains the methods used to study and attribute the fragments—pioneering work in the field. Three groups of fragments constituted the object of research over a ten-year period. The largest group, coming from the original excavation and reconstruction of the Villa, varied greatly in size and diagnostic value. Clarke was able to reconstruct digitally several large decorative schemes, including the upper Ionic order of atrium 5 and a portion of the west wall of oecus 15—both presented in the exhibition Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Digital Reconstruction of west wall of Oecus 15. T. Liddell

Traditional archival research succeeded in identifying a group of fine Fourth Style ceiling fragments from a now-forgotten excavation of a building (dubbed Villa C), located about two hundred meters to the east. Clarke also studied fragments that ancient builders used as fill to the south of the pool and found in Oplontis Project excavations. Since several of the standing walls of the Villa show careful imitations of the fragments found in the dump, we were able to conclude that large areas of the Villa were demolished and rebuilt in antiquity.

Other studies focus on themes that have fascinated scholars in the past, including harbor-scapes, miniature processions, and the seemingly-ubiquitous Vegetal Goddess. The links between the Villa’s many gardens and garden painting, explored by Bettina Bergmann, enlarge our understanding of Roman attitudes toward managing and experiencing the natural world. Looking out from their dining couches, guests could compare the elegant paintings filled with fountains, greenery, and birds with equally-complex landscaped gardens throughout the Villa. Their servants, in contrast, experienced the Villa in a different way. As Sandra Joshel and Lauren Petersen demonstrate, the so-called Zebra Stripe design suggests a coding mechanism for the movement of the slaves within the Villa’s labyrinthine passageways (fig. 3.) These interpretative essays, taken together, underscore the important role of decorative ensembles in the social structure of Villa A, and point to the sophistication of ancient Roman spatial thinking.

Fig. 3. Corridors 45 and 46 looking east showing Zebra-stripe painted walls and benches. P.
Bardagjy.

It comes as no surprise that the Romans mastered the subtleties of mixing pigments to achieve dazzling effects. The pigment analysis of Pietro Baraldi demonstrates, for example, that painters employed an expensive synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue, as an optical brightener, and that they even mixed it with the underlying plaster to enhance colors on the surface.

To end on a technical note: thanks to digital technology, including stitching to provide full views of impossibly large and long walls, as well as precise control of lighting and color, these remarkable paintings can be appreciated in all their glory. A reader can magnify these images in a way impossible in print publication. The ample, high-resolution images allow a reader for the first time to explore as broadly and as deeply as they wish.