ACLS Humanites E-Book (HEB) is pleased to announce the upcoming release of Oplontis Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy, Volume 2: The Decorations, Stucco, Pavements, Sculptures, edited by John R. Clarke and Nayla K. Muntasser. This is the second of four volumes devoted to the archaeological discoveries made at the Villa A site at Oplontis (Torre Annunziata, Italy).
The Oplontis Project is an initiative operating under the direction of John R. Clarke and Michael L. Thomas of the University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, as well as an international team of scholars working in multiple disciplines. These titles are open-access and exclusively offered in the ACLS Humanities E-Book collection live on Fulcrum.
Recently, Dr. Clarke sat down with HEB’s Lee Walton to discuss what readers and scholars can expect in Volume 2, details on some of the work conducted at the site, and why a digital publishing offering is critical to the work at Oplontis.
Don’t miss Volume 1, Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HEB: Provide an introduction for yourself and your involvement in the Oplontis Project.
Clarke: I am Regents Professor of the History of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. I specialize in the study of ancient Roman architecture, mosaics, and wall paintings and I also work on the full range of Roman imagery insofar as it indicates people’s attitudes towards the practices of everyday life. I’ve published books on ancient sexuality, art in the lives of ordinary Romans, and humor.
I got involved with Oplontis in the 1980s when I studied and published some rare mosaics and wall paintings at Villa A (popularly called the “Villa of Poppaea”). The current Oplontis Project began around 2005, when Michael Thomas, who had done his Ph.D. with us at Texas, said: “Let’s see if we can get a permit to work on Oplontis; it’s still not published after all these years.” To my surprise, the Italian Ministry of Culture gave us permission to conduct new excavations and to study all of the material in storage, including impressive amounts of wall painting, mosaics, and ceramics.
HEB: What are some of the challenges you faced in the site work for both Villa A and B?
Clarke: Immediately we realized that because Villa A is so big—there are 99 excavated spaces including a 61-meter swimming pool—it was going to be very difficult to publish it in a print format. In order to comply with contemporary archaeological standards, we had to study and illustrate every surface in its actual state. We realized that we could do this with much greater accuracy using digital photography and 3-D modeling. So we teamed up with the Kings Visualization Lab at Kings College London to create a navigable 3-D model that records both the current state of Villa A and allows a viewer to switch to views that show Villa A as it was in antiquity.
We also discovered from scouring through all of the available documents that there were huge gaps in our knowledge. There are 7 years which are I call “the lost years,” for which we don’t even have excavation reports. So I went out into the community to find photographs, I dug in forgotten archives, and I found evidence that allowed me to reconstruct how they excavated the villa. That was one big problem—figuring out where they were digging, when and what they found. The records got better in the 1970s, but not good enough to show us everything we wanted to know, so we had to fill in the blanks through close analysis of the objects and the architecture that remains.
Another big challenge was to analyze masses of wall painting that hadn’t been restored or put back into place. I took on the task of cataloging every single piece of painted plaster from the villa—about 5,000 items. One of the most exciting results came from one of our architects, Timothy Liddell. Using digital tools, Tim as able to reconstruct two enormous beautiful fresco decorations from many fragments. We were able to exhibit these reconstructions using the actual fragments in the exhibition, “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero,” which traveled to three museums in the U.S. (2016-2017).
The renown sculptures from Villa A have languished for 40 years in storage. Eric Moormann took on the challenge of cataloguing them, and we used 3-D laser scanning to record them so that we could also place them back in their original settings in our virtual model.
We knew very little about the provenance of the sculpture as well as the great quantity of precious marbles used for the decorative elements of Villa A. A team of scientists samples them and conducted isotopic and other analyses. By matching their isotopic signatures with those of quarries throughout the Mediterranean, we found that the owners were extremely wealthy. For instance, they brought in monolithic columns from the Island of Lesbos (which has a special kind of gray marble) and they employed precious colored marbles from all over Mediterranean for the floors and walls of the Villa.
Other specialists analyzed pollen, seeds, wood, and soil to understand what the planted areas of the garden. The gardens of Villa A are particularly important because they were the first to be subjected to archaeo-botanical analysis back in the 1970s; we were able to extend this study with new scientific techniques.
Villa B (popularly called the “Villa of Lucius Crassius Tertius”) was not a villa at all, but rather a large commercial complex dedicated, among other things, to the bottling of wine for shipment around the Mediterranean. Our ceramics experts, led by Jennifer Muslin, have studied over 1,300 containers (amphoras), while Alessadra Pecci examined the organic residues (of wine and cork) using recently-developed techniques. We are currently studying other organic remains, including the 54 human skeletons of the individuals who perished in the eruption. Since the original excavations stopped at the A.D. 79 level, Ivo van der Graaff, our chief archaeologist, has guided a large team of excavators to explore the earlier history of the complex, which we can now date back to 120 B.C.
HEB: What is most exciting about Volume 2 of the Oplontis series?
Clarke: Volume 2 is amazing because it provides for the first time an in-depth view of the decorative apparatus of Villa A, illustrating in unprecedented detail all of the celebrated frescoes, pavements, and sculptures of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The photography, directed by Paul Bardagjy, is amazing. Readers will be able to study and enjoy over 2,700 high-resolution color images. There are details of everything from tiny birds and flowers to imposing whole-wall compositions, and this is only possible because of digital photography. For example, there are rooms that very deep with extremely high walls. The only way to you can record them is combine multiple images digitally, so that readers can examine entire spaces for the first time. Even if you go to the site you can’t see them because of the poor lighting and the safety barriers.
I’m also really excited about the fact that we were able to reconstruct so much. One of our architects, Paolo Baronio, used archival photographs and drawings to make accurate reconstructions of rooms that were visible at the time of excavation in the 1960s and 1970s, but that today have faded beyond recognition. Thanks to these highly-detailed reconstructions, readers will be able to see what today, unfortunately, is invisible.
Then there are surprising discoveries coming from our excavations. For instance, deep in one of our trenches we found a large fragment of a wall painting that was discarded when the owner decided to remodel one of the rooms. We found that it matches the wall painting of a standing room, a fact confirmed by chemical analysis of the pigments. There’s also a wonderful chapter by Pietro Baraldi, a chemist who conducted pigment analysis using Raman spectroscopy, sampling, and high resolution digital microscopy. His work advances our knowledge of ancient painters and the materials they used.
HEB: What benefits does digital publishing offer scholarly authors?
Clarke: Well, first of all, it’s a capacious instrument. You have an ample platform without the limits imposed by print publication, particularly on the size and number of illustrations. Also, the links are amazing. In Volume 1, we link you directly to the excavation notebooks; if you want to check something, you can look at the original handwriting. We will also link this series on Villa A to our 3-D model. Archival representation is also extremely important. In every excavation there is a great amount of documentation that may be of interest to a few scholars but not to everybody. In a digital volume you can put that all together in a way that would be cost- prohibitive in a print volume.
HEB: Who is the primary audience for this work and are there any other audiences that can benefit from engaging with the title?
Clarke: The intended audience is the scholar of ancient history, art, archaeology, and scientific applications in archaeology. I would also include anyone interested in what life in ancient villas was like: readers who enjoying looking and learning about beautiful wall paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. These objects, presented in context, allow everyone to imagine themselves in this huge luxury space. The idea, of course, is that the wealthiest of Romans acquired imposing sites along the Bay of Naples to build their villas, and this volume. As detailed in volume 1, Oplontis had a breathtaking view. Here the owners entertained their peers and political allies; it was here that they exercised their power and brokered their social status.
HEB: What do you hope readers take away from Vol. 2?
Clarke: That there’s a lot to be learned from not just from art history and archaeology, but also from science. That science can teach us so much about what the ancient world looked like and how it operated. What is more, readers will gather new insights into how painters, mosaicists, and sculptors worked, what kind of materials they used and even how much they cost. Above all, they will experience an aspect of the Roman world that has captivated both scholars and the general public since Pompeii was first discovered back in 1748.
HEB: While editing Villa A did the story or your ideas evolve?
Clarke: They did, particularly because I was able to engage authors from many different disciplines. Our 19 contributors include scholars as well as architects and visual artists; highly specialized scientists using cutting-edge technologies; and of course archaeologists and historians of Roman art and archaeology. Given this amazing team, so much new information and so many unprecedented perspectives emerged.
The other thing I’d say is that we went into great depth in a way that we didn’t think we were going to be able to because of all the new tools—especially the digital and scientific ones—that we were able to employ. These tools, in the hands of our experts, make this volume special and unique. We’ve also created a model—thanks to the HEB series—that demonstrates how effective digital publication can be for bringing the past to life.