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The Pavements at Villa A

This is the fifth 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. The second provided an overview of the chapters that focused on the frescoes highlighting the variety of approaches, from forensic pigment analysis to cataloguing, reconstructions or interpretation. The third offered an overview of the chapters on sculptures studied at Villa A. In the last blog post. Dr. Muntasser discussed the stucco decorations at Villa A. In this post, Dr. Clarke details the pavements at Villa A discussed in Volume 2.

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.

Note: All images in the post can be viewed in a gallery at the bottom of the page as well.


My first engagement with the pavements of Villa A came in the mid 1980s, when I determined to study the decorative ensembles of the early Third Style that coincided with additions and alterations carried out between 15-1 BC. Up until that time, scholars had been studying pavements in isolation from the frescoed walls, stucco cornices, and ceilings. It seemed to me that the best way to understand the functions and messages of the Villa’s spaces was to look for relationships among all the decorated surfaces.

Fig. 1a. Triclinium 14, view from the portico. Photo: M. Larvey

Triclinium 14, a single, deep U-shaped room, provides a good example of the role that pavements take in defining spaces (Fig. 1a; Fig. 1b). All of the decorative elements in this room are contemporaneous, a rare example of an ensemble of the mature Second Style dating to the Villa’s original construction around 50 BC.

Fig. 1b. Triclinium 14, meander mosaic dividing area for couches from circulation space. Photo: M. Larvey

The inner half of the room was for dining, with the three couches arranged along the rear right, back, and left walls. In contrast to this static space, the outer half, extending to the portico, was dynamic—meant for circulation.

The mosaicists collaborated with the wall painters and stuccoists to differentiate the dynamic from the static spaces through changes in decoration (Fig. 2). The division of the floor created by the meander-pattern band meets piers painted in perspective on the walls. These, in turn, originally appeared to support an entablature composed of a painted frieze framed by two stucco cornices. In the top of Fig. 1b one can still see fragments of that stucco molding jutting out above the painted pier—the stuccoist’s response to the functional dividers in mosaic and fresco. The mosaicists used rich colors to give both the band (with a swastika-meander pattern) and the carpet (a net pattern) three-dimensional effects that complement similar effects in the wall paintings.

 

Fig. 2. Triclinium 14, overhead view of the mosaic pavement. Photo: P. Bardagjy

 

Fig. 3. Triclinium 14, alabaster threshold. Photo: P. Bardagjy

Unique to Villa A are 14 thresholds in alabaster, an extremely rare stone in Roman Italy in the mid-first century BC (Fig. 3). Stone experts Simon Barker and Clayton Fant were unable to find any comparable use of alabaster in the region. Mineralogical-petrographic and isotopic studies of samples from the Villa ruled out several possible sources in Egypt and Italy, pointing to two quarries in modern-day Turkey. The Villa’s solid threshold blocks of alabaster must have made a spectacular impression both for their rarity and inherent beauty. Even today, when sunlight strikes these thresholds, they glow as though illuminated from below—a spectacular effect that one can observe especially in the winter months when the sun is low in the sky. 

The Third-Style mosaics mirror the wall paintings and stucco moldings in their conservative approach; they eschew the illusionistic effects of color in favor of elegant and delicate designs in black and white (Fig. 4). For example, a white-ground threshold with a pattern of facing lotuses defines the wide doorway between rooms 15 and 16, whereas a grid of tiny crosslets decorates the black floor of room 16. Motifs recalling Egypt appear frequently: in the spaces between the columns of the large entry hall (21), we see alternating lotus buds and flowers traced in black tesserae on a white ground (Fig. 5).

 The integration of mosaics with wall painting, characteristic of the Second Style continues in the Third. Notice how the mosaic band in room 25 defines the area for a single couch at the back of the room; it functions as a visual divider between the circulation area and the place for the bed (Fig. 6). Like the meander band in triclinium 14, it meets a thin pilaster (only its upper part preserved) that divides the wall into two different schemes.

Fig. 6. Cubiculum 25, view of mosaic band with wall-painting scheme. Photo: M. Larvey

Although most of the mosaics decorating the lavish eastern wing, added around AD 45-55, are relatively plain, the pavement of the 50-meter portico along the west side of the swimming pool reminds us that the owner of Villa A embraced the current fashion for displaying exotic marbles from the entire Mediterranean (Fig. 7a; Fig. 7b). In this way, the 2,090 marble insets in this pavement constituted an index of the owner’s wealth and sophistication.

The pavements created from carefully-shaped marble pieces are equally impressive and decorated several big entertainment spaces of the east wing. These cut-marble pavements (sectilia) were so costly that after the Villa suffered significant damage, probably from the earthquake in AD 62, the owner stripped them for sale and reuse. In 2010 the Oplontis Project excavations uncovered a fragment in a portico south of the pool that somehow escaped stripping (Fig. 8). It is an elegant design employing rectangles in black slate framed by thin strips of a marble known as giallo antico

Lea Cline’s catalogue of pavements includes data on the average size of tesserae for each mosaic and notes on ancient repairs. One such repair, in room 27, shows a seam coinciding with subsidence across an earlier structure beneath the mosaic (Fig. 9a). In the detail (Fig. 9b), one can see the difference in the size of the tesserae in the repaired portion (at the bottom) from those employed in the original Second-Style phase (at the top).

Another important discovery made by Cline is the use of paint on both cement and mosaic floors (Fig. 10). In room 89, black pigment sharpens and regularizes the broad frame running along the curve of the apse; similar use of black pigment occurs in the other rooms in this area of the Villa. A parallel practice appears in the cement floor of the servants’ quarters, where red ocher pigment was applied between the irregularly-shaped marble insets (Fig. 11). Thanks to the publication of this research, scholars and excavators will now look for similar applications of paint on mosaic and cement pavements. 

Because it preserves extensive decorative ensembles of the Second, Third, and Fourth Styles, Villa A allows us to appreciate and evaluate the changes in taste over a century of Roman life. The documentation provided by the catalogue of pavements (chapter 22), as well as the scientific analysis of the materials used (chapters 11, 17, and 18), constitutes an invaluable tool for further study of the role of decoration in constructing an atmosphere of luxury in elite domestic architecture. 

Image Gallery

The Stucco Decorations at Villa A

This is the fourth 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. The second provided an overview of the chapters that focused on the frescoes highlighting the variety of approaches, from forensic pigment analysis to cataloguing, reconstructions or interpretation. The third offered an overview of the chapters on sculptures studied at Villa A. The rest of the blog posts will provide an overview to readers on each of the subject areas of Villa A studied and documented in Volume 2. In this post, Nayla K. Muntasser examines the portions of the book discussing the stucco decorations at 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.

Note: All images in the post can be viewed in a gallery at the bottom of the page as well.


The application of fine plaster, or stucco, was an important element in the decoration of Roman houses and villas. In the second century BCE, a fashion for emulating Hellenistic art and architecture led to the adoption of Greek-style building and decorative elements. In the absence of real marble, these elements were rendered in stucco, especially in domestic contexts. For example, Roman architects constructed columns in brick, then coated them with a thick layer of plaster treated to resemble marble.  At Villa A in Oplontis, the two main methods of creating the illusion of marble columns using a brick core can be seen. One method was to apply the stucco smoothly then paint it, as is the case in peristyle 32 where the plaster is striated to mimic bardiglio (Fig. 1).  Another method involved the application of plaster in relief to resemble the fluting on marble columns, as in porticus 40 (Fig. 2). The other important use of stucco in architectural decoration was its deployment for moldings, cornices, and entablatures that add the finishing touches to well-appointed rooms, and serve multiple functions: as transitional elements, separators and framing elements. Like the wall paintings and sculptures discussed in previous blogs, the decorations in stucco participated in the dialogue of refinement and good taste that was constantly taking place among the owners and their visitors.

Although ubiquitous, stucco moldings have not been the focus of much scholarly research. The foundational study, Pompejanische Stuckgesimse des Dritten und Vierten Stils, was undertaken by Ulrike Riemenschneider in 1986. Riemenschneider provided a stylistic and typological study of stucco cornices in Pompeii and Herculaneum and included some of the moldings at Villa A in Oplontis.  In Volume 2, Chapter 24, Fiametta Calosi provides an exhaustive catalogue of all the stucco moldings that were still in situ in 2009-2011 (in 31 rooms), refining their typology and documenting their condition. In Chapter 13, Rita Scognamiglio takes a close look at one type of stucco frieze, in one space, viridarium 20, where she too, is able to refine the observations made by Riemenschneider and provide confirmation of the variety in manufacture and use of rather short molds to create the designs.

Fig. 3 Oecus 23, west wall. Photo: P. Bardagjy

The early stucco moldings were modeled on the stone and marble architectural decorations of public architecture. They adopt the same vocabulary of concave and convex moldings (kymation), egg-and-dart, bead-and-reel, dentils and vegetal forms. Riemenschneider relates the style and date of stucco moldings to the established Pompeiian painting styles. While there are no examples of the First Style inherited from Hellenistic art, she acknowledges the stylistic debt that the highly plastic and architectural Second Style owes to its predecessor. In oecus 23, for example, a broad white cornice serves as a transition between wall and ceiling, but it also functions as an architrave that sits on the painted pilasters in the corners of the room (Fig. 3). This close relationship between wall painting and stucco decoration is more richly evident in triclinium 14, where a double-cornice rests on the corner pilasters and forms an elaborate entablature that consists of a narrow molding, a broad painted frieze of shields and a wide projecting stucco cornice that echoes the cornices appearing below in the painted architecture (Fig. 4). As Riemenschneider noted, the stucco cornices of the Second Style consist of a symbiosis between the reality of the three-dimensional cornice and the illusionistic architecture on the walls.

Fig. 4 Triclinium 14, east wall with double cornice. Photo: P Bardagjy

Second-Style cornices are white, very plastic and complex in profile in order to compete with the richness and substantiality of Second-Style fictive architecture, but in one room at Villa A, cubiculum 11, the stucco decoration is the star (Fig.5). In this very small room, decorators created a unique series of moldings that Calosi did not find repeated in the Villa. A strongly projecting upper cornice connects the walls and ceiling. This cornice boasts three types of Classical friezes: an egg-and-dart, a bead-and-reel and dentils. Below that, on the north and east, are vaulted alcoves whose exterior and interior arches are articulated with white stucco moldings. While the inner and outer arches have the same moldings, the intrados of the outer arch has an additional design of diamonds and squares. The arches rest on a double-cornice with a painted frieze that is carried by painted pilasters in the corners. At the outer corner of the alcoves, the elaborate cornices project as embellished consoles, again using a Classical vocabulary with the addition of a narrow frieze of palmettes (Fig. 6).

Fig. 7 Room 12, Third Style stucco moldings. Photo: F. Calosi

Third-Style wall decorations with their flat panels of pastel shades, attenuated columns and delicate floral motifs, would have been overwhelmed by the Second-Style stuccoes. Room 12 provides a perfect example of what Riemenschneider refers to as the response of the stucco decorators to the wall paintings of the time (Fig. 7). The Third-Style molding with its simple profile separates the wall from the vault and frames the lunettes in a restrained and quiet way.

Fourth-Style stuccoes become more colorful and exhibit a variety of motifs and functions as they accompany the more complex and playful compositions of Fourth-Style wall painting. While the profiles are neither as plastic nor as complicated as Second-Style cornices, floral, vegetal and curvilinear forms, highlighted in color, abound in the frieze section (Fig.8). In Villa A, Calosi finds that many of the designs are repeated in different rooms and that there can be as many as six different types of cornices in the same room (Fig. 9). A repertoire of volutes, lotus buds, palmettes, trefoils, heart-shaped leaves, acanthus, and kidney-shaped forms is a source of endless variations. This variety is also apparent in the functions of the Fourth-Style cornices that frame, separate and articulate the architectural elements. Thus, in room 74, we see the remnants of different cornices framing the geometric coffers of the ceiling (Fig. 10). In viridarium 20, one type of cornice decorates the capitals of the engaged columns, while another design separates the painted panels from the entablature. A third cornice delineates the transition from the entablature to the roofline (Fig. 11).

This last cornice was the focus of Scognamiglio’s close study of style and technique. The frieze under the gutters consists of a tongue-and-groove above an egg-and-dart design that was created using molds. For example, evidence of the molds can be seen in a crease in the plaster to the left of the dart (Fig. 12). There are two variations of the frieze, one being more curvilinear than the other.

Fig. 12 Viridarium 20, detail showing evidence of the use of molds to create stucco designs. Photo: R. Scognamiglio

In their variety of form and function, their rich repertoire of decorative patterns and most importantly, in the way that they add the final touch of refinement to decorated spaces, it is surprising that stuccoes have received so little attention. In Volume 2, Fiammetta Calosi and Rita Scognamiglio have begun the process of rehabilitation.

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Sculptures of Villa A

This is the third 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. The second provided an overview of the chapters that focused on the frescoes highlighting the variety of approaches, from forensic pigment analysis to cataloguing, reconstructions or interpretation. The rest of the blog posts will provide an overview to readers on each of the subject areas of Villa A studied and documented in Volume 2. In this post, the editors introduce and describe the statuary and other carved architectural elements 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.


‍Both ancient authors and modern historians describe the luxury villas surrounding the Bay of Naples, frequently evoking superlatives. They emphasize their great size, their commanding views, and their gardens and well as their decorative ensembles, including frescoes, pavements, and works of art. Nevertheless, because of the uneven nature of the evidence and the accidents of preservation, it is difficult to determine just what constituted the very best of elite taste in villa decoration. At Villa A the extant remains offer a unique opportunity to understand Roman taste in decorative marbles, be they sculptures, garden ornaments, or architectural elements.

The large collection of marble statues and carved architectural elements from Villa A is unique among private residences in Campania before A.D. 79. The stone elements of Villa A consist of marble columns and capitals; marble sheathing for pavements and walls; and a sculpture collection that includes figures, busts, herms and garden decorations such as sundials, urns and fountain elements. All the marbles signaled power and good taste among the wealthy Roman elite: it was a “language of marble.” Elite Romans, as Pliny and others go to great lengths to elaborate, participated in this language of wealth and ostentation. To adorn your residence with exotic marbles from throughout the Mediterranean was little different from wearing your wealth in the form of jewelry studded with rare gems. The guests received at Villa who were able to recognize marbles from far-flung quarries from the Aegean islands and Asia Minor would have been impressed.

fig. 1. Decorative column, inv. 70.518. Photo by SAP

In Villa A, by far the greatest investment in architectural decoration was in the column bases, shafts and capitals. Twenty gray monolithic columns from Lesbos originally supported the roof of porticus 60. Only one was found standing, an immured half-column at the northern end of the porticus and a number were found in room 21 seemingly ready to be sold. So costly were monolithic columns that no other villa in the Vesuvian region had them. Generally, columns were of brick with faux-marble plaster sheathing. What is more, these expensive and rare monolithic columns carried elaborately-carved white marble capitals, found, like the few remaining columns, dismantled.

Eric Moormann, in his chapter entitled “Marble Sculpture and Architectural Elements,” provides a full catalogue of the sculpture while presenting the many stone elements that have never been published (fig. 1). He concludes that the Villa of Oplontis was a “trend-setter.” In the period between Augustus and Nero, when the use of marble in private dwellings escalated, no other villa boasted quite such a wealth of marble constructive elements and sculptures. Especially in planning an extensive entertainment complex to the east of the original villa, the owner committed significant resources to marble décor—very much in keeping with Pliny’s remarks about marble outstripping wall painting in prestige (Pliny NH 35.1).

To the columns, capitals, marble pavements, and wall revetments found at Oplontis we can now add the many marble decorative elements found out of place in the excavations. For example, within the Oplontis digital model of Villa A, we have been able to put the sculptures back in the garden and to reconstruct the colonnade of the portico bordering the 61-meter swimming pool (fig. 2 and fig. 3).

Fig. 2 Digital reconstruction of pool garden with sculptures and re-erected columns

Fig. 3 Crater from south pool terrace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to this marble mania in the new wing, the owner wanted to present him- or herself as an art collector—a common trope in contemporary literature. Moormann groups the figural sculptures into mythological subjects, ideal statuary, portraits, and garden furniture. Dionysian themes, used primarily to adorn gardens, prevail. The owner was also fond of pendant pairs, such as the two centaurs, two centauresses, the two heads of Dionysus-Heracles, and two Nikes (fig.4). In the case of the Nikes, Moormann discovered that the headless statue was an earlier version, while the more complete one was purchased later as a pendant to it. Such juxtapositions would not have been lost on guests who were also collectors, and would have stimulated many sophisticated conversations.

Fig. 4 Nikes

Fourteen sculptures in all were found in their original positions, and Moormann explores the interrelationships among the sculptures, the garden, and the architecture. Many other sculptures were stored and under repair in A.D. 79, but they clearly fitted into this dialogue with their surroundings. The combination of multiple themes is not unique to Oplontis. Collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum (especially the Villa of the Papyri) also expressed mixed realms, with portraits next to ideal and mythical figures; the underlying ideas was to convey the owners’ broad and eclectic taste.

The sculptures and architectural elements at Villa A reveal this trend of “marmorization,” that began at Rome in the early Julio-Claudian era and reached its highest point under Nero. Moormann proposes that a collector put together the core of this collection in the Tiberian period; either that owner or a later one added pieces when the eastern wing was finished (around 45 CE) Yet, looking back to the Villa’s origins around 50 BCE with its proliferation of painted representations of columns, sculptures, and wall-sheathing in faux-marble, we realize that the language of fine marbles was always present. But it took the expansion of the empire, and with it the marble trade, for the taste of the wealthy to evolve from illusion to reality.

Fresco Paintings of Villa A

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.

Rediscovering and E-publishing the Foremost Luxury Villa Buried by Vesuvius

This piece is contributed by John R. Clarke, co-editor of the Oplontis Project series. 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. The second of three volumes detailing the site work of the project will be live in the HEB collection soon. These publications are open-access and exclusively offered in the ACLS Humanities E-Book collection live on Fulcrum


Beginning of excavations, 1966. Courtesy of the Oplontis Project.

When in 1973 the news broke that archaeologists discovered an enormous, lavishly appointed villa just three miles from Pompeii, I was one of many young scholars hoping to get to see it. The current director of excavations had published a short but tantalizing book with color plates featuring the Villa’s rare and exquisite wall paintings of the Second style: trompe l’oeil architectural perspectives that transformed huge walls into colonnaded pavilions framing views of sanctuaries and landscapes. There were even glass bowls spilling over with fruit and a veritable aviary of birds perched in the fictive architecture. But in 1973, only VIPs (including Princess Margaret of Great Britain) were permitted to see these gorgeous Second-style interiors. I had to wait for over a decade to see what became known as Villa A at Oplontis, but it was worth the wait.

It took another ten years for excavators to remove the 28 feet of hardened volcanic ash that covered the Villa. By 1983 excavation ceased. The first publication that represented an overview of its marvels came from Wilhelmina Jashemski, the pioneer of modern garden archaeology. She had brought her team of archaeologists and paleobotanists to study the villa’s extensive gardens as they were being uncovered during the 1970s. Her two-volume book, The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, included a captivating chapter on Oplontis that showcased new excavation techniques, including making casts of the roots of plants and trees. A photograph taken from a balloon revealed for the first time the extent of the excavations: a site 100 x 200 meters, including 90 rooms—half of them preserving elaborate painted walls and ceilings—, three enormous gardens, and a 61 meter-long swimming pool. The stage seemed to be set for further excavations, for it was clear that the other half of the Villa lay to the west. But this was not to be.

Landing Nike from east garden, photo by Paul Bardagjy. Courtesy of the Oplontis Project.

Under pressure from the town of Torre Annunziata, a once-prosperous industrial town that sat literally on top of the Villa, the Italian Ministry of Culture decided to halt excavations and focus on reconstructing the remains into a facsimile of an ancient villa that tourists could visit. Villa A (often attributed to Poppaea, Nero’s unfortunate second wife) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scholars could obtain permits to study discrete aspects of the Villa (I wrote about its rare Third-Style paintings), but literally thousands of artifacts remained locked up in warehouses. Several stunning marble sculptures found in the Villa’s gardens traveled to select museums around the world: the beautiful Nike caught in the moment of landing; the twin herms of Hercules crowned with Dionysus’s grape leaves; the sensational Hermaphrodite entwined in erotic struggle with a Satyr; and the crater with pairs of nude warriors performing the fabled Pyrrhic dance. But for the time being, visitors could only marvel at the frescoes that had been reattached to the rebuilt walls and try to imagine the gardens as they were in ancient times, filled with sculptures, fountains, and botanical wonders.

As excavated, Villa A preserves part of the original core constructed in 50 BC, with a grand entrance from the land leading to an equally grand atrium surrounded by rooms for entertainment and lounging. At that same time, the owner had extensive slave quarters built around a courtyard, complete with an elaborate fountain, a large lararium devoted the household protectors, and second-story dormitories. For the reception spaces this patron hired the finest workshop to decorate the entertainment rooms; this same workshop created the celebrated rooms of the nearby Villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale whose frescoes were removed in the early twentieth century and sold at auction—most notably to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the slave quarters the owner ordered a much simpler decoration; red cement pavements and painted imitations of Carrara marble (the “zebra-stripe” pattern) for the walls.

It was another owner who remodeled the Villa about forty years later, adding a huge bath suite decorated in a very different and much more conservative style that emphasized jewel-like miniature details and brilliant (and quite costly) pigments like cinnabar red. Even then, he or she took care to preserve and even restore the original “period rooms” that had been handed down from the original Villa.

East wing enfilade of garden rooms, photo by Paul Bardagjy. Courtesy of the Oplontis Project.

Yet another owner radically expanded the Villa to the east, more than doubling its size and adding new features designed for lavish entertainment. These east-wing rooms, some large and decorated with costly marble floors and walls, looked upon the enormous swimming pool and beyond, where guests could see part of the owner’s sculpture collection reflected in the water. An enfilade of doorways connects these rooms physically, but in between them the architect also inserted rooms open to the sky and connected the rooms with aligned windows. These gardens rooms have fascinated both scholars and the public, painted as they are with exuberant garden vignettes featuring bubbling fountains, birds, and plants of astonishing variety.

When, in 2006, the Ministry of Culture granted the Oplontis Project permission to complete the study and publication of Villa A, our first job was to comb the rich archives containing photographs, plans, drawings, and excavation diaries—and  the objects in storage: thousands of fragments of wall painting as well as stucco moldings, pottery, and bronzes. We designed a ten-year research plan that combined excavation beneath the A.D. 79 levels with study of these virtually untouched archival materials. Our conventional trenches explored the pre-eruption history of Villa A, while new techniques (including drilling core samples to a depth of 100 feet) established that the Villa was perched upon a 45-foot cliff with its own little harbor below. Although today it lies half a mile from the sea, in antiquity it was one of the maritime villas celebrated by ancient authors, commanding a breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples.

We benefited enormously from a wide range of digital technologies. With generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Texas, and private donors, we able to create an accurate three-dimensional model of Villa using digital photography, laser scanning, 3D Studio Max, and virtual reality. This model serves as accurate record of every surface. We then imported that 3D model into Unity, an interactive gaming engine. A user can enter the model either on a computer or with a headset and literally go anywhere and see everything there is to see. With the click of a button he or she can view entire rooms restored to their original splendor. With another mouse-click, a user can focus on any feature of the Villa and link to the Oplontis Project database—a capacious repository containing all the resources that we consulted to create that reconstruction.

We designed a ten-year research plan that combined excavation beneath the A.D. 79 levels with study of these virtually untouched archival materials.

View of enfilade from garden room. Photo by Paul Bardagjy, courtesy of the Oplontis Project.

Our goal is to share the work of our 46 contributing scholars with the public worldwide. Their work spans a variety of scientific and humanistic disciplines, from isotopic analysis of the stones to the history of ancient art and architecture. Following the publication in 2014 of our first volume in the ACLS Humanities E-Book series, Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery, we mounted an international loan exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii (2016-2017).

With the current publication of volume 2, The Decorations: Painting, Stucco, Pavements, Sculptures, we provide an even fuller picture of what the Villa meant to the owner, his guests, and even the slaves in its heyday. Volume 3, Architecture and Material Culture, 2006-2010, will present the results of our excavations and provide the completed 3D model to allow even the uninitiated to explore the building, its gardens, and its surroundings as an ancient Roman would have done. Thanks to the HEB volumes, we can offer to the entire world, free of charge, the fruits of our research. Now everyone with access to the internet can experience the wonder that was Oplontis.

Below is a gallery of the images included in this story, click to expand the image to full size.