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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.

ACLS Centennial: Discussion with Steve Wheatley

Steve Wheatley, retired Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), discusses the history of ACLS and more with HEB on the verge of the ACLS centennial campaign launching. 

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity. 

HEB: 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of ACLS’s founding and accordingly ACLS is preparing to embark on their centennial campaign to celebrate their work over the past century and continue building capacity for the future. What are the key functions and milestones of ACLS’s over the past century and during your time as Vice President now that you have had time to reflect in retirement? *Editor’s Note: Steve Wheatley spent 32 years at ACLS, including the past several years as Vice President until his retirement in 2018.

SW: ACLS advances the humanities by awarding fellowships and grants that allow scholarly creativity to flourish. More than 14,400 scholars received ACLS support in the past century. The creation of trusted peer-review mechanisms established democratic means of forging new knowledge. ACLS had no single “master-plan” for what the humanities should be. It did not direct from above, but built a structure through which new ideas could bubble up. 

ACLS has established scholarly journals, sponsored important scholarly reference works such as the American National Biography and exemplified the digital transformation through Humanities E-Book.

ACLS seeds and nurtures of new fields and methods of study. In 1919, the humanities largely focused on Western Europe and the ancient Mediterranean, with a side glance to our own country. ACLS helped move the study of other cultures and societies from the exotic periphery of scholarship to its forefront. Promoting China studies was one of the first ventures in the 1920s — in partnership with the Social Science Research Council—to a set of research-planning committees focused on all world areas. 

ACLS also plays an important role in the development of linguistics, the history of religions, musicology, and the history of ideas. This expands to exploring new methods of inquiry. For example, ACLS launched a committee on “computer-assisted research” in 1964 and continues to support digital scholarship today. Several of its programs promote collaborative research, often by transnational teams.

ACLS’s advocacy for the humanities helped win these fields a place in both: 1) a system of foundation funding that emerged in the 20th century with almost a singular focus on funding science and 2) in government funding— a commission created by ACLS and two other organizations was critical in convincing Congress and the Johnson Administration to create the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965.  

ACLS pioneered modes of international academic exchange, especially with countries from which the US was politically estranged such as the USSR and Eastern bloc in the Cold War, and the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam before the establishment of diplomatic relations with both countries.

Because ACLS is committed to creation of new ideas, it facilitates the transmission of those ideas through the various modes of scholarly communication. ACLS has established scholarly journals, sponsored important scholarly reference works such as the American National Biography and exemplified the digital transformation through HEB.

Key developments during my time include:

  • Expansion of our capacity to award fellowships by creating endowment devoted exclusively to fellowships and increasing the breadth and depth or our foundation partnerships.
  • Creating new paradigms of empowering scholarship worldwide. Our programs in Africa and the former Soviet Union are not conventional academic exchange programs but efforts to build regional scholarly networks — proto-learned societies— that can provide leadership and support for the humanities independently.  For example, our partnership with the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship program in Vietnam helped open study abroad to historically disadvantaged populations.
  • Intensification of work on the digital transformation. HEB is a part of this, along our Digital Innovation Fellowships and Digital Extension Grants. Our cyber-infrastructure report Our Cultural Commonwealth convinced the NEH to establish its Office of Digital Humanities.
  • Extending the reach of ACLS programs. The ACLS Public Fellows program brings scholars directly into government and non-profit organizations while new programs like the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships program focus on a vitally important (and under-served) sector of higher education.

HEB: ACLS is going through changes. On an organizational level, you recently retired and are soon to be joined in retirement by ACLS President Pauline Yu, while ACLS is expanding staff elsewhere. And although “business is good” at ACLS, there seem to be increased expectations to fund more fellowships and programs. What can scholars and stakeholders in the humanities expect from ACLS moving forward? 

SW: ACLS certainly should, and will, continue to support the very best scholarship.  Building the capacity (with the resources) to increase fellowship giving is important but there is now an emphasis on extending the reach of ACLS programs. What does “extending our reach” mean? It means making sure that teaching scholars and scholars outside the confines traditional higher education have an opportunity to participate in ACLS programs. This can take the form of a new program, for example the recently created Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships. But this can also take the form adjusting central fellowship programs so that scholars conducting research from not just the Ivy Leagues but from other institutions and backgrounds are included in these programs. 

Another area of extending the reach is the public engagement. Examples include the Public Fellows program and pushing for more humanities scholars in government and non-profit positions where their capacities are particularly valuable. Trying to bring humanities out of just the monograph and on to the op-ed page. Those are the directions ACLS is heading: increasing knowledge, extending the reach and building ACLS’s capacity is what the change is about.

HEB: Glad that you brought up a recent ACLS/Mellon venture, considering Humanities E-Book itself originated largely from Mellon funds and it provides a nice transition to ACLS’s role developing digital scholarship in the humanities (with support from Mellon). HEB is seeing more emphasis in our marketplace on digital collections in the humanities and new ways of accessing humanities scholarship. Do you attribute the emphasis on humanities in digital spaces to ACLS in any way? 

SW: Yeah, I think so! Obviously there are a lot of proponents for digital publishing in the humanities and using digital methods in new scholarship. But the fact is that ACLS, starting in 1964 and up to the late 1990s, vehemently pushed the potential of digital technology to transform how people read, write, how access information, in a very positive way. The move to digital was legitimized because ACLS, and others such as Mellon, had the respect of peers and an authoritative voice on such challenges. This was critical at a time where many thought any digital enterprise in the humanities were frivolous or dangerous. 

People were tentative during the transition to digital and didn’t know if it was permanent…

SW: Exactly! 

HEB: But with the increased competition for publishers and aggregators in the humanities (i.e. JSTOR, Project Muse, etc.) and quite frankly an expanded definition of what the humanities are in a digital world, it is clear this digital transition is permanent. I think about the HEB subject areas, where we have far more subject areas now than just history and the larger scope of the projects HEB is involved with, like the upcoming Oplontis volume.

I think you’re right, the richness of the content in the humanities has grown. Now suddenly people understand what it means to have an aggregate collection of books (as opposed to journals) and how that can be particularly valuable to an individual or institution, basically the value of a database of knowledge that people can access. The business models are still being worked out but you have seen the university presses come around to embrace the digital landscape.

But yeah, Oplontis is a great example. The project has such a scholarly and market value. Plus [laughing], what’s more ancient than Pompeii and then what’s more modern then taking all digital tools and looking at [Oplontis] in almost three dimensions yet with such incredible scholarly rigor? It’s just phenomenal what they have done and their work is clearly more accessible via HEB than it would be if it sat on a shelf.

Highlight: National Poetry Month

What Is A Poem?

A poem is a collection of literary tools that use aesthetic and rhythmic qualities, such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and meter to evoke meaning. The word “poem” derives from a variant of the Greek term, poiesis, “making.” “Poetry” is a late Middle English word, from the medieval Latin word poetry; from which Latin poet became ‘poet’. 

There are numerous different types of poems: the sonnet, haiku, villanelle, sestina, acrostic, ekphrastic poetry, concrete poetry, elegy, epigram, limerick, ballad, epitaph, tanka, ode, epic and the free verse; just to name a few.

Poetry is closely related to musical traditions…the earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns (such as the work of Sumerian priestess Enheduanna), and other types of song such as chants. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers or stories about religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction.The Epic of Gilgamesh often is cited as one of the earliest works of epic poetry, dating back to the 18th century B.C.

Elizabethan Era (Western) Poetry

The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto, which means “a little sound or song.” There are two types of Sonnet poems, the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or Elizabethan). Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines, are often about love, and written in iambic pentameter.

The Petrarchan sonnet typically follow an ABBA ABBA CDE CDE rhyme scheme while Shakespearean sonnets usually follow ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

Did You Know? Shakespeare is credited for writing 154 sonnets and 37 plays. His first group of sonnets (The Fair Youth Sonnets, 1-126) are addressed to a young man with whom the poet has a deep friendship. In Sonnets 127-152 the poet becomes infatuated with a mysterious women. The relationship with Shakespeare was not entirely clear but these sequence of sonnets are also known as ‘The Dark Lady Sonnets.’

Poetry’s Evolution Into Satire and Expressionism 

Following the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English Restoration period brought in a new demand for poetry. Writers created poems inspired by political events and immediately reflected the times. Over time these poem grew into poems that we know today, such as: Epigram, Limerick, Ballads, and Epic poems.


An Epigram is a short, pithy saying, usually in verse, often with a quick, satirical twist at the end. The subject is usually a single thought or event. The first-century epigrams of the Roman poet Martial became the model for the modern epigram. The term epigram derives from the Greek word epi-gramma meaning inscription or to inscribe. Emily Dickinson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are classic examples of writers that like to write Epigrams.

A Limerick poem is a humorous poem consisting of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines must have seven to ten syllables while rhyming and having the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines only have to have five to seven syllables, and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

A typical Ballad is a plot-driven song, with one or more characters hurriedly unfurling events leading to a dramatic conclusion. Ballads are generally used to tell a story in a poem. Ballads are written in quatrains, groups of four lines, and have a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB. The lines alternate between having eight syllables and six syllables.

Around the World: Chinese and Japanese Poetic Form

Chinese poetry can be divided into three main periods: the early period, characterized by folk songs in simple, repetitive forms; the classical period from the Han Dynasty to the fall of the Qing Dynasty, in which a number of different forms were developed; and the modern period of Westernized free verse.


Early poetry: The Shi Jing (literally “Classic of Poetry”, also called “Book of Songs”) was the first major collection of Chinese poems, a collection of both aristocratic poems (Odes) and more rustic poetry, probably derived from folk song.

Classical poetry: During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chu lyrics evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. Later Classical Poetry After the Song dynasty, both shi poems and lyrics continued to be composed until the end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day.

A classic Japanese poem we know and use a lot in modern day is the Haiku. A Haiku typically contains 17 syllables, arranged in three lines, first five syllables, then 7, then 5. Haikus are most commonly about nature, often containing a seasonal reference and they tend to contain two juxtaposed images or ideas. A Haiku presents simple imagery, devoid of similes, metaphors, and eloquent adjectives and adverbs. When crafting haiku, think of a group of words that present an observation in a way that appeals to the senses. But A Haiku was not always called a Haiku.

Originally, During the Heian period of Japanese culture (700-1100), it was a social requirement to be able to instantly recognize, appreciate and recite Japanese poetry. Poems of this era were known as Renga of its later derivative, renku (or haikai no renga). A renga consists of at least two ku () or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry. By (1644–1694), when Matsuo Bashō began to influence the hokku, the hokku begun to appear as an independent poem. was also incorporated in haibun (a combination of prose and hokku), and haiga (a combination of painting with hokku). In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) renamed the standalone hokku to haiku.

The earliest westerner known to have written haiku was the Dutchman Hendrik Doeff (1764–1837), who was the Dutch commissioner in the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki, during the first years of the 19th century.

National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture. In 1998, the Academy of American Poets joined the American Poetry & Literacy Project to distribute 100,000 free books of poetry from New York to California during National Poetry Month. On April 22, President Clinton and the First Lady hosted a gala at the White House that featured Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Rita Dove. 

Below we have provided you with a short list of poems we have in our collection. Please take a look and feel free to tweet at us your favorite poems this month! Also check out The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman available in our Special Series collection.

On extended wings: Wallace Stevens longer poems by Helen Vendler 

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings by Jean André Wahl, Alan D Schrift and Ian Alexander Moore

College Art Association and Humanities E-Book

Overview: College Art Association

The College Art Association (CAA) has a long standing in the world of visual arts, education and curation. Since it’s founding in 1911, the CAA  “[promoted] the visual arts and their understanding through committed practice and intellectual engagement. The Association advances the highest standards of instruction, knowledge and practice in the visual arts to stimulate intellectual curiosity and advance skills that enrich the individual and society.” In 1942 College Art Association was admitted into the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).

CAA includes among its members those who by vocation or avocation are concerned about and/or committed to the practice of art, teaching, and research of and about the visual arts and humanities. Over 12,000 artists, art historians, scholars, curators, critics, collectors, educators, publishers, and other professionals in the visual arts belong as individual members. Another 2,000 departments of art and art history at colleges and universities, art schools, museums, libraries, and professional and commercial organizations hold institutional memberships.

CAA and Humanities E-Book 

In August 2006, HEB and CAA announce new partnership. HEB and CAA set out to explore many opportunities and challenges involved in bringing art-history scholarship into the digital realm. CAA thus became the ninth ACLS constituent society to join the project at the time. Together, HEB and CAA carefully chose a selection of titles from CAA’s highly-respected College Art Association Monograph Series to digitize and include as a special series in the HEB collection.  With the help of HEB, the the CAA monographs could reach a wider audience in the humanities, significant in an era when interdisciplinary studies across the humanities are becoming more commonplace. HEB also gained a valuable publishing partner with insights on subject areas that (at the time) were not well represented in the collection and who had a finger on the pulse of scholars engaging with online resources in Art History, Architecture, etc.

Cover, “Roman Black & White Figural Mosiacs”

This series began publication in 1944 and concluded in 1999. The series eventually issued 56 volumes with a variety of university presses and scholarly societies, including the Archaeological Institute of America, New York University Press, The Pennsylvania State University Press, and the University of Washington Press. We at Humanities E-Book are the only organization that distributes access to these digital copies. Note, due to restricted rights for some series entries, not all CAA monographs are represented in the HEB collection. 

Don’t forget, in anticipation for the upcoming release of Oplontis Vol.2,  the CAA Monograph Series on HEB includes a fully-encoded edition of John Clarke’s Roman Black-and-White Figural Mosaics. 

Below we have provided a short list of title that may peak your interest. If you would like to see the full list of available CAA monographs on HEB, check out the CAA series on the HEB website or our Pinterest page for the series! 

Interview: John R. Clarke


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.


Bust of Hercules

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.

Vol. 2 Cover

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.