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Scientific Analyses at Villa A

This is the final 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 next blog post. Dr. Muntasser discussed the stucco decorations at Villa A. The last post detailed the information on the pavements found in Villa A.

This time, Nayla Muntasser discusses the scientific analyses completed during the work on Villa A, providing an interesting look into the intersection of the humanities and natural sciences. 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 scientific analyses of materials formed part of the original mission of the Oplontis Project, that is, the goal to conduct a systematic, multidisciplinary study of Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. In both volumes of this series on Villa A, the chapters that rely on scientific research provide a deeper understanding of the particulars of the site. Since Volume 1 was devoted to the setting of the Villa, the scientific studies focused on topography, fauna and flora. Geological cores commissioned by the Oplontis Project revealed the line of ancient coast and showed that Villa A was perched high on a cliff (Volume 1, Chapter 3, Giovanni Di Maio). Botanical studies compared the painted images of animals and plants to the natural environment of the region, concluding that most of the real creatures and plants depicted were common to the area (Volume 1, Chapters 7 and 8, Massimo Ricciardi). Paleobotanical investigations focused on carbonized wood remains and pollen from the gardens and were undertaken by two teams led by scientists from the University of Naples (Volume 1, Chapter 9, Gaetano di Pasqale et al., and Chapter 10, Elda Russo Ermolli et al.). Analysis of the carbonized wood remains established that the gardens at Oplontis contained ornamental species of trees and bushes common to the Mediterranean region. Pollen analysis confirmed that the flora within the villa gardens was also typical, but what the pollen samples also showed was that, at the time of the eruption in 79 CE, the gardens were overrun with wild trees and bindweed vines, plants that take over when gardens are in a complete state of neglect.

Fig. 1. Professor. P. Baraldi and team member analysing pigments. Photo: P. Baraldi

In Volume 2 the scientific studies also revealed this combination of shared regional characteristics and differing particular features. The analyses of the pigments used in the frescoes was undertaken by Pietro Baraldi and his team from the University of Modena during the 2007 and 2009 seasons (Volume 2, Chapter 11). The analysis of the stones and marbles used in the architectural elements and the sculptures was the work of Simon Barker and J. Clayton Fant who studied the marbles in 2010 and incorporated the results of the stone provenance analysis carried out by Donato Attanasio at the Institute of Structure of Matter in Rome (Volume 2, Chapter 17).

Pigment analysis

The scientific analysis of pigments used in the frescoes can lead to a greater understanding of how  the paintings were created, how they were altered over time and whether workshops identified by expert visual means are reflected in the materials and techniques used. The intense focus on the walls also provides an opportunity to monitor the state of the paintings after so many years of exposure to light, air and tourists and to identify areas that require conservation.

Fig. 2. Portable Raman spectroscopy equipment used by Professor Baraldi. Photo: P. Baraldi

Baraldi used three types of instruments that allow for a non-destructive approach: a digital microscope connected to a computer, instrumentation using a Wood’s lamp with ultraviolet radiation, and a portable Raman microscope. The Digitus optical microscope with internal white light allowed for magnification from 10 to 220 times, enabling Baraldi to observe the morphology of the pigment granules on all the walls, an important step in itself, but also as a preliminary to spectroscopic investigation (Fig. 1). Ultraviolet radiation indicated the presence of organic materials in the observed surface, including environmental effects and interventions that might have taken place over time. Raman spectroscopy, a chemical analysis technique for identifying molecular and crystallographic characteristics of pigment without touching the painted surface, was used for research at the site focusing on eleven rooms (Fig. 2). More intensive analysis using a Horiba Jobin Yvon’s LabRAM was then carried out at the lab at the University of Modena on 75 microscopic samples taken from nine representative rooms (Fig. 3).

 

 

(Below) Fig. 3. Raman spectrum from sample 7 in room 20. Graph: P. Baraldi.  Egyptian blue on the bottom, amorphous hematite and magnetite on the top.

Consistent with the findings in Volume 1, Villa A shared many characteristics with other decorated villas in the region. The pigments used were naturally occurring yellow and red ochre, green earth (terra verde), calcite (white), charcoal and cinnabar red (mercury sulfide), and the synthetic Egyptian blue (calcium copper silicate). Initial observations led Baraldi to use Egyptian blue and cinnabar red as diagnostic pigments, because although they were the most expensive, they were widely used to vivify other colors. For example, Egyptian blue was used to brighten whites and greens and, intermixed with the plaster under-layer, to intensify the fresco colors (Fig. 4a; Fig. 4b). Thus while in some ways wall paintings at Villa A were representative of a certain type of residence along the Bay of Naples, the use of Egyptian blue as an enhancer of whites was not a common feature in the Vesuvian region. This study of the pigments provides a more nuanced picture of workshop techniques and patrons’ preferences than existed before.

Marble and stone analysis

The identification of marble provenance for specific artifacts or groups of artifacts is important for understanding the economic, social, and political role that marble and marble quarries played in the Roman world.

In their report on the provenance of black and white marbles from Villa A, Barker and Fant obtained the variables used for the characterization of the marbles from a combination of analytical techniques based on mineralogical-petrographic data, including Carbon-Oxygen stable isotopic analysis, Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectroscopy, and petrographic analysis of the samples. Because it is almost impossible to distinguish the quarry source for white marbles visually, Donato Attanasio performed the petrographic, spectroscopic (EPR), and isotopic analysis on 30 samples of white marbles from several sculptures and capitals among the collection (Fig. 5). Barker and Fant brought the total number of samples to 57, adding the analysis of the black marbles of the columns that originally supported Portico 60. The complete list can be found in Table 17.3 of their chapter in Volume 2. Determining the provenance of the marble samples involved measuring physical and chemical properties and comparing their numerical values with the results available from a database of quarry samples from known source sites.

Fig. 5. Statistical data of the white marble sculptures sampled showing quarry sites as possible provenances. Diagram: D. Attanasio

The authors chose a cross-section of the types and uses of marble from Villa A, including a fountain base, capitals, column bases, column shafts, thresholds, windowsills and statuary. The varieties of marble used at Villa A appear to fit with local trends in marble use, much as the pigments used in the fresco paintings fit within the general pattern of regional practices. However, beyond this broad conclusion, the scientific analyses established that most of the architectural white marble at the Villa was Luna marble from Carrara and not from ancient Dokimeion, as had been initially thought. In the case of the sculptures, however, a significant proportion of the 13 sampled were Greek marbles (Pentelikon and Paros), while the rest were Luna.

The scientific analyses of materials used in the decorations of Villa A confirmed some established views but more importantly, it provided fresh insights for scholars to contemplate.


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Investment from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation enhances Fulcrum publishing platform to strengthen ACLS Humanities E-Book Collection

Michigan Publishing has received $750,000 in support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to re-envision the American Council of Learned Societies Humanities E-Book Collection (ACLS HEB) on its open source Fulcrum publishing platform. 

ACLS HEB is a collection of over 5,500 backlist books carefully selected by ACLS scholars from leading scholarly publishers, including university and society presses. Such scholar-led curation is unique among ebook collections and has made ACLS HEB a core resource for more than 800 academic libraries of all sizes for almost 20 years. 

The Foundation’s generous investment will strengthen Fulcrum’s capacity to support large collections of ebooks. The focus will be on developing new ways to explore the corpus, richer usage reporting, and interoperability with other tools and platforms. The two-year grant also supports a program of research and engagement aimed at enriching ACLS HEB’s value to publishers, learned societies, and libraries.

“Interinstitutional collaborations are necessary for building out a digital publishing infrastructure,” notes Patricia Hswe, program officer for scholarly communications at The Foundation. “We are pleased to support the University of Michigan and other organizations with a publishing mission in such an effort.”

 

The partnership between ACLS and Michigan to host the collection dates back to 2005. It deepened in 2019 when ACLS transferred all operations to Michigan while remaining deeply involved in ACLS HEB’s governance and the selection of new titles. “This support for Michigan’s team bridges today and tomorrow,” ACLS Vice President James Shulman noted, “Further development of Fulcrum will enrich the user experience of the existing collection while expanding the platform’s capacity to host new models for longform humanistic works.”

A strong connection to libraries has been central to ACLS HEB’s growth. To keep the collection relevant and affordable in the changing ebook environment, Michigan has partnered with LYRASIS, a non-profit library technology and services organization, to provide a single channel for collection sales, licensing, and customer support. LYRASIS also will research and identify emerging community needs related to ACLS HEB.

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. 

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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.