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.
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.
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.
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.
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.