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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.