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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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