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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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