Oplontis Villa Poppaea

OPLONTIS_IMG_0802The Villa Poppaea is an ancient Roman seaside villa (villa maritima) situated between Naples and Sorrento, in southern Italy. It is also referred to as the Villa Oplontis, or more precisely as Villa A by modern archaeologists. The villa itself is a large structure situated in the ancient Roman town of Oplontis (the modern Torre Annunziata), about ten meters below the modern ground level. Evidence suggests that it was owned by the Emperor Nero, and believed to have been used by his second and rather notorious wife, Poppaea Sabina, as her main residence when she was not in Rome.

According to John R. Clarke in The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration, the Villa Poppaea is best understood as a model on which many of the more modest city houses of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum were based (Clarke, 23). This grandiose maritime villa is characterized by “rituals of reception and leisure” through both its physical space and its decoration.Like many of the other houses in the area, the villa shows signs of remodeling, probably to repair damage from the earthquake in 62 CE. The oldest part of the house centers round the atrium and dates from the middle of 1st century BCE . During the remodeling, the house was extended to the east, with the addition of various reception and service rooms, gardens and a large swimming pool. Like many of the frescoes that were preserved due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, those decorating the walls of the Villa Poppaea are striking both in form and in color. Many of the frescoes are in the “Second Style” (also called the Architectural Style) of ancient Roman painting, dating to ca. 90-25 BCE as classified in 1899 by August Mau. Details include feigned architectural features such as trompe-l’œil windows, doors, and painted columns.

OPLONTIS_IMG_0801Frescoes in the caldarium depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides are painted in the “Third Style” (also called the Ornate Style) dating to ca. 25 BCE-40 CE according to Mau. Attention to realistic perspective is abandoned in favor of flatness and elongated architectural forms which “form a kind of shrine” around a central scene, which is often mythological. Immediately to the west of the triclinium is a large oecus, which was the main living room of a Roman house. Like the caldarium frescoes, the room is also painted in the Second Style. The east wall includes some wonderful details such as a theatre mask and peacock. Much attention has been paid to the allusions to stage painting (scenae frons) in the Villa Poppaea frescoes, particularly those in Room 23.

Historian and archeologist Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski began excavations on the gardens at the Villa Poppaea in 1974, and by 1993, 13 gardens had been discovered. Among these was a peristyle garden in the original portion of the villa. There, Jashemski and her team found evidence of a large shade tree next to a fountain; they also found a sundial, and the remains of a rake, a hoe, and a hook. Another garden in the grounds, this one enclosed, featured wall paintings of plants and birds, and evidence of fruit trees growing in the garden’s corners. Two courtyard gardens also featured wall paintings. A large garden that Jashemski describes as “parklike” extends from the back of the villa. There her team discovered cavities that had once housed the roots of large trees, believed by specialists at the Ministero dell’Agricultura to be plane trees. Also found were what seemed to be the remains of tree stumps. These were analyzed in the lab, but as the wood had changed to calcium carbonate, the exact species of the trees could not be identified from the remains of the stumps. However, one large branch still retained some of its original cellular structure intact, and examination of this material under a microscope proved that the branch came from an olive tree. Other trees at the Villa Poppaea were also identified, including lemon and oleander; a carbonized apple found on the site indicates the former presence of apple trees. According to Patrick Bowe modern-day replanting of the Villa’s gardens was undertaken only after the gardens’ original plant types and location were known.

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