The Villa Poppaea as seen from the garden in front
|Alternate name||Villa Oplontis, Villa A|
|Location||Torre Annunziata, Province of Naples, Campania, Italy|
|Management||Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei|
|Official name: Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata|
|Criteria||iii, iv, v|
|Designated||1997 (21st session)|
|Region||Europe and North America|
The 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.
House Plan & Construction
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.
Detailed information about the various phases of construction on the Villa Poppaea can be found in Stefano de Caro’s chapter in Ancient Roman Villa Gardens published by the Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture.
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 in the book Pompeii: Its Life and Art (Berry, 171). Details include feigned architectural features such as trompe-l'œil windows, doors, and painted columns.
Frescoes 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 (Berry, 170). 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 (Berry, 170).
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 (Wallace-Hadrill, 27).
Much attention has been paid to the allusions to stage painting (scenae frons) in the Villa Poppaea frescoes, particularly those in Room 23 (Wallace-Hadrill, 27; Coarelli, et al., 372; Clarke, 117).
Rediscovery & Excavation History
The Villa of Poppaea was first discovered in the eighteenth century during the construction of the Sarno Canal which cut through the central hall of the villa (Clarke, 22). Between 1839 and 1840 explorations of the site were undertaken by Bourbon excavators who removed several paintings from the villa . The excavators used a tunneling technique that was also employed at Herculaneum, and uncovered part of the peristyle and garden area (Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium, 79).
Excavations continued again from 1964 until the mid-1980s, at which point the site was excavated to its current level. It was during this final round of excavations that the massive swimming pool, measuring 60 by 17 meters, was unearthed. The villa’s southernmost portions have been left unexcavated because of the physical limitations of the complex, which has been compromised by its position beneath the modern city of Torre Annunziata and the construction of the Sarno Canal .
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 (The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, vol. 2, 295). 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 in Gardens of the Roman World (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), modern-day replanting of the Villa’s gardens was undertaken only after the gardens’ original plant types and location were known.
Nearby is the so-called Villa of L. Crassius Tertius, partially excavated between 1974 and 1991. In contrast to the sumptuously decorated Villa Poppaea, the neighboring villa is a rustic, two-story structure with many rooms left unplastered and with tamped earth floors. Some of the rooms seem to have been used for manufacturing, and others were storerooms, while the upper floor contained the living quarters of the house. These circumstances, along with more than 400 amphorae recovered in the excavations, seem to indicate the presence of a small business on the property devoted to the production of wine, oil, and agricultural goods. The discovery of a series of weights seems to confirm this theory; a bronze seal found at the site preserved the name of Lucius Crassius Tertius, apparently its last owner. This villa was not deserted at the time of the eruption: the remains of 54 people were recovered in one of the rooms of the villa, perishing in the surge that hit Oplontis. With the victims were found many of their belongings, including fine jewelry, silverware, and coins in the amount of 10,000 sesterces, the largest sum found in any area of the Vesuvian region (Civale, 73-74).
- Suetonius, Life of Nero
- Aurelius Victor, Book of the Caesars 5
- Berry, Joanne. The Complete Pompeii. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
- Bowe, Patrick. Gardens of the Roman World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.
- Civale, Anna. "Oplontis," in Tales from an Eruption: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, edited by Pier Giovanni Guzzo, 72-79. Milan: Electa, 2003.
- Clarke, John R. (1991). The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-08429-2.
- Coarelli, Filippo, ed. (2002). Pompeii. Translated by Patricia A. Cockram. New York City: Riverside Book Company. ISBN 978-1-878351-59-3.
- Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture (10, 1984, Washington, DC). Ancient Roman Villa Gardens. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987.
- Guzzo, Pier Giovanni. Tales From An Eruption: Pompeii, Herculaneum,Oplontis: Guide to The Exhibition. Milano: Electa, 2003.
- Jashemski, Wilhelmina F. The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. New Rochelle, New York: Caratzas Bros, 1979.
- __. The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, Vol. 2, Appendices. New Rochelle, New York: Caratzas, 1993.
- Jashemski, Wilhelmina, and Elisabeth MacDougall. Ancient Roman Villa Gardens. Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture VII. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1987.
- Ling, Roger. Roman Painting. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Maiuri, Amedeo. Pompeii. Novara: Instituto Geografico de Agostini, 1957.
- __. Herculaneum. Roma: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1945.
- Mau, August and Francis Willey Kelsey. Pompeii: Its Life and Art. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899.
- Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Villa Poppaea (Torre Annunziata).|
- Official website (Italian)
- The Oplontis Project
- Triclinium Villa di Poppea
- Oplontis: Villa di Poppea
- Romano-Campanian Wall-Painting (English, Italian, Spanish and French introduction)
- Dumbarton Oaks: Garden Archaeology
- The Villa at Oplontis, Skenographia Project