BMCR 2017.02.16

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. Kelsey Museum publication, 14

, , Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. Kelsey Museum publication, 14. Ann Arbor, MI: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2016. 288. ISBN 9780990662341. $35.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This is the catalogue of the travelling exhibition on Villas A and B at Oplontis on the Bay of Naples, a project of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia and The Oplontis Project of the University of Texas; the show is on-going to three venues in the U.S., and the Oplontis Project is coming to full publication.1 Great buildings need great documentation and interpretive analysis as well as dissemination to an educated public willing to absorb detail and engage with over-all issues. This catalogue offers viewers a rare methodological panorama, and the editors generously give an account of their ideas underlying the exhibition in an initial chapter (22-29). The catalogue is in two big sections, one of essays on both villas, another on objects in the exhibition. The section of essays comprises three groups: one on the geology, archaeology, and digital reconstructions of both villas; another on Villa A, and a third on Villa B.

Roman villas were not isolated objects in their landscapes: they connected with politics, food supply, commerce, aesthetics, power, and social communication. Surely there was continuous contact between Villa A and the commercial mall and depot of Villa B (Oplontis B, see below) on the shore 300 m to the east: the one a venue of consumption, the other a center for supply of goods. E. Gazda’s second chapter (30-45) efficiently analyzes other villas of the Bay of Naples to provide comparative historical context of their development and social functions. In chapter 2 (N.K. Muntasser and G. Di Maio, 48-56), the geology and effects of the destruction of 79 CE are documented: Villa A was a villa maritima built c. 50 BCE in a dominating location on a c. 14m-high bluff overlooking the Bay (quite different from its present setting), with spectacular views to the south, west, and north. The choice of its site may have been prompted by the already-developed area of Oplontis B on the shore below: agriculture and two roads had long existed in its environs earlier, and added structures were built as Oplontis B expanded (van der Graaff, ch. 5, 69-71). Connections are stressed in the essays: among these sites and others, between Villa A and Oplontis B, then with the visual and social internal connections within Villa A, and with the globalizing Mediterranean economy.

While moving the villas into their correct historical context was always the goal, archaeology now has almost infinite means of analysis: the Soprintendenza and Oplontis Project have deployed them to full interpretive power, allowing the audience of the catalogue to participate in its scientific and humanistic processes.

Villa A has long been known, but J.R. Clarke (ch. 4, 57-65) adroitly shows how its uneven recording in the course of the 20 th -century excavations resulted in uncertainties needing fixes using new techniques. An example is in ch. 6 (72-75) — the digital imaging of wall paintings showed clearly that the walls of the atrium must have been much higher than the good-natured guess-work of the 1980s reconstructions.

For Villa A, the core of the initial building of c. 50 BCE centered around its entrance-hall and atrium (rooms 21 and 5 respectively) and certain other magnificently decorated rooms painted in the Second Style (notably oecus 15). Later, these grand decorations were either carefully retained throughout the villa’s more than a century of expansion or else — most strikingly — refreshed with some repainting (even Third Style decorations were discreetly modernized), as R. Gee shows in ch. 8 (85-95). Roman remodelling respected the past and connected to it while making up-to-date changes.

As Villa A developed, internal and external architectural connections changed, corresponding to changes of taste in space and view also apparent in painting styles. M.L Thomas (ch. 7, 78-84) shows that the symmetry and pomp of the spaces and sight-lines of c. 50 BCE obeyed the over-all symmetries of their Second Style wall paintings even in later additions. But in the expansion of c. 55 CE, oblique and asymmetrical views from space to space and into gardens, symmetrical framing of asymmetrical garden-views, enfilades with dark-light alternations, and partial views of decorated surfaces are the architectural equivalents of the tremulous experience of painted surfaces of the Third and Fourth Styles: art actually documents changes in seeing.

Gardens also denoted changes in vision. B. Bergmann (ch. 9, 96-110) broaches, indirectly, the relation of art to nature in her discussion of the painted viridaria in light-wells between internal rooms. The oldest ( viridarium 20, c. 50 BCE), which was set on axis with the entrance-hall, gave an almost symmetrical view through a big window to the atrium and the sea beyond, even though access to the light-well was in a corner of the space, and its three little trees were planted asymmetrically. The internal walls of the garden were similarly painted: a seeming symmetry of garden views was subtly undermined by asymmetries in details, making tension between expectation and experience. Such techniques were used in the extended villa of c. 55 CE in light-well gardens alternating among a range of dining-rooms and in asymmetries of planting by interspersing ornamental trees with lower trees and bushes along sight-lines. Bergmann concludes that themes of time (as shown in burgeoning and fading fruits and flowers and the fleeting movement of the many birds represented) may also be a theme of the decorations, and I would add that Seneca addressed such themes in the same years: it may have been a fashionable élite meme.

Luxury houses prompt envious questions: “How much did it cost? Where did they get the materials and contents? Who cleaned up after banquets and emptied chamber-pots?” The catalogue addresses all of these in well-compressed essays. The marble in floors and architectural elements is detailed by S.J. Barker in ch. 11 (119-125), and his and J. Clayton Fant’s chapter 12 (126-132) on the Mediterranean-wide sources of marble in Villa A shows how, by the 50s BCE, before the completion of Mediterranean-wide Roman hegemony, fancy materials had become available; an appendix by S.J. Barker (133-135) estimates how much the early villa might have cost in man-days if not in money. E.K. Gazda and M.C. Naglak on the sculpture from Villa A (ch. 13, 136-147) point up the rhetorical and interpretive techniques of the sculpture found in Villa A and go a long way toward completing its meanings for the owner and his guests, even though the collection itself was truncated, undergoing repair and repositioning, perhaps even being sold off together with architectural marbles and floor-slabs after damage in the early 60s CE.

A generous contribution (ch. 14, 148-57) by S.R. Joshel and L. H. Petersen combines previous insights by them and others into the situation of slaves in buildings, specifically in villas as spaces of social control. As Villa A expanded in the 1 st century CE, its designers provided both more space for its slaves while making their movement ever more clearly tagged and efficient. The strategies (present also in other villas in the Bay) involved painting slave-spaces with special zebra-striped dadoes and walls to guide their movements. Behind-the-scene slave-corridors, cupboards for servants to be out of sight until called, and scuttling-passages so slaves did not cross representational spaces and axes were carefully designed.

Oplontis B (now preferred to “Villa B”), an assemblage of buildings, was set on the coast at a cross-roads. Small, simply decorated apartments and residences were built along a street and above storage facilities, but the main structure was centered around a stone-columned porticoed courtyard fitted to receive wine-carts and other vehicles. M.L Thomas (ch. 15, 160-165) describes the seasonal activity which must have accompanied the stocking and selling of the vintage of 78 CE to clear the facility for that of 79; the stock was impressive, comprising some 1200 amphorae (about 30,000 liters) of wine. Oplontis B was a middle-man’s facility (no press or equipment); perhaps he was one Lucius Crassus Tertius, whose seal-ring was found in the building. Other finds are given a synopsis by J.L. Muslin (ch. 16, 165-170): like marbles of the floors in Villa A, amphorae attest a Mediterranean-wide food economy (vessels for wine or fish-sauces from Gaul and elsewhere) as well as a purely regional one in Campania. Bronze wine-pitchers were found, items appropriate to impulse- shopping. A large decorated wooden arca or strongbox of Hellenistic date, bound in iron and inlaid with copper and silver, inscribed with the name of its (first?) owner and signed by its makers, both safeguarded its contents and showed off their value.

A final essay (C.A. Ward, ch. 17, 171-177) gives an account of the jewelry worn or carried by nine of the 54 persons who took refuge in a storeroom in 79 CE: how gold, silver, pearl, and emerald denoted status or aspiration to status, both in their material and manufacture, is thoroughly analyzed.

The catalogue of the 219 objects in the exhibition (179-254) is the final section: architectural components in marble and terracotta, a sundial, lamps, marble sculpture, ceramic and metal vessels, jewelry, coins, and a sampling of wall-painting fragments showing how, in two cases, design of the walls was reconstructed from them. As a bonus, the model (made by Victoria I) of Villa A and images of its digital reconstruction is included as item 142. Notes, bibliography, and a detailed index complete the work.

The scholarship of the essays is as fine as the production-values of the publication. All illustrations are in color and are well-coordinated with the text. There are very few misprints; the only one of note is that fig. 2.10 (plan of the Villa San Marco, Stabiae) is reversed in the initial printing of the book; the second printing has corrected this mistake.

Table of Contents

1. Concepts and Contents of the Exhibition / Gazda, Clarke
2. Villa on the Bay of Naples: The Ancient Setting of Oplontis / Gazda
3. The Geological Landscape of Oplontis and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius / Muntasser, Di Maio
4. From the Archives to the Fields: Revisiting Villa A and Oplontis B / Clarke
5. Ten Seasons of Excavation at Oplontis (2006-2015) / van der Graaf
6. Digital Imaging at Oplontis / Clarke, Beacham, Coulson, Liddell, Abbott
7. Framing Views in Villa A: From the Late Republic to the Age of Nero / Thomas
8. Layered Histories: The Wall Painting Styles and Painters of Villa A / Gee
9. The Gardens and Garden Paintings of Villa A / Bergmann
10. Luxury in Fantasy and Reality: Exotic Marble in Villa A / McAlpine
11. Marble Floors and Paneled Walls in the East Wing of Villa A / Barker
12. The Cost of Luxury: Procurement and Labor for the Marble Décor of Villa A /Fant and Barker
Appendix to Chapter 12: Calculating the Manpower for the Marble Décor of the Villa / Barker
13. Mutable Meanings in the Sculpture from Villa A / Gazda and Naglak
14. Thinking about Roman Slaves at Villa A / Joshel and Petersen
15. Oplontis B and the Wine Industry in the Vesuvian Area / Thomas
16. Working and Living in Oplontis B: Material Perspectives on Trade and Consumption / Muslin
17. Luxury, Adornment, and Identity: The Skeletons and Jewelry from Oplontis B / Ward


1. The exhibition has been shown at the Kelsey Museum (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI) and at the Museum of the Rockies (Montana State University, Bozeman, MT); its last venue will be at the Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA) in 2017. The first volume of the Oplontis Project has appeared: Clarke, J.R. and N.K. Muntasser (eds.) 2014. Oplontis; Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy (50 B.C.-A.D. 79), vol. I, The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery. New York: ACLS-HEB, reviewed by this author in JSAH 75 (2016) 66-67; the second will appear soon: id./ead. (eds.) 2017, vol. II: Decorative Ensembles: Painting, Stucco, Pavements, Sculptures. New York: ACLS-HEB. A third and fourth, which will include Villa B, are in preparation.