Travel thought for the week: it’s a secret if it’s new to you! And as an example of this, there is the Villa Oplontis, also called the Villa Poppaea, one of the most luxurious villas built by the ancient Romans and first excavated in 1839. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the lavish villa began to emerge from the dirt, rubble and ashes that rained down on it when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. This southern Italian villa was apparently part of a residential community called Oplanti which, unlike nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, seems to have had no markets, shops, forums or houses of erotic indulgence.
In Italy history comes in layers and this scenic area is no exception. Oplanti lies beneath the modern town of Torre Annunziata and was a cluster of country retreats for the ancient rich, a sort of resort on the Bay of Naples that was so discreet that its name was almost lost in the sands of time. But its name appears on a famous ancient map of the Roman Empire, and not without good reason. The Villa Oplontis was built around the middle of the first century B.C.
It was in the late 1960s that a superintendent of antiquities for the Naples region restarted excavations that resulted in piecing together much of the ground plan and some 48 rooms. Fully half of the place was space for the help. As for the other half, that’s where the owner lived, and the owner was none other than notorious Emperor Nero. His second wife, Poppaea Sabina, probably had some of her famous milk baths here. There was a lush interior garden and a pool in the open-air courtyard. At the villa’s northern end, covered galleries led to formal gardens.
Nature conspired to preserve many of the villa’s artistic treasures. First there was an earthquake in 62 A.D. Some archaeologists are of the opinion that the villa was already in a period of restoration when Vesuvius erupted less than two decades later. Sumptuous wall paintings, sculptures and more remained. In fact, many pieces of sculpture, including some amazingly chiseled marble centaurs, had been removed from the gardens and courtyard and placed in an underground storeroom prior to the eruption.
One of the wall paintings depicts a colorful, theatrical vista of columns with a peacock and actor’s mask in the foreground. In one of the bath chambers, the caldarium, a nude male who appears to be Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides adorns a painted niche. Mythological themes abound, as they did pervasively in ancient Roman art. A well-preserved statue of Aphrodite (Venus) shows the goddess of love adjusting a sandal as she leans on Peitho, the goddess of persuasion.
The villas gardens featured olive trees as well as oleander, lemon and apple trees. Altogether, the picture that archaeologists have pieced together is one of a marvelously serene ancient Roman villa at Oplonti. However, less than a thousand feet east of the Villa Oplontis there’s another, the Villa of L. Crassius Tertius, residents did not fare as well: at least 54 skeletons were found, haunting remnants of the pyroclastic flow that pounded the structure as Vesuvius exploded. Found, too, were carbonized remains of pomegranates and walnuts, as well as beautiful jewelry and coins. Layers and layers of history, and evidence of ever more secrets to discover in Italy.
A Secret Roman Villa by Anthony Grant
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