Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, Villa Oplontis was both destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Veusuvius in AD79. Buried until its gradual discovery over the last four centuries, this huge and lavish palace has been associated on slender evidence with Poppaea Sabina, the unfortunate wife said to have been kicked to death by the Emperor Nero. Her family are believed to have come from this area, and the grandeur of the villa suggests it belonged to someone either very rich or very well-connected. A wine amphora found here bore the inscription of the name “Poppaeae”. Consequently the villa is sometimes called Villa Poppaea, and is also known as Villa A by archaeologists studying the ruins around the site of the Roman seaside village of Oplontis (and as Scavi di Oplonti in Italian).
Lying under the modern Naples suburb Torre Annunziata, the full extent of the villa complex hasn’t been discovered. But what there is to see is very impressive. The site is under-visited compared to its famous neighbours, and it is a fascinating and atmospheric place to get the feel of real Roman luxury.
The villa is included in the UNESCO heritage listing “Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata”.
The villa makes a good complement to visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum. The impressive state of preservation and the villa’s lavishness help to give context to the urban dwellings in the two larger sites, and its colourful frescoes enable the visitor to visualise the details which have been lost elsewhere.
The Roman elite favoured the Bay of Naples for holiday retreats. Just as today’s wealthy Romans and Neapolitans head to the island of Capri, in ancient times this area was a refuge from the heat and bustle of Rome in summer and a place to relax and indulge in civilised leisure; the pursuit of otium.
The Villa Oplontis was a palace built overlooking the sea (the coastline is now further away). Archaeologists deduce that the rambling building had been through several stages of development, and at the time of the eruption which buried it, the villa was undergoing restoration works, and was perhaps somewhat neglected. There had been a major earthquake in 62AD, and many smaller tremors in the build-up to the big eruption of 79AD, which may explain this. During its lifespan, though, the villa must have been one of the grandest dwellings in the area. Its wall paintings are some of the finest examples of Roman painting in existence. Its large gardens were decorated with statues as well as trees and plants. Approached by land or sea, the villa would have impressed visitors even before they entered the colourful and refined halls,strolled through its various colonnades, or glimpsed the huge garden swimming pool.
The ruins are well-enough preserved that it’s possible to gain some idea of how people might have lived here; relaxing under a portico, taking a dip in the huge pool. Rooms are numbered and descriptions in the guide-booklet help to explain the decoration and what is assumed about their uses.
Among the villa’s comforts was a bath-house, several peristyles (colonnaded courtyards and gardens), and a range of richly-painted reception rooms. The most extravagant of these feature detailed illusionistic scenes of architectural features: temples, statues, gateways. The villa layout also incorporates service areas: small rooms where slaves may have slept, and narrow corridors providing quick and discreet access between the public spaces. These narrower, humbler corridors are decorated with simple ‘zebra-stripe’ paintwork, used here and elsewhere for the quarters of slaves and staff – although here the ‘cheap’ décor does seem used on occasion for loftier public areas.
Mostly, it’s clear how much the villa was designed to impress, and how dazzling its grandest spaces must have been. Most visitors would have entered through an atrium (Room 1) with a central pool to catch water falling through an aperture in the ceiling in the centre, and walls covered with trompe l’oeil frescoes of columns, doorways and other grand architectural features.
One of the most striking spaces is Room 18, described as a ‘sitting room’, which opened onto the portico in front of the swimming pool and its surrounding garden. At the far side of the room was a large window onto the principal garden of the villa. And on either side, a sequence of windows opened onto rooms richly-painted with garden scenes, and then beyond that into tiny ‘garden’ courtyards, again decorated with garden frescoes. Trees, greenery, flowers, birds and water must have been visible in every direction, both painted and real, with nature being brought into the interiors. Although there must have been slaves, attendants and family members around, it’s hard not to imagine the building filled with the same kind of peace that greets the visitor today as they wander around the quiet site, accompanied by the twittering of birds and the wind in the grass and leaves. The work that has been done to recreate the original garden plantings adds greatly to the atmosphere, which is so different to the busier and barer ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.