The Villa of Poppea at the Oplontis archaeological site

Posted on 25 Luglio 2009 by admin

The Oplontis excavations

The archaeological site is a vast quadrilateral area on the “Mascatelle” estate. The Villa was explored summarily under the Bourbons. It became property of State thanks to the work of A. Maiuri and systematic excavations were begun in 1964.

The excavations continued almost without interruption until 1984 and revealed an area stretching 110 m in an east/west direction and 75 m in a north/south direction. The suburban complex has only been partly excavated because the presence of the Sarno Canal obstructing the southern area, and the Way of Sepulchres and Fuse factory to the west. The site re-emerged from a 6 metre-deep layer of earth made up of 2 metres of volcanic lapilli and sand from the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 AD, and 4 metres of muddy conglomerates and layers of vegetation..

Two phases of building work can be recognised in the sumptuous villa attributed to Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina.

The first phase dates to the mid 1st century BC and is made up of two nuclei of buildings mirroring each other on either side of a central axis containing the entrance, the viridarium or garden area and a large living area leading onto a back garden. The nucleus to the west contains thermal baths, kitchen, reception, triclinium, cubiculum and other reception rooms. Another cluster of buildings is made up of garden and slave quarters, a room with the altar of the Lares and rooms with arcades opening onto the garden area. To the south the entrance to the Villa has not been explored owing to the presence of the Sarno canal and the Fuse factory.

The second phase of building came about when the first eastern phase was extended in the Claudian age with a residential area containing large open areas or garden areas with arcades, several living rooms and some viridaria (gardens) along the pool meausuring 60 x 17 metres. On the south-east edge of the explored area traces of a torcularium can be distinguished

In size and architectural complexity as well as for its sculptural and painted decoration work, the Oplontis Villa is superior to all other suburban villas of this area. The paintings in the II style with their perfect state of conservation are considered among the best to have survived from the Roman world and can be admired on-site.

Sculptures found on the site are copies of original Greek works and were for ornamentation of gardens and pool. However this material was found in deposits with no sign of objects necessary for everyday life. This leads us to believe that in the year 79AD when Vesuvius erupted the Villa was being renovated and was uninhabited.


Poppaea’s Villa

(Oplontis excavations – Villa A)


Visiting the site

The visit can commence by descending the ramp leading to the back of the villa.

The living-reception room positioned north of the garden is of generous proportions. Inside the room large marble columns with Corinthian capitals are posed on the flooring.

The roofing of the southern arcade has been realistically reconstructed while the western arcade has been only partly excavated owing to the presence of the Way of Sepulchres and the Fuse factory.

The cubiculum or bedroom has a window closed by four wooden shutters.

The corridor has holes in the walls where builders and plasterers fixed their building supports.

The viridarium or garden still conserves its original terracotta rose-heads used for collecting rain water.

The atrium is in the tuscanic style with a roof held up by robust beams which were originally wooden. On the walls are sumptuous paintings in the II style highlighting an illusion of spaciousness. This quite large room had an opening in the roof (compluvium) to allow collecting of rainwater. When rain fell it was collected in the impluvium and drained off from there into large cisterns.

The kitchen still perfectly conserves one of its cooking surfaces with large niches below for storing wood and charcoal.

The thermal baths complex was made up of three areas:

  • the calidarium was an area for bathing in hot water. It had hollow walls for circulating heated air and decorations in the III style on a red background. At the centre of a niche in the facing wall is a painting depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides.
  • the tepidarium room was kept at a moderately warm temperature.
  • the frigidarium was for cold baths.

The oecus was a reception room and opened onto a small tetrastyle atrium to the north and had two windows on the south-west peristyle. On the right wall it has a depiction of the Apollo Temple with a tripod in the centre and a marvellous peacock.

The triclinium has a mosaic floor and walls painted in the III style depicting gold columns with metal garlands, gems and other decorative elements such as statues, birds, a basket of figs and a quiver and arch.

On the south-west side is the viridarium or garden with arcade and bedrooms facing onto it.

There follows an oecus decorated in the II style with theatrical backdrops. On the north wall are depicted a glass tray with pomegranates and a basket of fruit covered by a veil. The south wall shows a cluster of grapes, a pheasant and a cake placed upon a ferculum.

The lararium is decorated in the IV style and contains a masonry altar at the centre of the apse where the Lares were kept.

The southern arcade has partially closed spaces between the columns. From the entrance-hall the olympionic size swimning pool or natatio can be observed.

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