by Roderick Conway Morris

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Treasures of Art, Buried for Centuries

By Roderick Conway Morris
RAVENNA, ITALY 25 July 2009
National Archeological Museum, Naples
'Flora,' from Villa Arianna, Stabiae,
from between the first century B. C. and the first century A. D.



In the first century B.C., the Gulf of Naples became the playground par excellence of the Roman elite. Here, according to Cicero, was to be found an endless round of'banquets, parties, song, music, excursions in boats,' not to mention 'intrigues, love affairs and adulteries.'

The idyll came to an abrupt end in August A.D. 79, with the eruption of Vesuvius. Along with the now more familiar Pompeii and Herculaneum, the seaside resort of Stabiae was also buried in several meters of cinder and ash. Stabiae, to the south of Pompeii, was not a town but a string of enormous luxury villas stretching along the coast, their remains now contiguous with the port town of Castellammare di Stabia.

During excavations of the Roman sites around Naples initiated in the 18th century by the Bourbon monarchy, the Swiss-born engineer-archaeologist Karl Weber investigated Stabiae and came up with some high-quality finds. But in 1764, Weber died at 52 of pneumonia, very likely brought on by extended exposure to the fetid air of the deep tunnels at the Villa dei Papyri at Herculaneum, through which he extracted statues, bronzes and the celebrated papyri of Epicurean philosophical texts from which the villa took its name.

Aside from a brief further investigation in the late 1770s, after Weber's death attention shifted decisively away to Pompeii and Herculaneum for more than two centuries. One factor was that Stabiae lacked the other sites' sensational human remains, the residents of the villas having apparently fled in time. Although some digging was done in the 1950s, the site was not studied in depth again until the creation in 1998 of Restoring Ancient Stabiae (R.A.S.) by the Superintendency of Archaeology of Pompeii, the School of Architecture of the University of Maryland and the American Academy in Rome.

Stabiae's riches - especially in fresco paintings, many of which have never been exhibited before - are the subject of 'Otium Ludens' (loosely translatable as 'playful idleness'), a gathering of nearly 200 detached murals, stucco and artifacts at Ravenna's Complesso di San Nicolo. The exhibition continues here until Oct. 4, and it will travel on to Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Madrid and Valencia.

Villa Arianna at Stabiae was partially excavated in the 18th century by Weber and his successor, Francesco La Vega. Among the treasures unearthed were four charming frescoes of female figures, dubbed Flora, Medea, Leda and Diana. The quartet was exhibited in a traveling show organized by Restoring Ancient Stabiae that began in Washington in 2004 and toured several other U.S. cities.

Flora and her companions now form the centerpiece of a room devoted to Villa Arianna at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This display is part of a major reorganization (as much as possible in chronological order) and redesign of the settings for the museum's frescoes collection, which had been closed for a decade before the reopening this spring.

The Gulf of Naples was an ideal ancient resort for a number of reasons. The scenery was spectacular, the climate healthy and thermal spring waters available. Agricultural produce, thanks to the volcanic soil, was varied and abundant. The local wines were famous and exported to the far ends of the empire and beyond (a contemporary fresco shows the slopes of the long-dormant Vesuvius planted with vines and wooded almost to the summit). The volcanic rocks of varying rigidity provided flexible building and paving materials, and a local volcanic sand was a particularly strong and durable mortar. The survival of Greek culture in the region among the descendants of Hellenic colonists was an added attraction for the educated Roman classes, for whom a knowledge of the language and literature had become an essential attainment.

During the imperial era, the villas of the ruling family and the Roman rich became ever larger, accommodating private baths, libraries, picture galleries, theaters and dining rooms. At Stabiae, Villa Arianna covers an area of more than 13,000 square meters, or 140,000 square feet, and Villa San Marco 16,000 square meters.

Much of these villas' considerable wall space - and in the case of Stabiae, often ceiling space - was covered with frescoes, with elegant decorative motifs, including artful still-life elements, images of birds and other animals, landscapes and trompe l'oeil architectural views, mythological scenes and figures. The artists who worked at Stabiae seem typically to have been more skilled than those who were employed at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Indeed, the sophistication of the Stabiae frescoes is on a par with those of Augustus's residence on the Palatine Hill and Nero's Golden House in Rome, suggesting that the wealthy owners of these coastal villas brought artists from Rome or imported Greek artists from abroad. Moreover, whereas the remains of the finest frescoes in Rome are few and far between, a great deal has survived of these top-rank works at Stabiae thanks to Vesuvius's eruption.

The complexity of the mural decoration offers evidence of the hierarchy in importance of the villa's different rooms and areas. The walls on the way to the private baths, for example - a place where guests were also entertained - would commonly be lavishly decorated. Most prestigious of all as a place to socialize was the 'triclinium,' or dining room (of which these huge villas would have several). These were adorned with the most ambitious landscape and mythological tableaux. At Stabiae even the slave quarters might contain some form of fresco decoration.

The range of many of the Stabiae frescoes' palettes also indicates that those who commissioned them did not skimp on materials. Blue, green and red were expensive colors, while ochre, black, cream and white were relatively cheap. Access to a full range of available pigments undoubtedly helped these artists realize both bold and colorful decorative schemes and their most subtle and convincing effects in depicting human figures and faces.

Some of Stabiae's villas can also help us trace the evolution of Roman painting, even at a single location. As the owners of Villa Arianna, for example, added to the original nucleus of the building during the first century A.D., rooms were decorated successively in styles reflecting the developing tastes of the Augustan-Tiberian, Claudian and Neronian periods.

Otium Ludens. Complesso di San Nicolo. Ravenna. Through Oct. 4.

Frescoes Collection. National Archaeological Museum. Naples. Permanent collection.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024