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Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE–79 CE)

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE–79 CE)

By Mantha Zarmakoupi (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation). Pp. xxii + 315, figs. 135, tables 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014. $160. ISBN 978-0-19-967838-9 (cloth).

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This volume is the revised and expanded version of Zarmakoupi’s 2007 doctoral dissertation at Oxford University. It follows by four years the publication of her edited volume on one of the key monuments she discusses here: The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction (New York 2010). In this excellent, if overpriced (for little more than 300 small-format pages with only black-and-white illustrations of mostly mediocre quality) book, Zarmakoupi examines in depth the emergence and floruit of the Campanian “luxury villa” from the mid first century B.C.E. to the destruction of these villas during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Specifically, Zarmakoupi is concerned with how architects designed Roman villas on the Bay of Naples to accommodate their elite patrons’ desire to surround themselves with signs of their wealth and erudition and to incorporate beautiful views of the land and sea.

Of the many known villas of this type, which Varro, writing in the mid first century B.C.E., called villae urbanae, as opposed to simpler agricultural villas, villae rusticae, Zarmakoupi focuses on five—the Villa of the Papyri, Villa A at Oplontis, and three villas at Stabiae (Villas Arianna A and B and the Villa San Marco)—and treats them in detail in chapter 2 as “case studies.” Of these, the best known by far is the Villa of the Papyri, named for its private library housing a treasure trove of papyrus manuscripts. Although recent excavations have brought to light new evidence about the multistory nature of the villa and the character of the lower terraces, conceptually our picture of life at that villa is no different than what we could glean from Karl Weber’s unprecedentedly meticulous records of his work in the 18th century. In contrast, the latest discoveries at Villa A at Oplontis have dramatically changed our perception of the complex. When excavated and published by Alfonso De Franciscis in the 1970s, the villa, which yielded an extensive series of high-quality Second Style frescoes, appeared to date primarily to the mid first century B.C.E. and to have a compact plan. We now know that the villa had a sprawling plan with multiple wings, a large garden and pool, and Third and Fourth Style murals dating to the Augustan and Claudian periods. The accounts of the three Stabian villas are comparably up to date.

The next four chapters deal in turn with each architectural element that Zarmakoupi identifies as a core feature of Roman luxury villas: porticus and cryptoporticus; porticoed garden; pools, water channels, and fountains; and dining areas. It is noteworthy that the central feature of a Roman domus—the atrium and its associated tablinum in which the patrician paterfamilias received clients—is not a major element of Roman villa design. Indeed, the Campanian luxury villas do not have any single focal point. This “casual” organizational scheme underscores the differing functions of the urban residences of the Roman elite and their country and seaside retreats.

The first category, the colonnaded walkway, which is almost the defining feature of villas, could extend for lengths impossible in an urban domus. These porticos and cryptoporticos effectively evoked the luxury of the Hellenistic East and were the perfect architectural expression of the life of leisure (otium in contrast to negotium). The Campanian villas’ porticoed gardens also emulated Hellenistic palaces and exemplify the Roman thirst to bring nature into the built environment. The widespread incorporation of waterworks in these villas—a prime example of the creation of “interior landscapes” in villae urbanae—was made possible by Roman advances in hydraulic engineering and the proliferation of aqueducts, branches of which supplied abundant amounts of water to these luxurious country homes. Lavishly appointed triclinia were also key elements of “the good life” on the Bay of Naples because they were the primary loci for learned conversation, often in the presence of Greek mythological paintings, and for the display of wealth in the form of haute cuisine served on silver tableware and frequently accompanied by entertainment by musicians and other performers.

The concluding chapter, which summarizes the main points of the author’s central thesis, is of special interest, at least for this reviewer, for Zarmakoupi’s comparisons to luxurious private residences of later eras, for example, the Villa Medici at Fiesole and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

In the preface, Zarmakoupi frames the originality of her approach to the study of Roman villa design as moving “beyond a formal analysis of architecture to expose the cultural factors that informed and shaped the architectural expression of the luxury villa trend, and address the ways in which contemporary ideas about landscape were integrated into the architectural design of Roman luxury villas” (1). This is not really a new approach, but Zarmakoupi’s volume is the most thorough and nuanced treatment of the subject of which I am aware. The author fully achieves her goal of analyzing “the ways in which the design of individual architectural structures and/or features of luxury villas accommodated the lifestyle that was intertwined and became identified with the luxury villa trend” (13). Congratulations are in order. This book is a must-read for all Pompeianisti and, more generally, for all students of Roman architecture as a cultural, not merely a stylistic and technological, phenomenon.

Fred S. Kleiner
Department of History of Art and Architecture
Boston University

Book Review of Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE–79 CE), by Mantha Zarmakoupi

Reviewed by Fred S. Kleiner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Kleiner

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