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Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. Vol. 1, The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. Vol. 1, The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery

Edited by John R. Clarke and Nayla K. Muntasser (ACLS Humanities E-Book). American Council of Learned Societies, New York 2014. ISBN 978-1-59740-932-2 (e-book).

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This volume, produced by the Oplontis Project, presents a long-awaited in-depth study of Villa A at Oplontis, modern Torre Annunziata, an important luxurious villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. This is an open access publication (;idno=heb90048.0001.001) of the American Council of Learned Societies in its Humanities E-Book series and is the first of three volumes that the Oplontis Project will produce. While the first volume introduces the ancient, modern, and natural history of the site, the other two volumes will focus on the villa’s decoration (vol. 2) and on excavation results of the Oplontis Project (vol. 3).

Clarke and Muntasser contextualize the study of Villa A by gathering contributions on the cultural context and ancient setting of the villa, accounts of the modern rediscovery of the villa since the late 16th century, the first excavations in the 20th century, and the excavation of its gardens, as well as analyses of artistic representations of nature and botanical evidence found in the villa. An appendix presents scans and transcripts of the notebooks and other documentation of the excavations between 1964 and 1988. Chapters 2–4 are presented in both Italian and English. The reproduction of excavation documentation and the inclusion of bilingual articles are luxuries that increasingly only online publications can afford.

The volume starts with a discussion of life and culture in luxury villas by Gazda (ch. 1). She conducts a contextual analysis of relevant ancient texts and recent debates on architecture and decoration, presenting other villa sites around the Bay of Naples. Gazda’s account shows the variety of villa types and sizes vis-à-vis the topographical situation, purpose, and context of each site and, in doing so, offers a concise and insightful overview of the luxury villa phenomenon in Campania. In chapter 2, Fergola presents the structures known around the villa to highlight the similarities between Oplontis and Stabiae. Both urban centers featured residential nuclei with some public infrastructure (e.g., baths) within the area administered by Pompeii. These analyses of the ancient setting of Villa A are complemented by the important geoarchaeological study of the Oplontis coast in chapter 4 by Di Maio. This study shows that the villa was on the edge of a cliff about 14 m above a beach, similar to other luxurious maritime villas in the region (e.g., Villa of the Papyri and Villa San Marco). In his hypothetical reconstruction of the Oplontis coast, Di Maio proposes that the side pinakes on the upper zone of the east wall of oecus 15 of Villa A feature portions that belonged to the actual ancient topography (fig. 4.5)—following Leach’s suggestion that the pinakes depict reflections of the surrounding landscape (The Rhetoric of Space: Literary and Artistic Representations of Landscape in Republican and Augustan Rome [Princeton 1988] 104–5).

Chapters 3 and 5 discuss the history of the excavations at and around the villa. Marasco presents a detailed history of the excavations in the area of Torre Annunziata since the late 16th century (355–428) and during the 20th century (429–661). His fascinating account moves from the accidental discoveries in the late 16th century and the more systematic excavations of the late 18th and mid 19th centuries under regional administrations to the heroic efforts of local antiquarians in the 20th century. The history of the excavations at Villa A is dealt with in more detail by Clarke, who conducts a meticulous analysis of the excavation notebooks (reproduced in the appendix), drawings, and photographs (accompanying the text) to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the site. He provides a detailed account of the 20th-century excavations (1964–1988), for which excavation notebooks were not kept from the beginning (“The Lost Years, 1964–1971”) and were at times not methodical. The lack of excavation records is further aggravated by the simultaneous reconstruction of walls and wall paintings as well as the construction of protective roofs. Clarke presents a remarkable archaeology of the archive, a tour de force that showcases how the study of archives can contribute to our understanding of the history of a site.

In chapter 6, Gleason offers not only a thorough analysis of the 1974–1978 garden excavations at Villa A by Wilhelmina Jashemski but also an overview of Jashemski’s pioneering career in garden archaeology. Gleason analyzes the methods that Jashemski used for her work on the villa’s gardens and more broadly in the Pompeian region, drawing on her fieldbooks and unpublished memoirs as well as her publications. This is an important contribution to the history of garden archaeology. Gleason discusses the ways in which Jashemski reconstructed the villa’s garden design through the study of the root cavities, planting pots, and plant and pollen remains, as well as planting displays in wall paintings. The re-creation of the gardens in the 1980s followed the lines of the plants found during Jashemski’s excavation and served as an evocative image for the relation between art and nature, allowing us to test diverse interpretations of her findings. Gleason points out that there is no evidence for the recent re-creation of the north garden 56 by Anna Maria Ciarallo after the disturbance to the garden by infrastructure works in 2008. Ciarallo employed a new design bordered by reed fences in the manner of garden paintings (e.g., at Prima Porta), based on her excavation of the House of the Golden Bracelet at Pompeii (“Garden Re-creations”).

Continuing the theme of the relation between art and nature, Ricciardi examines the representation of plants and animals in the wall paintings of Villa A in chapters 7 and 8. Of the more than 90 rooms of the villa, 16 have wall paintings with representations of plants, and another 16 have paintings depicting animals. Ricciardi’s purpose is to understand the ancient natural landscape of the Vesuvian region. He identifies the species of 21 plants and six animals. With the addition of carbonized plant materials and macroremains from the villa, the number of plant species identified is 33. The great number of unidentified species points, however, to the intentional abstract representation and invention of animals and plants that characterizes Roman wall paintings.

The last two chapters report on recent timber, pollen, and phytolith analyses, rounding out the investigation of the natural history of the villa. Chapter 9 discusses studies of samples of carbonized wood taken both from materials still in situ and from materials collected in boxes preserved in storage at Villa A (without provenance). From the charcoal extracted from the soil collected in north garden 56 and in courtyard 20, Di Pasquale, Moser, Allevato, and Nelle identified eight species of hardwoods, including a species of climbing plant (Smilax, bindweed) typically found in woodlands and hedgerows, as well as cypress (C. sempervirens) and silver fir (A. alba). The wood used for most of the structural elements of the villa is cypress and silver fir, while the beam in situ in lararium 27 (fig. 9.3) is spruce (P. abies). The widespread use of cypress in Villa A corroborates recent genetic studies that have demonstrated that—contrary to the assumption that this tree was indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean—plants in the cypress family were also present in Italy. Chapter 10, by Ermolli and Messager, presents pollen and phytolith analyses of samples taken from viridarium 20 in Villa A. The pollen taxons identified included trees: Myrtus (ascribed to the species M. communis L., true myrtle), Citrus (large shrubs or small trees of 5–15 m tall) and Castanea (probably from the chestnut tree in peristyle 32); and herbs: Brassicaceae (probably cabbage) and Ranunculaceae (possibly ornamental flowers). The absence of pollen from olives and vines—widely attested in the Pompeian region—could be explained by the restricted space of viridarium 20. The phytolith analysis was the first to be conducted in a garden of the Roman period, and it showed an abundance of bulliform cells, which could indicate either dry summer conditions or exceptional water availability related to irrigation in the garden. Both chapters exemplify paradigmatic studies for the recovery of historic landscapes and together with the chapters by Ricciardi and Gleason will be essential reading for students of garden archaeology.

In sum, the chapters in this volume offer both detailed analyses and broad overviews of the villa’s ancient setting, natural history, and excavation history. The editors have provided us with a stellar first publication of this important site.

Mantha Zarmakoupi
University of Birmingham

Book Review of Oplontis: Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy. Vol. 1, The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery, edited by John R. Clarke and Nayla K. Muntasser

Reviewed by Mantha Zarmakoupi

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Zarmakoupi

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