Views of the northern/rear side of the villa which is today's entrance to it; (inset) detail of Tabula Peutingeriana, a Vth century AD map of the roads of the Roman Empire showing Oplontis between Herculaneum and Pompeii
Tabula Peutingeriana is the only record we have of Oplontis, which most likely was a suburb of Pompeii and not a town of its own. XVIIIth century excavations via underground passages, similar to those at Herculaneum identified a large villa by the ancient coastline. Open air excavations were carried out between 1964 and 1984 and they unearthed a large section of the villa which is situated in the very centre of Torre Annunziata, a town which was built after another eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1631. The villa is named after Poppaea Sabina, second wife of Emperor Nero, who is believed to have lived there (see how beautiful she was in a statue found at Olympia).
The main front of the villa was on the seaside where most likely additional excavations would find evidence of a landing point. This feature supports the opinion that the landlords and their guests reached and left the villa by sea, which means it is unlikely they were wealthy citizens of Pompeii. The atrium which served as entrance to the villa had an impluvium, a sunken basin for collecting rainwater. It did not have side openings.
The atrium, as well as other parts of the villa, is decorated with paintings of the second Pompeii style which was characterized by the illusionistic depiction of architectural elements, such as steps, columns, doors, etc. Elements such as tripods and hanging bronze shields added to the three-dimensional effect of the painting. The decoration of the atrium had the purpose to impress visitors with the luxury of the villa from the first hall they saw.
Main triclinium (dining room)
The western side of the villa was in part flanked by the coastline and it contained halls and facilities for the entertainment of the landlords and their guests. The villa had a large peristyle by the sea front and a portico along a pool on the eastern side. These two locations could be used for open air banquets in the good season. More formal dinners took place in a hall near the atrium, but not immediately accessed from it. Archaeologists found the kitchen where meals were prepared in an adjoining room.
The decoration of the room is based on architectural elements designing a sort of open portico through which one can see statues and gates. The painter however added some unexpected details such as a basket of figs or small views with buildings and statues which show that he was proficient in still nature and landscape painting to a degree that we usually associate with Renaissance masters.
Those who attended the banquet could then move to an adjoining room which had a view over the sea. Only the wall it shares with the triclinium retains its decoration. It is perhaps the most impressive one of the whole villa. It depicts an open door and five windows. In the centre we see the tripod of the Oracle of Delphi which was sacred to Apollo: the legs through the door and the tripod itself through a circular window above it. The four side windows frame two colonnades. Overall the painting is a symbolic depiction of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi.
Detail of the Hall of the Tripod showing a theatrical mask and a peacock
The peacock shall have precedence of all the rest, as much for its singular beauty as its superior instinct, and the vanity it displays.
When it hears itself praised, this bird spreads out its gorgeous colours, and especially if the sun happens to be shining at the time, because then they are seen in all their radiance, and to better advantage. At the same time, spreading out its tail in the form of a shell, it throws the reflection upon the other feathers, which shine all the more brilliantly when a shadow is cast upon them; then at another moment it will contract all the eyes depicted upon its feathers in a single mass, manifesting great delight in having them admired by the spectator. (..) The orator Hortensius was the first Roman who had the peacock killed for table; it was on the occasion of the banquet given by him on his inauguration in the college of the priesthood. M. Aufidius Lurco was the first who taught the art of fattening them, about the time of the last war with the Pirates. From this source of profit he acquired an income of sixty thousand sesterces.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book X - translation by John Bostock and H.T. Riley.
Pliny helps us understand why peacocks were so popular among the Romans.
Other details of the decoration of the Hall of the Tripod: (left) upper part of the tripod; (right) bronze torch, of a design which is found in coins minted at Alexandria
The tripod was used as a sort of altar for ceremonies, but that at Delphi had also another use, because Pythia, the priestess, sat on a circular slab placed on it when she delivered her oracles. The painter of Villa di Poppea depicted laurel branches which were sacred to Apollo behind the tripod. Another tripod, known as the Serpent Tripod, was removed from Delphi to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine.
Fountain and mosaic floor of the baths
A door in the Hall of the Tripod led to a small room with a fountain from which the private baths of the villa could be accessed. A wall separated them from the kitchen. The baths had a tepidarium, a room with mild heating and a calidarium, a hot room. The absence of a proper frigidarium, a cold room with a natatio, a bathing pool, can be explained by the existence of a very large pool in another part of the villa.
The walls of the calidarium were subject to major changes of temperature and humidity, yet the technique employed for painting them has proved very effective. Studies have found that the frescoes were polished and their adherence to the walls was strengthened by exerting pressure on them. They were subsequently protected by a thin layer of wax.
"Calidarium": details of its wall paintings: (left) Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, a very popular subject throughout the whole Roman Empire; (right) other details (another one can be seen in the image used as background for this page)
The paintings of the calidarium belong to the third style; it was based on fake architectures which however did not attempt to resemble real ones. Their purpose was limited to framing wide surfaces which contained other small decorative elements. This style was less time consuming than the previous one.
The area to the east of the atrium housed rooms for servants, a latrine, a hall with a lararium and a small peristyle with a low wall which surrounded a garden. It was decorated with white plants and birds against a uniform red background.
Small room between the atrium and the southern peristyle and a detail of its decoration; the roof at the centre of the fake architecture has a rather Chinese appearance
The paintings in second style of this room are similar to those in the triclinium and most likely the room was used for the same purpose, but for a smaller group of persons. The beautiful wicker fruit basket covered with a veil at the side of a torch was perhaps a reference to wedding ceremonies. Hymen, the god of such ceremonies, was usually portrayed holding a burning flame; brides wore a veil at the ceremony and fruit could be a reference to marriage in general.
This portico faces south and it is rather peculiar because it could be closed by doors or draperies to prevent its becoming too hot in summer and to keep in the shade some sleeping rooms which were accessed from it. These might have been used for the somnus meridianus, the midday rest.
Southern peristyle; (inset) detail of its fourth style decoration
Archaeologists have unearthed three sides of this peristyle. The fourth one either lies beneath the houses of Torre Annunziata or it might have never existed. In this case the courtyard/garden would have had a balustrade facing the sea, which today is some 300 meters away. The porticoes were supported by fluted stucco columns with a brick structure.
Overall Villa di Poppea is an L-shaped building with the long wing facing the sea and the short wing along the pool. The section at the junction of the wings has a peculiar layout with two identical pentagonal small halls. Their use is not clear, but their decoration indicates that access to them was reserved to the landlords and their guests.
The pool was an addition to the original design of the villa. It was used for swimming, but its main purpose was a decorative one. We can assume that the ground on its eastern side was planted and that some statues decorated it. Here the landlords and his guests walked about, similar to what Emperor Hadrian used to do at Villa Adriana.
Small gardens (in the foreground and in the background) inside the wing of the villa alongside the pool
The layout of the older part of the villa is structured around the atrium and it is similar to that of other Roman houses. The design and purpose of the wing alongside the pool is not very clear. It included three small closed gardens. The rooms were accessed from a portico on the western side of the pool and some of them had a window overlooking one of these gardens.
The gardens themselves have disappeared, but we can imagine their aspect by watching the beautiful paintings which embellished their walls. All the paintings follow the same scheme: a red background frames a golden panel in which trees, fountains and birds are depicted.
Trees and birds are frequent subjects of Roman paintings (see those at Villa di Livia near Rome), but nowhere else one can see such a rich catalogue of fountains. Those supported by a twisted column or by a sphinx are especially remarkable. It is possible that some of the rooms having a window overlooking these gardens were hospitalia, i.e. rooms for guests (presumably the most distinguished ones).
Hall in the wing of the villa alongside the pool
The wing alongside the pool included two large halls, one of which retains some of its original architectural elements, i.e. stucco niches and frames which enhanced the effect of the (lost) paintings. Other stuccoes decorated the (reconstructed) ceiling. It had windows overlooking two gardens.
Great Rear Hall
The death of Poppaea is usually recorded as having occurred in 65 AD. Regardless of the veracity about her having been the landlady of the villa, archaeologists believe that a change of ownership occurred shortly before 79 AD. The new landlords decided to provide their residence with a grand entrance from the land side. They built a large hall of approximately the same size of the atrium on the northern/back side of the complex. Its decoration was underway when Mt. Vesuvius erupted and the ashes covered Oplontis.
Portico at the side of the Great Rear Hall
The Great Rear Hall was flanked by two porticoes which were decorated in the fourth style with large red and yellow panels. Because of the lack of remains of food and of other signs of occupancy, archaeologists believe the villa was not populated at the time of the eruption.
Details of the marble and mosaic floors