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Villa of Poppaea

Description of the Villa

The villa was first discovered in 1590 during the construction of the Sarno Canal when excavators cut through the southern end of the villa, but little was done at that time to explore the site further.  Between 1839 and 1840 excavations restarted, uncovering part of the peristyle and garden area, but due to lack of funds work was again suspended. It wasn't until 1964 that work finally commenced on a full scale excavation of the villa. Work continued there until the mid 1980s, uncovering about 60% of the villa.
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The first pyroclastic surge, the same one that killed the residents of Herculanem, also engulfed Oplontis. No human remains have been found here, so it is assumed that the residents had already fled. (In fact, the villa appears to have been uninhabitated, being devoid of furniture and with building material stored in several rooms). The pyroclastic layers found in the villa's swimming pool were particularly useful in reconstructing the sequence of events that occurred after the initial eruption; studies were even able to determine that the pool contained water at the time.

The villa is believed to have belonged to Poppaea Sabina, the second wife of the Emperor Nero - certainly its size and lavish decoration indicate that its owner must have been considerably wealthy. The villa was built in two main phases. The oldest part of the house centres round the atrium (a) and dates from the 1st century BC. The house was later extended to the east. This new wing housed a number of reception and service rooms set in extensive gardens overlooking a large swimming pool. These improvements were on going at the time of Vesuvius's eruption.
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The atrium has no rooms off either its east or west sides, but leads directly to a second hall (b) which acts as the hub for the original building. On the north side of this hall is a viridarium (c) (pictured right), a small enclosed garden, the walls of which are decorated with red and black panels containing garden scenes with images of plants and birds along the lower frieze. On the north side of this is a large reception room (d) with little remaining decoration.

A door off the south west side of this hall leads past the kitchen (e) on the right to the triclinium (f) (pictured opposite and below). The white mosaic floor of this room offsets the vibrant colours of the second style frescoes which decorate the walls.
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Two porticoes link the rooms on the southern side of the villa. The porticoes have white mosaic floors with bands of black. The walls are decorated in the fourth style with red panels above a lower black frieze. The upper zone is decorated with garlands and architectural motifs on a white ground.  In the north east corner of the western portico is a richly decorated cubiculum (l) (pictured right). The walls and ceiling a finely decorated in the second style with a stuccoed arch over the bed recess.
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An equally richly decorated room can be found in the north west corner of the eastern portico. This room (m), an oecus, is decorated in the second style
with themes based around perspective views of theatrical backdrops (scaenae frons) (the west wall of the room is pictured opposite).
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On the north wall the detail includes
a basket of fruit covered by a veil and, on the cornice, a glass bowl with pomegranates. The south wall includes images of a cluster of grapes, a pheasant and a cake placed upon a tray (ferculum).

A door in the south east corner of hall (b) leads past the lararium (n) on the left to an internal court (p), colonnaded on all four sides. The peristyle (pictured right) has small columns joined to a low wall decorated with plants and birds on a red ground. In the central garden is a fountain similarly decorated. The floor of the colonnade is in cocciopesto with marble insets. The rooms off the four sides of this peristyle appear to be mostly service rooms including cubicula for use by the domestic servants and in the north east corner, the villa's latrines (o).

Off the north east corner of the peristyle a long, high corridor (pictured lower right) leads to the newer east wing set in gardens overlooking the swimming pool. The corridor, which is paved in
cocciopesto, has stone benches lining its walls and is lit from above by clerestory windows. The walls of this link corridor are decorated in the fourth style.


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The Tuscan style atrium (a) (pictured above), which would have been entered from the south, has a central impluvium with a reconstructed compluvium above. Much of the atrium's original floor has survived. It consisted of white mosaic embellished with a polychrome border. The walls are richly decorated in the second style with illusionary architecture and views of distant landscapes glimpsed behind doorways and through the columns of porticoes. A detail from the fresco on the east wall is pictured left.
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The frescoes' trompe l'oeile colonnades and architectural features serve as frames for motifs such as peacocks, theatrical masks and emblems of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Couches originally lined the three walls, with a central table for the diners.
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Immediately to the west of the triclinium is a large oecus (g). One of the finest rooms in the villa, it commanded spectacular views over the Bay of Naples to the south. The white mosaic floor features a black border round the walls and includes inserts of coloured marbles. The room is finely decorated in the second style. The east wall (pictured above and left) displays perspective views of colonnades either side of a central painting of the sanctuary at Delphi depicting the traditional theme of a tripod placed atop a column. The fresco includes some fine detail such as the theatre mask and peacock captured in the photo opposite.

The north side of the oecus opens onto a small tetrastyle atrium (h) (pictured left) that serviced the villa's private baths.
Room (i) was possibly an apodyterium or perhaps a frigidarium. Next to this was the tepidarium (j) and, on the east side of the atrium, the caldarium (k). Both the tepidarium and caldarium were heated by means of warm air circulating under the floor while the hotter caldarium had additional heat supplied through
hollow terracotta slabs incorporated into the walls. Both rooms were decorated in the second style in reds, yellows and black with stylised details and panels with landscapes.
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On the wall of the niche on the east side of the caldarium (pictured above and left) is a large fresco of the mythological scene of Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides which is echoed in the central panels of the adjoining walls. Along the upper frieze are a series of fine miniature landscapes.
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In the centre of the wing overlooking the swimming pool is a large hall (r), the walls of which were veneered with coloured marbles surmounted by a white upper zone. The floor was in opus sectile. On either side are reception rooms (two to the north and one to the south). They appear to be cubicula, perhaps for guests to the villa.
Connected to each room was a small viridarium, painted to evoke a garden and its statuary.



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