Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

The found world of Oplontis May 10, 2016 by Michele Corriel • Published 05/10/16

Regina Gee, Oplontis
MSU art history professor specializing in ancient art Regina Gee works on a fresco from Villa Oplontis in Italy.

Between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., Rome transformed itself from a small republic into an empire with resources and a grasp of power that defined its status as the center of Western civilization. It was a world that encompassed the green hills of England and the pyramids of Egypt. Elite Roman senators spent money from their conquests developing luxurious getaways.

The lifestyles of those ancient Romans, as revealed through the art and architecture of their era, have long fascinated the contemporary world. A particularly enlightening glimpse into the life of extravagantly affluent Roman society was revealed just in the last few decades as archeologists excavated ancient sites on the Bay of Naples, once the location of villas that were second homes to Rome’s wealthiest citizens. These sites have revealed priceless treasures buried for centuries in the ashes of Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 A.D.

Villa Oplontis, one of the many great seaside villas strung around the coastline of the Bay of Naples like a pearl necklace, attracted the wealthy from all over the empire. It was, in essence, a “Yellowstone Club” for the Roman upper crust. As these elite patrons located their villas around the breathtaking landscapes, they made sure every architecturally framed vista opened up to magnificent views of both the mountains and the sea. It is even believed that Nero’s second wife, Augusta Sabina Poppaea, owned the Villa Oplontis for a time before she met her early death in 65 A.D. at the emperor’s hand.

An exhibit of more than 140 artifacts curated from the exquisite Villa Oplontis will visit Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies from June 18 until Dec. 31. MSU is one of just three locations in the U.S., and the only one west of the Mississippi, to be visited by Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. The exhibit is coming to Bozeman because one of its curators, Regina Gee, MSU art history professor specializing in ancient art, is a contributing scholar for the project. Gee, who has a doctorate in Roman art and architecture from the University of Texas, became involved in Oplontis as a graduate student, and she is now one of the world’s experts on the paintings and frescoes found at the site.
Many of the artifacts coming to the Museum of the Rockies are those Gee said she fell in love with while on-site in Naples during seven summer seasons working on the excavation. They range from marble sculptures and paintings to objects from daily life, such as dice and oil lamps.

The exhibit currently is at the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan. After its time at MSU, it will travel to the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Mass., before returning to Torre Annunziata, Italy. And since the MOR exhibit is larger than the other two museum spaces, the show in Bozeman will really be a one-of-a-kind experience, Gee said.

“(The Oplontis exhibit will) draw crowds and be a teaching platform,” said Sheldon McKamey, executive director of the Museum of the Rockies, who credited the vision and talent of Pat Leiggi, director of exhibits and the exhibits team of Dave Kinsey and Jeff Holloway with creating the display.

Rome’s ‘1-percenters’

To really understand the historical importance of Villa Oplontis, it is important to take a step back to the era of the Roman Empire—the time of Nero, of Cleopatra and of Christ.

Located in the lush and temperate area the Italians still call Campania, the neighboring town of Pompeii had its origins as a settlement—a multicultural trading post next to the Sarno River, populated by Greeks, Etruscans and indigenous peoples like the Samnites and the Oscans. Gee explains that once the Roman general Sulla annexed the city (and renamed it, partially after his own family, the Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum), it was absorbed into Roman Italy. Within 30 years, the Villa Oplontis was built outside of Pompeii. Gee said the owner would have been a wealthy Roman of the senatorial class taking advantage of the new and very scenic real estate available for luxury consumption.

“Pompeii was an upper-middle-class town. Oplontis was where the wealthiest of Romans went to get away from the dust and the politics of Rome,” Gee explained. “This is the 1 percent.”

Although it was known from an ancient Roman road map, the site was deeply buried following the historic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Near the current day town of Torre Annunziata, the site of the ancient, opulent villa was first discovered by accident in 1590 when the Count of Sarno built a canal and discovered the ruins, but he didn’t do anything with them.

In 1734, Charles of Bourbon, Prince of Naples, wanted to create his own collection of artifacts from the ancient ruins—statues mostly—and attempted to treasure hunt the site. In a happy circumstance, his tunnelers hit the slave quarters and the kitchen, in one case missing a marble sculpture by mere inches, so the most precious finds remained undiscovered.

Finally in 1964, the Italian Ministry of Culture funded restoration to reconstruct Villa Oplontis, uncovering the luxury villa, swimming pool, carefully designed gardens, frescoes, mosaics and an array of sculptures. After extensive excavation and restoration by the Italian archaeological team, Villa Oplontis was opened to the public, becoming a destination for those tourists already on the Bay of Naples to visit Pompeii.

In 2005, John R. Clarke, an art historian and expert on Roman antiquities based at the University of Texas, approached Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, about resuming the scholarly work begun by the Italians and expanding it to include the publication of all aspects of the Villa, such as building history, decoration and all related finds. Clarke became co-director of the Oplontis Project, and he invited Gee, once his graduate student, to participate in the project as the Roman wall painting/fresco specialist. She has been involved in the project since 2007.

“When I walked into the villa … I was completely overwhelmed,” Gee said of her initial research season.
Gee explained that the design of Villa Oplontis “Villa A,” an expansive resort compound boasting 60 rooms and 99 spaces, was designed to entertain its guests with sumptuous delights—food, birds, flowers, architecture, water features and painted fresco walls.

Examples of the over-the-top indulgences enjoyed at the Villa Oplontis include alabaster thresholds, intricate mosaic floors, display fountains, marble statues and even what the Oplontis team believes to be an infinity pool, where water from the 60-meter swimming pool dropped off the 40-foot cliff at the edge of the villa. A series of large-scale marble sculptures, including portraits of the family, mythological gods and creatures, lined the edge of the swimming pool to reflect in the water. Among the statues coming to Bozeman is Nike, her once bronze wings now gone.

“At the time of the eruption, we believe the villa was in the midst of a renovation,” Gee said. “While we have objects relating to daily life, including things like oil lamps, we do not have the material remains of occupation: food left in cooking pots, etc., like you sometimes see at Pompeii.”

Style history

It was Gee’s responsibility to document the opulent paintings and frescoes, which were found on walls, ceilings and even columns. Many used trompe l’œil, or trick of the eye, to create illusionary images on the wall: shelves with birds on the ledges, sumptuous curtains parting to reveal a window to legendary scenes, or bowls of fruit so real one might try to pick one. The frescoes are vital because the vast majority of ancient Roman frescoes in existence are the ones from Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as Villa Oplontis, Gee said. In fact, with three of the four successive styles of frescoes present, the Villa Oplontis contains the history of Roman wall painting in a sort of “style history” that extends for more than a century.

Gee began her research by making sketches, taking notes and filming the walls, trying to find her way into a world that disappeared nearly two millennia ago. Each time she sat down she’d learn something new, she said. The more she studied the paintings, the more she came to understand how they worked in the villa, “and how they were a mechanism that connected with the viewers by engaging, entertaining and even directing them as part of the leisurely experience.”

Gee said she “listened” for the human voice in the paintings, not the edicts handed down from ruler to ruler, which is a unique perspective.

“It is the cultural context that will let you retrieve a human voice,” she said. “Understanding that context means embracing the role of ‘history detective’ to research and explore many different categories of evidence in a painting, sculpture or building. Art history was always the discipline that I loved absolutely and fiercely because of the power of the connection to human perception, emotion and experience. Art history is history, after all—one where visual material forms the principal object of study for a given culture.”

Clarke commends Gee’s work on the project.

“On any given work day, I would find (Gee) studying and describing in precise detail the beautiful but dizzyingly complex frescoes throughout the villa,” Clarke said. “Her descriptive catalogue, soon to be published in the second volume of the Oplontis Villa A series, surpasses all earlier attempts to capture the beauty and complexity of these dazzling frescoes.”

Currently, the Oplontis team is working on exploring a second and possibly related site with the modern name of “Villa B.” It is located near the first villa and a bit closer to the coastline, most likely for purposes of trade. At Villa B, many large transport containers were found in the courtyard, apparently waiting to be filled. They are thought to be strong evidence for commerce in wine. The wine itself may well have been produced from grapes grown in vineyards belonging to Villa A. This trade could have supplied a steady income for the owners of both establishments. Other foodstuffs found in Villa B include large quantities of pomegranates, hay and walnuts.

The most important and poignant finds from Villa B are the skeletal remains of 54 people who died while trying to escape the eruption. They huddled as a group in a vaulted storage space, waiting, it seems, for a rescue from the direction of the sea, Gee explained. Many pieces of gold jewelry and more than 300 gold and silver coins found with the skeletons speak to the wealth that they carried with them in their futile bid for safety and flight. Some of those artifacts will be on display at the Museum of the Rockies show.
Gee said that the Italian government granted special permission for the exhibit. Once the artifacts leave the United States, they will not leave Italy again because of Italian cultural property laws surrounding any artifacts discovered in Italy and the country’s long history of stolen art.

Clarke said that it was Gee who first proposed the idea of the exhibition in the summer of 2009, as the researchers were winding down from their longest excavation season at Oplontis.

“We had already made major discoveries among the thousands of fragments of wall painting that we were cleaning, photographing and cataloging,” Clarke recalled. “I found her proposal compelling, and immediately drafted a letter to the representative of the Italian Ministry of Culture requesting permission to bring the glories of Oplontis to the United States in a major loan exhibition. I thank Regina for her vision and for her steadfast devotion to the Oplontis Project over these past 10 years.” ■