Located just five kilometres from Pompeii, the so-called Villa Poppaea at Oplontis in the modern city of Torre Annunziata is one of the finest examples of aristocratic Roman residences. Renowned for its magnificent frescoes and its majestic position overlooking the coast of Campania, Villa Poppaea was apparently owned by Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The villa was badly damaged in the AD 62 earthquake and then destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It was declared World Heritage by Unesco in 1997 along with Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The name of Oplontis is found on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval copy of an ancient map of the roads of the Roman Empire. It was part of the suburban area of Pompeii on which it depended administratively. The Villa Poppaea was built in two main phases. The oldest part of the building dates back to about the middle of the 1st century BC and was organised around a Tuscan atrium with magnificent paintings in Second Pompeian Style with illusionistic depictions of architectural elements and views of landscapes. The villa overlooked the sea to the south with a large peristyle and a large garden (viridarium) with porticoes to the north. Around the atrium were sumptuously decorated rooms for resting, dining and sitting.
The complex was later extended to the east. This new wing housed several reception and service rooms set in extensive gardens overlooking a vast swimming pool (61×17 metres). A large portion of the sculptures that decorated the villa were found around the swimming pool. These improvements were ongoing at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption.
According to an inscription on an amphora that refers to one of Poppaea’s slaves or freedmen (“SECUNDO POPPAEAE”), the villa may have belonged to the family of Nero’s second wife (the gens Poppaea).
After the Vesuvius eruption, the villa lay for centuries beneath six metres of layers of lapilli and ashes and then a thick layer of mud. It was first discovered in 1590 during the construction of the Sarno Canal which cut through the central hall of the villa. However, little was done at that time to explore the site further. The excavations of the site restarted between 1839 and 1840 and were undertaken by Bourbon excavators. Due to lack of funds, work was again suspended, and it was not until the mid-1980s that systematic excavations finally started on a full scale uncovering about 60% of the villa. More than one hundred rooms have been excavated so far.
A large number of artefacts from Oplontis are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) in Tivoli near Rome is an exceptional complex of classical buildings created by Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Almost immediately after becoming emperor, Hadrian made plans for an imperial villa in the countryside about 30 kilometres east of Rome. In ancient times it occupied about 120 hectares of land and was designed as an ‘ideal city’, combing the best elements of the architectural heritage of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Hadrian’s Villa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important cultural and archaeological site.
Thanks to the abundance of water and the beautiful hilly landscapes, the city of Tivoli, formerly known as Tibur, had been a popular retreat for important individuals and especially senators since the Republican era. Indeed, Hadrian created his Imperial residence on the site of a small Republican villa, possibly built on land owned by his wife Vibia Sabina (see map of pre-existing Republican and Augustan structures here). Occupying a low plain on the slopes of the Tiburtine Hills, Hadrian’s Villa was the richest and largest villa of the Roman Empire, generously spread out over 120 hectares (an area larger than Pompeii). The quantity of buildings, the originality and complexity of the architectural forms make the complex a unique monument in the history of ancient architecture.
The initial construction of the villa began a year after Hadrian’s assumption of power when he initiated the renovation of the existing structures into something magnificent. The monumental project was completed about 10 years later in 128 AD when the villa became Hadrian’s official residence. The Emperor travelled frequently and whenever he returned to Italy, Tibur was his preferred residence, away from the heat and bustle of Rome.
Designed for both business and pleasure, the villa contained many rooms that could accommodate large gatherings. A large court lived there permanently and many visitors and bureaucrats were entertained and temporarily housed on site. The vast residential complex was therefore almost always teeming with people. The servants lived in hidden rooms and moved around the site through a series of service tunnels which allowed them to transport the goods from one area to another, well out of sight of the emperor.
Archaeologists have identified some 30 buildings including palaces, thermal baths, a theatre, libraries, living quarters for the elite, lodgings for the servants as well as extensive gardens and dozens of fountains. Because Hadrian wanted to surround himself with reminders of his travels throughout the vast territories of the Empire, many structures had features and decorative sculptures copied from the various places the emperor visited.
His villa at Tibur was marvellously constructed, and he actually gave to parts of it the names of provinces and places of the greatest renown, calling them, for instance, Lyceum, Academia, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile and Tempe. And in order not to omit anything, he even made a Hades. Historia Augusta
Named for the ancient city near Alexandria in Egypt, the Canopus is believed to represent the Nile Delta that Hadrian visited in 130 AD where his lover Antinous drowned that same year. The colonnade of the Canopus was supported by caryatids like those of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens. Greek and Egyptian culture and architecture were obviously reflected in his villa and since Hadrian was very interested in architecture and was himself a capable architect, it is highly likely that he took part in the design and planning of the villa.
A detailed study of the buildings, and especially of the brick stamps, allowed the reconstruction of the chronology of the hadrianic buildings. Two phases of constructions, marked by the travels of Hadrian, have been identified. The first phase of construction, which witnessed the greatest amount of building activity, extended until 125 AD when Hadrian returned from the first of his great journeys in Greece and in the East. Hadrian resided at the villa in the summer of 125 AD and probably stayed there until he embarked on his second journey in 128 AD.
Phase I (118-125 AD): Maritime Theatre, Hall of the Philosophers, Heliocaminus Baths, Pecile, Nymphaeum Stadium, Small and Large Baths.
Phase II (125-134 AD): Greek and Latin Libraries, Academia, Hundred Chambers, Piazza d’Oro, Canopus, Antinoeion.
After the death of Hadrian in 138 AD the villa was occasionally used by his various successors. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the villa fell into disrepair and was taken apart piece by piece over the centuries, with one local cardinal stripping off marble in the 16th century to build his own Villa d’Este located nearby. Proper excavations only started in 1870 by the Italian government and continue even today in part by the Italian archaeological authorities, in part by the various foreign academies in Rome.
Many beautiful artifacts have been unearthed at the Villa including marble statues, frescoes, mosaics and ornate architecture. Most statues have been removed from the villa, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, and are now displayed in major antiquities collections elsewhere in Europe and North America.
One of the most recent discoveries made in Hadrian’s Villa were the remains of a temple complex devoted to Antinous (the Antinoeion) which consisted of two small twin temples facing each other in front of a semi-circular colonnaded exedra.