Visiting Poppea’s Villa
Emperor Nero is probably one of the most recognised names from Roman history- famed to have been fiddling around during the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. Nero considered himself an artist and was known to live lavishly building a vast sprawling palace in Rome called the Domus Aurea or ‘The Golden House’. Nero’s second wife Poppea also had her own sprawling mansion- in the countryside at a place once called Oplontis and far smaller to Nero’s palace in Rome but in a much better state of preservation.
Tucked away in a corner of the modern town of Torre Anunziata in the Campania region of Italy, Poppea’s house survives under the Clinical name of Villa A. It is a place very few people visit and on a Sunday afternoon even the roads leading to the Villa from the station wear a deserted and slightly seedy look. The streets are a jumble- narrow and filled with cars parked along the sides- the signposts announcing the UNESCO Heritage status declaration of the site seem incongruous and out of place. I finally see the huge depression in the landscape indicating a site excavation and I’m filled with the joy of arriving at an oasis of historical significance. The Villa of Poppea at Oplontis suffered the same fate as much of the rest of the region when Vesuvius erupted and was buried deep under the surface until excavated at more modern times.
At the time of my entry there was only one other person in the entire mansion and even he was buried deep in his guidebook- I guess places like these are the haunts of history geeks. The entry to the Villa promptly takes you into a grand room with wall paintings covering the surface of the walls which stretch at least 10 feet in every direction. There is no wait- no navigating through smaller uninteresting rooms before you set your eyes on the pièce de resistance- the second style Roman wall painting in its bold shades of red and gold contrasted with white take my breath away- especially because they are much better preserved than anywhere else I have seen so far in Italy. The theme is also awe-inspiring. A series of columns with peacocks and masks provide a vista into a grander colonnaded outdoor space with gardens. By now an elderly French couple have joined me and we are soon swapping notes on the motifs and the different styles of Ancient Roman wall painting.
We leave the room with reluctance imagining that there could be nothing more splendorous but after navigating through a series of pokey rooms which include the kitchen we reach a space of more salons decorated in the same architecturally realistic wall paintings. I love the way that the painters in those ancient times have brought out the veins of the yellow Numidian marble in the columns. This was after all the house of the Emperor’s consort- no expense had been spared. I try to imagine how much more grand the room would have been in its days of glory with bright mosaics on the floors, lavish furniture and other ornaments littering the rooms. Would we have found it overly gaudy?
(To Be Continued)