Beauty and meaning in a Roman villa’s paintings

triclinium 2nd styleNobody knows who the villa belonged to except that they were wealthy, Roman, and keen to dazzle guests with their lavish residence on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius.  Not far from Pompeii in the town of Torre Annunziata, the 1st century villa was consumed by lava in the eruption of 79, an eruption so violent that it altered the coastline, creating a landfill so that homes like this one that once had sea views now were further inland.

detail of mural
This particularly lavish country home is variously known as Villa Poppea and  Villa Oplontis.  By any name, it offers a treasure trove of Roman painting styles and an ingenious decorative scheme designed to keep everyone in their rightful place during extended visits.

That last part, at least, is what the University of Texas team, headed by John Clark and Michael Thomas, believes may be the reason behind a most unusual zebra-stripe motif.  It covers the walls in the courtyard reserved for slaves–

Courtyard in the villa’s slave quarters

hallway with stripesand the same stripe motif reappears in some of the hallways throughout the villa.  Clark’s and Thomas’s thesis is that it let the slaves of guests — as well as the guests themselves — know which areas were reserved for guests and which were to be used by their slaves.  Very clever.

John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.
John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.

For more information about the work the University of Texas team, check out The Oplontis Project.

And for more on Roman painting styles, there is a fabulous free on-line Yale class which you can also take through Coursera.  My husband and I took it before traveling to Pompeii last year, and it proved invaluable — the class was the reason we made a point of going to Villa Oplontis where we had the unexpected good fortune of running into John Clark and Michael Thomas hard at work.

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