Villa Oplontis, Where Nero’s Wife Lived

It is a grand residential building near Pompeii built in the mid-First century BC

By Amalfi Coasting

The 1st century BC imperial Villa Poppaea, or Villa Oplontis, just three miles from Pompeii, was apparently owned by the Emperor Nero, and believed to have been used by his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, as her main residence when she was not in Rome.

The first pyroclastic surge, the same one that killed the residents of Herculanem, also engulfed Oplontis. But no human remains have been found here. It is therefore assumed that the residents had fled the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, or that the villa was uninhabitated at that time (being devoid of furniture and with building material stored in several rooms).

The villa was first discovered in the eighteenth century during the construction of the Sarno Canal, which cut through the central hall of the villa.

Between 1839 and 1840 explorations of the site were undertaken by Bourbon excavators who removed several paintings from the villa.

The excavators used a tunneling technique that was also employed at Herculaneum, and uncovered part of the peristyle and garden area. Excavations continued again from 1964 until the mid-1980s, at which point the site was excavated to its current level.

It was during this final round of excavations that the massive swimming pool was unearthed.

The villa’s southernmost portions have been left unexcavated because of the physical limitations of the complex, which has been compromised by its position beneath the modern city of Torre Annunziata and the construction of the Sarno Canal.

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Villa Oplontis is momentous for its sheer size, as well as outdoor garden areas, pergolas and porticos. More than one hundred rooms have thus far been excavated. The rooms are themselves renowned for their sumptuous frescoes with give stunning decorative details that recount the good life in ancient times. 

According to scholars Villa Poppaea was a model on which many of the more modest city houses of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum were based.

The villa was built in two main phases. The oldest part of the house centres round the atrium and dates from the 1st century B.C. 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

The oldest part of the house centers round the atrium (#1 on the map - see photo below) and dates from the middle of 1st century B.C.

The Tuscan style atrium, which would have been entered from the south, has a central impluvium. 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.

The atrium has no rooms off either its east or west sides, but leads directly to a second hall, which acts as the hub for the original building.

On the north side of this hall is a viridarium (#25), an 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 with little remaining decoration. A door off the south west side of this hall leads past the kitchen (#2) on the right to the triclinium (#6). The white mosaic floor of this room offsets the vibrant colors of the second style frescoes that decorate the walls.

The frescoes' trompe l'oeil 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.

Immediately to the west of the triclinium is a large oecus (#5). 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 colored marbles. The room is finely decorated in the second style.

The east wall 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 that serviced the villa's private baths. On the east side of the atrium, there were the tepidarium (#4) and the caldarium (#3). They were both heated by means of warm air circulating under the floor, but 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 stylized details and panels with landscapes.

Attention to realistic perspective is abandoned in favor of flatness and elongated architectural forms.

On the wall of the niche on the east side of the caldarium is a large fresco of the mythological scene depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides (see photo below).

It was painted in the "Third Style" (also called the Ornate Style) dating to ca. 25 B.C.-40 A.D.

Along the upper frieze are a series of fine miniature landscapes.

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. The walls and ceiling a finely decorated in the second style with a stuccoed arch over the bed recess.

An equally richly decorated room can be found in the north west corner of the eastern portico. This room, an oecus, is decorated in the second style with themes based around perspective views of theatrical backdrops.

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.

A door in the south east corner of hall leads past the lararium (#23 - see below) on the left to an internal court, colonnaded on all four sides.

The peristyle (#22) 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 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 (#21).

Off the north east corner of the peristyle a long, high corridor (#20) leads to the newer east wing set in gardens overlooking the swimming pool (#14 - see below).

In the center of the wing overlooking the swimming pool is a large hall, the walls of which were veneered with colored marbles surmounted by a white upper zone.

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 (#16), painted to evoke a garden and its statuary.

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Entrance: Via dei Sepolcri, Torre Annunziata (Naples)Visiting hours 1st April – 31st October:    daily from 8.30 am to 7.30 pm (admission closes at 6 pm) 1st November – 31st March: daily from 8.30 am to 5 pm (admission closes at 3:30 pm) You can buy tickets for the five sites HEREHow to get there By train: Circumvesuviana Naples-Sorrento (Torre Annunziata Stop) Circumvesuviana Naples-Poggiomarino (Torre Annunziata Stop)By car: A3 Naples-Salerno Motorway (Torre Annunziata Sud Exit)

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Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum are just 30 to 50 miles from one of the most beautiful areas in Italy, the Amalfi Coast. Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, are its most well-known towns, but at the heart of the Costiera is a fourth jewel, Praiano, a much less hectic and more authentic town, where many discerning tourists have begun to stay, using a a base for their Amalfi Coasting. Try Praiano, trust us!