Villas Come Alive 2,000 Years After Vesuvius

By Susan Davidson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008

A rickety turnstile stands between the not-very-distinguished city of Castellammare di Stabia, 19 miles south of Naples, and Stabiae, a cluster of villas built by wealthy Romans more than 2,000 years ago. Walking through the ineffective barrier between the two, as I did in July, feels like taking a trip back to the 1st century B.C., when Stabiae became a resort town. Putting aside the discomfort of walking on a dusty, unpaved lane in sandals that seem to attract rather than repel stones, discovering where and how patrician Romans spent some of their leisure time is the kind of sightseeing people who love art and history live for.

With its stunning views of the Bay of Naples and nearby Mount Vesuvius, Stabiae was a playground for the glitterati of the day. Arriving by boat, they came to exercise their bodies as well as their minds, to talk about art and philosophy, and to enjoy the good weather, the view and locally made wine. But the end to all that came suddenly and dramatically with the eruption of Vesuvius on Aug. 24 in the year A.D. 79. Stabiae and the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under volcanic ash for almost two millenniums.

The entire area remained untouched until 1748, when engineers and soldiers were hired by the ruling Bourbon kings to find Pompeii. They dug tunnels and trenches and were rewarded by finding not Pompeii -- not at first, anyway -- but Stabiae's Villa San Marco, Villa Arianna and evidence of other homes of up to 200,000 square feet each, which tells us plenty about the wealth of their owners. When Pompeii was unearthed three miles to the north, around 1750, the king did not have enough manpower to explore both sites at the same time. Attention and workers were diverted to Pompeii, and Stabiae's tunnels and trenches were filled in to prevent weather damage and looting. The site remained closed and all but forgotten for another 200 years.

In 1950, Libero d'Orsi, a local high school principal, took it upon himself, with help from the school's janitor, to learn more about Stabiae. Working with their bare hands, they found astonishingly well-preserved remnants of villas. The frescoes had retained their original colors of red, black, white, yellow and pale green; the mosaics had kept their sharply contrasting black and white.

As I strolled around Stabiae, stones in my shoes aside, I loved turning a corner and being startled by the clarity of the murals' pastoral scenes, some with perspective. And there was room after room built on an axis to maximize the circulation of summer breezes and provide magnificent vistas of the bay. Because excavations are ongoing, a visitor can watch diggers sifting through 2,000-year-old ash, working under a canopy to shade them at least partially from the punishing sun.

Thinking about the drama of the site's history is moving. The inhabitants of the villas were not unmindful of the danger as they saw Vesuvius erupting, but many apparently thought the best way to escape was to descend from their hillsides and wait for rescue by boat. In fact, the ancient naturalist author Pliny the Elder launched galleys to rescue some friends (and to get a better look at the eruption) and was killed near Stabiae, presumably asphyxiated by poisonous gases or volcanic ash. Many people died on the beaches or drowned trying to flee.

And for romantic musings about Stabiae, we can choose between wondering what it must have been like to have lived (and been incredibly wealthy) in ancient times and, alternatively, what it might have felt like to be on the 18th-century archaeology team that unearthed such beautiful, unspoiled frescoes. We can even imagine what it would have been like to be a student hearing Libero d'Orsi talk about his findings.

No one is more concerned about the future of Stabiae than Washington architect Leo Varone. Like a character in an Italian opera, he speaks with great passion, and he uses the expressive hand gestures of his native Campania, a region that includes Stabiae, Herculaneum and Pompeii. Channeling his energy and knowledge, Varone and colleagues from his alma mater, the University of Maryland, formed the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preservation and education. (For more information, go to

"History repeats," Varone says. "Stabiae was the little sister to Herculaneum and Pompeii. It is a three-times-told story," with the small city overshadowed first in ancient times, then reburied in favor of Pompeii and even now in the shadow of the better-known excavation sites.

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