After 2,000 years, the villas at the foot of Mount Vesuvius remain the sleeping beauties of Western culture.
Even now, the expansive resort homes of ancient Roman society boast vaulted ceilings, gracious porticos and vast, if dusty, pools. Before the cataclysmic eruption of A.D. 79, dinner would have been taken in three-sided salons open to views of the Gulf of Naples. Walls were decorated with golden-haired goddesses in flowing garments. Fountains burbled in the middle of a swimming pool. One excavated garden is as big as a football field.
Painted images of Hermes and Minerva once watched over a 328-foot colonnade on a bluff overlooking the sea. Today, only fragments of the gods remain, and sculptures have found their way into museums. But a magnificent dining hall is sufficiently intact to have been reconstructed in the treasure show "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite," at the National Museum of Natural History through Oct. 24. Incredibly, the room's deep red walls are as vibrant as a freshly opened can of Benjamin Moore's Mediterranean Spice.
Like neighboring Pompeii and Herculaneum, Stabiae was also buried in the volcanic eruption of Aug. 24, 79. Rediscovery of these glamorous lost worlds in the 18th century sparked a revolution in the "neoclassical" style. How much of the passion was due to the appeal of classical symmetry and how much to the dramatic narrative is conjecture. But on the fateful day, a plume of ash darkened the noon sky. Within hours, Herculaneum disappeared under 60 feet of volcanic mud. Pompeii, five miles away, suffocated under ash and lava. Stabiae, then a century-old resort eight miles along the coast toward Sorrento, was buried by ash and pumice, but no lava. The ash is now credited with preserving the clear greens, pale blues and blood reds of the excavated frescoes, which are among the finest of their kind.
"These were the best artists of the Roman Empire," says Ornella Valanzano, an architecture student from Naples and visiting tour guide since the show opened in April.
For one more week, 72 objects, 28 of them frescoed cupids, satyrs and godlike creatures with pale pink flesh, give a glimpse of what was lost and has been found. The artifacts are on loan from Italy in a cultural agreement worked out with the State Department. To discourage the display of antiquities that may have been illegally procured, Italy has agreed to let more of its treasures travel to U.S. museums.
A sea-green perfume bottle from a Stabiae villa survives in all its delicacy. A sculpted alabaster urn still has handles. Mosaics of imported marble speak of wealth, though only a square foot of floor decoration remains.
Some experts view Stabiae as the site of the most luxurious dwellings in ancient Rome.
"Like Palm Beach," Valanzano says of the bluff above her home town of Castellammare di Stabia. "At that time, marble was more expensive than gold."
Senators and other elite Romans are believed to have been in residence there from 89 B.C. until the eruption. They took working vacations, conducting business in the atriums and making political deals at dinner. The houses were intentionally ostentatious; clout and prestige were conveyed through architecture and decoration. Frescoes at Stabiae span three stylistic periods. Most are rendered with impressionistic strokes. A theatrical mask of Tragedy, shown to the public for the first time, is from a later, more graphic period. All that remains is a fragment with eyes opened wide and mouth frozen in what looks like a shriek of terror.
Vesuvius erupted six more times. A major event in 1631 destroyed new towns at the base. But in the mid-18th century, a series of digs ignited interest across Europe and beyond. The English architect Robert Adam and pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood were among those inspired by Greco-Roman antiquities. So was George Washington, when the time came to choose symbols for the American democracy. Whether the name was Georgian, Federal or Empire, a neoclassical style emerged from lava and ash.
Coincidentally, the re-creation of an 18th-century tome, "The Complete Collection of Antiquities from the Cabinet of Sir William Hamilton" (Taschen, $200), conveys the sense of excitement that swept the capitals of culture. Hamilton (1730-1803), British envoy to Naples for more than 30 years, collected antiquities at Pompeii and Herculaneum and studied vulcanology. He amassed 730 classical vases, documented them in a 550-page treatise, then sold the collection to the British Museum in 1772. The book exerted a major influence on artistic circles of the day.
Digging at Stabiae was underway when Hamilton was in Naples. The king of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, sent an adventurer down a well in 1749. He found frescoes, which were removed to the palace. Digging continued sporadically until 1782, when the demand for workers at Pompeii took precedence. A map of tunnels was made, but Stabiae was simply reburied. In 1950, Libero d'Orsi, the principal of Valanzano's high school, got together with a janitor and an unemployed mechanic and began to dig anew.
Various authorities have taken over exploration. Now, two out of six villas can be visited. Archaeologists believe the entire edge of the plain overlooking Castellammare di Stabia is lined with villas. Sixty farms could lie behind them. The Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation is planning to develop the site as an archaeological park, with a museum, library, walkways, spa and funicular railway from Pompeii.
"We know there are a lot more," Valanzano says. "If we excavate, it's possible to find many more."