An exhibition in Arkansas of artifacts from Stabiae calls forth a long review
including the following, which might come in handy when teaching about the life of the Roman upper crust.
Democratically elected Roman officials owned these expansive pleasure palaces of ancient Stabia. The villas weren’t tiny time-share condos on a beach, but compounds with multiple bedrooms, dining rooms and pools that would dwarf the outsize mansions and outsize ambitions of even Jennings Osborne. “Some of these villas are over 120,000 square feet,” says Buckley. “We know [one villa] has a peristyle garden that is estimated to be the length of a football field.”
Naturally, it took oceans of money to build and maintain these vacation homes. Yet, much of the “In Stabiano” exhibit is devoted to the walls, ceilings and floors of the villas. There’s a reason that, outside of a few pots and lamps, day-to-day implements weren’t found in the hundreds in Stabia digs. “In Stabia, when the eruption occurred, they basically had a day to vacate their villas,” notes Buckley. “So they took the most precious objects that they could. And that’s why the excavation so far has not uncovered a lot of jewelry and those beautiful artifacts that you found in Pompeii because they [the Pompeians] had no time.”
But the frescoes, rich in detail and color, didn’t come cheap. “The wealth of the people is evident because they painted every square inch of these villas,” says Buckley. “The other indication is the quality of frescoes themselves.”
The starring attraction of “In Stabiano” is a reconstructed triclinium, or dining room. Patrons of the exhibit can walk in the room, which has three rich red walls adorned with intricate drawings of simple things such as ducks and various gods including Bacchus and Neptune. Young finds the triclinium an especially powerful piece. “I think it’s seeing two-dimensional art in a three-dimensional setting that makes it special,” he notes.
BUSINESS AND PLEASURE It wasn’t only art and living the good life that dominated life in the villas. These well-appointed seaside addresses were used by the owners as places for business, much as a Rolexwearing chief executive officer might wow a potential client with a wellstocked private jet today. The entourage that followed a well-connected villa owner was not small. “The power base [of the owners] came from the clientele that they had,” notes Buckley. “Some were known to travel with clientele in the thousands.”
Even in a place of relaxation, the strict hierarchical order of Roman society was preserved. Villas were constructed so as not to disturb the system of rank. “Villa Arianna had several dining rooms, and some were more important than others,” says Buckley. “Everybody knew their status. Everybody had a certain room.”
Movement through these vast villas was limited by where you stood on the societal ladder. The owner traveled freely throughout the house. However, the Roman version of bouncers guarded entrances to make sure a lower-class citizen did not enter an upper class room.
Oddly enough, the size of the rooms did not equal status. “The private spaces were not terribly large,” Buckley notes with amusement. “Their bedrooms looked like monk cells. Apparently, they didn’t spend much time in private.”
There were too many distractions in these Roman retreats to waste it all alone. Business might have been conducted, but the atmosphere was hardly frenetic or stressful. Philosopher Cicero said the days and nights at the resorts were filled with “lust, romance, adultery, dolce vita, banquets, song, music, boat rides.”
Another interesting aspect of “In Stabiano” is that it represents only a tiny portion of what yet might be unearthed. While the exhibit has work from four villas, it is known there are at least 40 more sitting under decades of dirt waiting to be discovered by archaeologists. Pompeii and Herculaneum, the other sites of archaeological importance in the Bay of Naples, have been picked through. “[Stabia] is the freshest site discovered and least polluted,” Buckley says.
Along those lines, the Italians hope that “In Stabiano” is just the beginning. It was only in 2002 that a new treaty for long-term loans of ancient Italian artifacts allowed the remains of the villas to travel to the United States. There is hope the display will goad tourists to maybe even board a plane and see the ruins up close.
But there’s the question: Can the jaded 21 st-century owners of flatscreen TVs and pocket computers care about ancient, pockmarked walls, even if the surfaces are brightened by gamboling gods and winged figures? “In many respects the culture of luxury villas is the same,” says Buckley. “It hasn’t changed much.”
There’s the hope: Looking at these artifacts, the gap between languages and the enormous gulf of time doesn’t seem that hard to leap. “I had a joke with one of the Italian gentlemen who was here,” Young says. “I speak a little Italian and he spoke even less English, but we were laughing when we pulled out the pan for the exhibit. It’s 2,000 years, and the pan is unchanged. It’s a frying pan. It’s exactly the same as you would buy in Home Depot.”