There are many enticing surprises awaiting visitors along the Gulf of Naples, beyond the hallowed and much-visited ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum whose fate was sealed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. One of these welcome surprises are the many beautiful objects on view in the recently restored and reopened 18th-century former Quisisana royal palace, turned into a museum. These wall-paintings, sculptures, and bronze and terracotta artefacts were dug up from what remains of the ancient city of Stabiae, much of which still lies buried under the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia, a few kilometres away from its more famous – and more fully excavated – sister-cities. Two of the many magnificent and well-preserved villas that dotted the countryside around Stabiae, complete with their original porticoes and beautiful rooms decorated with wall-paintings, can also now be visited (COVID-19 restrictions permitting) and are a source of delight for modern visitors as they must have been for their ancient owners and guests. Largely unknown to non-specialists, these villas provide a wonderful sense of personal discovery, of being able to unveil the private and intimate life of the inhabitants of dwelling places of great sophistication built two thousand years ago.
Stabiae is the original Latin name for the present-day town of Castellammare di Stabia, which sprawls over the plain lying between Pompeii and Sorrento at the south-western tip of the Neapolitan coast. Ancient Stabiae was built on a high headland overlooking the whole Gulf of Naples, the islands of Capri and Ischia, and Mount Vesuvius. Thanks to its magnificent geographical position and its particularly mild climate, Stabiae was inhabited from the 7th century BC, most likely by Oscan-speaking people – the native inhabitants of Campania – according to evidence found in 1957 in a large necropolis. The necropolis, in use from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC, housed more than three hundred graves, which contained local goods and imported pottery of Corinthian, Etruscan, and Attic origin, indicating that Stabiae was a port of some consequence.
The main settlement occupied the northern side of the Varano hill from where it was possible to keep control over the port and the road junctions leading inland. Thus Stabiae was an oppidum, a fortified city, of some strategic value until it was destroyed by general Sulla in 89 BC, in revenge for a revolt of some of Rome’s former allies during the so-called Social War of 90-88 BC. But as the 1st-century AD Roman author and admiral Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, the town was rebuilt soon afterwards and actually became – very rapidly – a fashionable resort for wealthy Romans who inhabited luxurious villas built along the ridge of the headland, enjoying panoramic views over the gulf and the surrounding mountains. Stabiae was also well known for the quality of its spring water, which was believed to have curative properties and fed the thermal baths much prized by its inhabitants.
According to an account written by his nephew Pliny the Younger in a letter to the historian Tacitus, when the eruption of Vesuvius started on 24 August (a date that differs in some editions, and that archaeological evidence suggests may be two months too early) Pliny the Elder immediately sailed across the churning sea both to observe the eruption more closely and to rescue people from the coast near the volcano. As the ship approached the shore near Herculaneum, cinders and pumice began to fall on it. Pliny’s helmsman advised turning back, to which the admiral replied: ‘Fortune favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is!’ They kept their course to Stabiae where, sadly, Pliny died the following day near the villa of his friend Pomponianus, probably suffocated during the sixth and largest surge of the eruption, which left ash deposits more than two metres high over the city.
The first excavations at Stabiae, long buried by these deposits, began in 1749 under Roque de Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer working for Charles III, Duke of Bourbon and King of Naples, who had already promoted the excavations of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748). Alcubierre was assisted by Karl Weber, a Swiss architect and engineer. Between 1749 and 1775, Weber identified and described parts of the city. The excavated ruins, however, and contrary to his wishes, were reburied. With what was then a pioneering approach to archaeology, Weber had proposed the systematic unearthing of the emerging buildings and their display on site, as opposed to the brutal treasure-hunting methods – and the ensuing destruction of precious contextual evidence – common at the time. Fortunately, despite Alcubierre’s hostility, Weber managed to make detailed architectural drawings of the excavated sites. Excavations also began at the Villa San Marco (1749-1754), and continued in the area of other villas. Unfortunately, these were not systematic excavations and they were often interrupted for years. Several frescoes, complete mosaic floors, and precious marble slabs were removed and placed in the royal collections in Naples.
A second excavation campaign, lasting until 1782, was organised by the architect Francisco La Vega after Weber’s death in 1764. La Vega kept to Weber’s approach by insisting on the importance of the archaeological context and of the direct observation of ancient buildings in their setting. He resumed excavations in some villas already partially explored before and extended research to a large number of villae rusticae (agricultural estates) in the countryside, making precise reports on his work. He could not, however, persuade the court to keep excavated buildings exposed and prevent their backfilling: the buildings he had unearthed were reburied after the removal of the best of the surviving frescoes and their locations were generally forgotten.
Nearly 200 years later, in 1950, a high school principal and keen amateur archaeologist, Libero d’Orsi, rediscovered these ruins, with the help of the documents concerning the Bourbon excavations that had been published in 1881 by M Ruggiero in a detailed book: Degli Scavi di Stabiae dal 1749 al 1782 (‘On the Stabiae excavations from 1749 to 1782’). With a few workers, d’Orsi initiated a systematic survey of what he surmised still lay buried in the city and at Villa Arianna and Villa San Marco, the two largest and most important villas buried at Stabiae. The excavations continued until 1962, when they were definitively interrupted and almost 9,000 artefacts, including detached frescoes, were housed in a secondary school at Castellamare di Stabia. This collection became the nucleus of the Stabian Antiquarium, which unfortunately closed in 1997.
Like the Roman patricians before them, the Bourbon kings of Naples fell under the spell of the location and the healthy waters of Stabiae and they too built a residence here, the Reggia di Quisisana, high on a hillside overlooking the bay. The palace took its name from the Italian qui si sana (‘here one gets healthy’). Originally a medieval keep mentioned in Boccaccio’s 14th-century masterpiece The Decameron, this castle was later transformed and rebuilt on a grand scale in the 18th century. After decades of neglect, the noble building and its park have finally been opened to the public. Furthermore, the newly restored Reggia now houses the Museo Archeologico di Stabia Libero d’Orsi, named after the man who rediscovered Stabiae in the mid-20th century.
The museum was inaugurated in September 2020 with the aim of providing an overall picture of Stabiae and of its territory, the Ager Stabianus, from the earliest activity until the fatal eruption in AD 79. The early occupation of pre-Roman Stabiae is illustrated by votive objects from the sanctuary in the village of Privati (from the mid-4th to the end of the 2nd century BC) dedicated to a goddess as yet unidentified, and by the grave goods from the necropolis in Via Madonna delle Grazie (from the late-7th to the end of the 3rd century BC).
Pride of place is given to the furnishings and decorations of the sumptuous Roman villas built on the Varano plateau, especially those more recently excavated and not yet accessible to the public. From the Villa del Petraro come elegant stucco panels that decorated its refined thermal bath. Interestingly, some of these are unfinished, indicating that the villa was under renovation when the eruption took place. It appears that it was being converted from a rustic house into a luxurious residence with a new layout that would have taken advantage of the villa’s spectacular views over Vesuvius and its proximity to the sea. A whole triclinium (dining room) from the Villa Carmiano is displayed, complete with its original frescoes depicting Dionysian scenes that refer to the production of wine. Winemaking was one of the main activities that enriched the owners of the villas. Although these were working farms, they were places where taste and culture might not be secondary to practical activities.
As many as 60 villae rusticae (agricultural estates) were found dotting the fertile agricultural land administered by the city. They vary in size from 400 to 800m2, and were used to house owners, overseers, and slaves, and to process agricultural products using wine and olive presses, threshing floors, and storehouses. The museum contains many objects of everyday use that vividly illustrate the life of these prosperous agricultural hubs before disaster hit them. The 1st-century writer Columella in his De Re Rustica, a 12-volume work on agriculture, described their ideal blueprint. According to him, the three main elements of the villa rustica would be: the pars urbana, where the lord of the estate lives together with his family; the pars rustica, where labourers, slaves, animals, and farm tools are located; and the pars fructuaria, which contains the equipment for processing and preserving the harvest.
Food made with the abundant local produce is represented in the museum, in various stages from preparation to consumption, by tableware in bronze, terracotta, and glass; by kitchenware; and by amphorae. The extraordinary cart made of bronze from Villa Arianna, exhibited for the first time with its harness, is one of many examples of implements retrieved from the Stabian villas, along with amphorae and household shrines (lararia) from the countryside, that build a picture of the different types of activity that went on in the homes in and around Stabiae.
There existed in the 1st century AD, all along the shores of the Bay of Naples, villas of incomparable magnificence. Those built for the emperor, his family, and the members of the court overlooked the resort of Baiae, near Misenum. Others, like the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries) and the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri), which was the model for the Getty Villa museum at Malibu, were located on the shores of the bay itself. The villas built in an enviable position on the heights of Stabiae were mostly intended for residential purposes and, accordingly, beautifully furnished with the greatest care. Their owners enjoyed spacious living quarters and porticoes for exercise, angled for the appreciation of stunning views over the great panorama surrounding them and opening on to well-tended gardens with splendidly decorated nymphaea with statuary. Their thermal baths – these were veritable status symbols – took advantage of the well-known medicinal properties of Stabiae’s spring waters. Swimming pools (natatio) were also a recurrent feature.
In this landscape, the Roman patricians used to spend their holidays and – when so inclined – indulge in the refined pursuit of otium (‘leisure’), a way of life that implied intellectual pursuits: the study of philosophy, reading literature, and collecting and discussing prized works of art during well-mannered exchanges with like-minded friends and acquaintances. This carefully cultivated leisure was more than mere idleness and was an important part of genteel Roman life. As Cicero wrote, ‘That which stands first, and is most to be desired by all happy, honest and healthy-minded men, is ease (otium) with dignity’.
The villae rusticae allowed for two separate and distinct activities: otium, leisure time, and its opposite, negotium, or business concerns, but in some villas, ‘otium villas’, all was intended to induce contemplation. Study and reflection, unhurried activities, simplicity and serenity, peacefulness and detachment from worldly ambitions were the tenets of the Epicurean philosophy popular in the 1st century AD among the members of the cultured upper classes. These people may have decided to spend time after retirement from service in the private or public sectors following an alternative lifestyle, even if only temporarily. Sometimes the villa-owners were women who fostered the same ideals.
One of the most extensively excavated sites of Stabiae is the Villa San Marco. Stamped tiles found at the site suggest that it may have been the property of Narcissus, a freedman from the household of Emperor Claudius. Well-preserved by ash and pumice debris for centuries, this large villa covering an area of 11,000m2 is a splendid example of a great mansion with wide green spaces, porticoes, and rooms for entertainment that still preserve their decoration of frescoes and mosaics. In many of the rooms, the ancient wall paintings are faded, but in surprisingly good condition. Birds, ducks, and other creatures appear along the walls painted in a vivid and realistic style meant to recreate in the home wildlife of the great outdoors. Others, such as a woman looking over her shoulder at the viewer as she is discovered, scantily clad, playing the lyre, remain intact. Three separate baths can be found throughout the property, including a large one complete with ancient plumbing. There is also a kitchen where slaves would cook the meals for residents and for guests. Besides a gym there is a long swimming pool in the garden.
Nearby and still on the Varano hill, there is Villa Arianna, which is named after a large painting, depicting Ariadne abandoned by Theseus at Naxos, that was found on the back wall of its triclinium. Here too there are porticoes overlooking a large garden and a series of more frescoed rooms, one with a depiction of people reading.
The decorative schemes testify not only to the high standard of living that prevailed in these villas, but also to the selective taste of high-ranking and demanding clients. It is thus not surprising that some of the most beautiful of the Roman paintings found at Stabiae, like the lovely Flora, one of the world-famous masterpieces of the Archaeological Museum in Naples, were initially cut out of the Villa Arianna’s walls for the Bourbon king’s personal collection. Flora was one of four small panels, the others representing other mythological women (Leda, Medea, and Diana), a group of images also worthy of being admired singly. Visitors to Stabiae will not be disappointed, however, by the paintings still in situ, nor by those now on view at the museum in the Quisisana residence.
Stabiae’s long neglect seems to be over. We can even hope that the future may bring more discoveries to shed light on the halcyon days of a particularly privileged community living in an enchanted landscape.
ALL IMAGES: Parco archeologico di Pompei, unless otherwise stated
For more information about visiting Stabiae (including updates on COVID-19 restrictions and closures), see www.pompeiisites.org.
A guidebook in English and Italian is available from Electa (price €12): Museo Archeologico di Stabia Libero D’Orsi, with texts by M Osanna, F Muscolino, and L Toniolo.