No trip to the Bay of Naples or the Amalfi Coast would be complete without a trek through some archaeological ruins. Pompeii and Herculaneum are the famous ones and they are located pretty close to one another, tucked into the congested wonder that is greater Naples. If you find yourself anywhere near this part of the world, you owe it to yourself to see both of them. Pompeii is as massive as Herculaneum is compact and each has its own, though different charms.
However, situated just south of Naples is the Roman archaeological site that’s the least known and least seen archeological dig in a region filled with them. I’m talking about the Stabian Villas, and they are located just outside of Castellammare di Stabia. The Romans called the town Stabiae and just like its more famous sister cities, it too was wiped out when Vesuvius blew in the year 79. Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 was a natural disaster the likes of which the modern world has never seen. A major, productive region of the world’s sole super power was wiped off the face of the earth. It would be the equivalent of the US losing greater Los Angeles today. Though Pompeii and Herculaneum get all the attention, the modern city of Naples and its expansive suburbs are all built on top of many smaller cities and towns, none of which will ever see the light of day. But every once in a while someone finds something that can be excavated.
Such is the case of the Stabian Villas. In 1950, a high school teacher in Castellammare di Stabia found what’s now known as the Villa San Marco. The Villa San Marco is a 36,000 square foot single family home and it sat on what was then the shoreline of the Bay of Naples. The Villa San Marco was but one of what are believed to be 150 similar villas that lined that stretch of coastline. Think about it. A 36,000 square foot single family home. That’s enormous by any standard, let alone an ancient one.
The villas of Stabiae were the Roman world’s equivalent of Malibu or Aspen. These homes were vacation homes mostly and they belonged to the who’s who of the ancient world. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Augustus and the rest of the Classical smart set spent their summers wallowing in the sweet excesses accorded the elites of the Roman world.
Three villas have been excavated since 1950 and the dig is now run as a cooperative effort between the University of Maryland and the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei. It’s also open to the public if you know where to find it and who to ask.
Pompeii is a thrill as I mentioned earlier, but it’s been so picked over and so many people walk through it every year that it’s hard to get a real feel for what life must have been like in Pompeii. Herculaneum’s a little less grand and a little less trammeled so the Aha moments are easier to come by. But in Stabia, the Villa San Marco, the Villa Arianna and the Villa del Pastore are nothing but Aha moments. These villas are remarkably intact and as you walk from room to room you can get a real sense of who these people were.
The Roman elites lived lives that are at once so much the same as ours yet so distant it makes me scratch my head. These people had disposable income, they took vacations, they sent their kids to college, etc. Walking through these massive, luxurious homes is like holding up a 2,000 year-old mirror in a lot of ways.
There’s a bedroom in the Villa San Marco that belonged to an adolescent boy. The walls are richly painted and fresco-ed, but on the wall near where his bed was, you can make out where he scratched the names of his favorite gladiators right into the wall. It’s the same way a 13-year-old boy would write the names of Evan Longoria or Michael Phelps today. Experiences like that allow a visitor to hold the hands of the ancients and realize that we’re not so different after all.
The Stabian Villas are an active archaeological dig and it’s not unusual to see the excavations happening before your eyes. The archaeologists doing the digging are passionate about their work to say the least. If you see someone with an ecstatic look on his or her face who’s also covered in dust, ask what he or she’s doing. You’ll be treated to one of the most remarkable experiences there is; meeting someone with real passion for the work they do and a re-enactment of the ancient world so vivid and true you’ll swear it’s the year 79 all over again.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Stabian Villas, here’s the link to their official website: Restoring Ancient Stabia.
This is a detail of a fresco in the main dining room of the Villa San Marco.
This is another fresco from the Villa San Marco. My photo is failing to convey the complexity of this painting in every way. The entire thing is a trompe l’oeil masterpiece. Until I stood in this room I never really got it that the ancients knew how to use perspective in their art too.
This is part of the fresco-ed wall of the boy’s bedroom in the Villa San Marco.
This is where the young man’s bed would have been. In life, you can see where he scratched the names of his favorite athletes into the wall. Talk about an Aha moment!
This is Perseus holding the head of Medusa from the Villa San Marco.
This is an image of Iphigenia and she’s holding a torch over her left shoulder. This is also from a fresco in the Villa San Marco. Iphigenia was a well-known character in the Greek dramas that were a popular form of entertainment in Ancient Rome. She would have been instantly recognizable, the way L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale or Lewis Carrol’s Alice would be today.
This is a painting of a pigeon on a ledge, obviously. It’s part of a much larger mural that depicts a foggy spring morning. I love the expression on the pigeon’s face.
The Ancient Stabians displayed images of their friends’ villas in prominent places. This depicts a villa that would have been down the road from the Villa San Marco. This one’s wild because a much taller, pre-eruption Mount Vesuvius looms in the background.
Here’s the edge of the site, where greater Naples picks up again. Naples is a sprawling, lively place and sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae are surrounded by regular neighborhoods. It’s a shock to go from the cacophony of the streets in Naples to the quiet of these ancient places.
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Paul Anater is a US-based freelance writer and designer who writes the blog Kitchen and Residential Design and whose work appears regularly across the internet and in print. See all of Paul Anater’s Articles on Napoli Unplugged.