Discovering the Ancient Roman seaside villas of Oplontis

Art and history aficionados from the Bozeman community and MSU flocked to the Museum of the Rockies Tuesday, Oct. 18 to listen to the university’s second installment of this year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. This series began in 2013 to showcase MSU faculty and their research and their personal and professional journeys. Faculty chosen to speak are those who exemplify what it means to be a scholar in every sense of the word.

Tuesday night’s speaker was Regina Gee, an associate professor of art history at MSU with a Ph.D. in Roman art and architecture. Since 2007, Gee has worked as a member of the Oplontis Project, an archival research and archeological field work project on the Bay of Naples. The project is a multidisciplinary pursuit to understand two ancient Italian Villas that were buried and preserved in the 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius eruption. Gee has largely overseen the extensive collection of frescoes, the giant and detailed paintings that covered the walls of nearly every room in a Villa. She has published papers annually on this subject and her research. She also currently acts as a guest curator of the exhibit “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii.” Currently this exhibit is showing at the Museum of the Rockies. Bozeman is one of only three of the exhibit’s locations.

Gee first spoke of the Roman villa in antiquity. A Roman villa roughly translates to a farmhouse, originally occupied seasonally by the proprietor with slaves and a manager, who are the primary inhabitants. Socially, villas were for the elite and gentlemanly of Ancient Rome’s politicians and generals, a refined and luxurious retreat and a way for the Ancient Roman to showcase his wealth and power. These were locations for Romans to be entertained, reflect, read, discuss philosophy, collect art, host dinner parties and more. Gee described how there were so many villas it was possible to, “step around the crater with elegance from villa to villa without ever having to put a prosaic foot on common earth.” There is evidence of over 60 villas along the Bay of Naples, however there are only substantial remains of four of them. Villa Oplontis, the second largest of these preserved villas, was built in 50 B.C. and was considered to be a Villa Maritima, a seaside villa with spectacular views of the sea and mountains. Gee detailed two dining rooms in two different parts of the villa that were built about 100 years apart. She discussed the frescoes present in both of these rooms: the ornate detail, rich coloring; and interplay of the art with the company present at a dinner party. Villa Oplontis now sits surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the modern city of Torre Annunziata, the poorest city in central Italy.

Gee talked about how the site was found and eventually excavated. The villa should have been discovered much earlier, as it was on early maps of Rome and in the 16th century a canal was built directly through it. The first proper excavation began in 1964 when the Italian Administration of Culture decided to uncover and reconstruct the villa. This project was abandoned in the 1980’s due to a lack of funds, leaving thousands of fresco fragments and sculptures to sit in improper storage in a store room of the villa. In 2005 John Clark and Michael Thomas got a promesso from the Italian government to work on the villa and publish its findings extensively. The Oplontis Project works on a combination of archival research, documentation, excavation and digital recreation, with their primary office in the former slave quarters of the villa. Gee is in charge of writing about, cataloging and interpreting 50 different rooms of frescos. She studies who painted what and where, the chemical compositions of the colors and the general movement of the art throughout the villa and how it affected those who walked through it. The project conducts archeological digs to uncover artifacts and more thoroughly understand the building’s history and has been digitally reconstructing and modeling the villa. They have designed the only navigable digital model of an ancient building.

Gee concluded by discussing the work that went into bringing the “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” exhibit out of Italy to three locations in the U.S.: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman and Smith College in Massachusetts. In 2010 Gee and her fellows on the Oplontis Project requested permission from the Italian Government to borrow about 150 items belonging to the villa for a one time only exhibit to come to the U.S. She and her colleagues started this exhibit from scratch, laying all the groundwork necessary, obtaining permission, cataloging the artifacts, generating all of the texts that accompany each of the artifacts and creating a layout for the exhibit. The exhibit, in Gee’s words, has “air and movement in a way that’s really really special.” She said, “We didn’t just hold this exhibit, we helped shape it and we reformed it and we put our stamp on it … and because of all the the people that are involved at MSU this exhibits is truly ours, our thumbprint is on it and we should be really proud of it.” The exhibit is at the Museum of the Rockies until Dec. 31, 2016. More information on the Oplontis Project can be found at oplontisproject.org/.

The next provost’s lecture will be Jan. 24, and the speaker has not yet been announced.