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Museums: Vesuvian Villas Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Jarrett A. Lobell

[image] This fresco painting of Diana drawing her bow was discovered at the seaside Villa Arianna in Stabiae. (Courtesy National Archaeological Museum of Naples/SAP/Longobardi) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History seems like an odd place for "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite." Tucked between the dinosaurs and the diamonds are 71 artifacts and some of the most beautiful works of fresco painting from the ancient Roman world, many of which rarely leave Italy. The cancellation of another exhibit brought "In Stabiano" to Washington, D.C., until October 24, and it works well despite its unusual setting, providing a well-displayed and unexpected view into the lives of the very wealthiest Romans. The exhibit is the happy result of an 2002 treaty intended to suppress looting and illegal exportation of antiquities by allowing for long-term loans from Italy to the U.S. ("Opportunity Knocks," From the President, November/December 2003).

Although it was also destroyed by the same A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius that buried the now-famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the city of Stabiae on the Bay of Naples is relatively unknown outside of the archaeological community. More than 50 villas were discovered there in the late eighteenth century, subsequently forgotten, and then rediscovered in 1950 by the principal of a local high school. Several of the villas were partially excavated in the 1960s, a state in which they exist today.

Most of the exhibition's artifacts come from three spectacularly appointed villae marittimae, or seaside villas--the Villa San Marco, Villa Arianna, and Villa del Pastore. Of the highest quality, the frescoes illustrate the extraordinary lifestyle of the elite Romans who resided in these breezy homes during the hot summer months. Also included in the exhibition are unusual stucco decorations from the Villa Petraro, an estate with a working farm, and the triclinium, or dining room, from the nearby Villa Carmiano. Utilitarian cookware, bronze cooking vessels, intact ceramic lamps, and marble sculptures round out the intimate picture.

This small show works in an unexpected, understated way, considering its remarkable artifacts. There are few explanatory panels and no lengthy discourses on Pompeian painting styles, the devastation of the eruption, or the minutiae of the lives of the Romans--just a simple explanation of the importance of the villas and the beautifully lighted and displayed artifacts, which speak for themselves.

"In Stabiano" is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue with a great deal of information about the Vesuvian cities and dozens of colorful illustrations. Much of the catalogue can be viewed and downloaded at, the excellent website of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, which helped sponsor the show.

After its run at the Museum of Natural History, the exhibit will travel around the U.S. for another four years. Upcoming venues have yet to be announced. Visit the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation for updates.

Jarrett A. Lobell is photo editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America