04 Jun 2017

A country house with a view

House with a view licht

 "Miraris cur me Laurentinum vel - si ita mavis - Laurens meum tanto opere delectet; desines mirari, cum cognoveris gratiam villae, opportunitatem loci, litoris spatium."
You are surprised that I am so fond of my Laurentine, or (if you prefer the name) my Laurens property: but you will cease to wonder when I acquaint you with the beauty of the villa, the advantages of its situation, and the extensive view of the sea-coast.

Thus the description of his country house by a wealthy Roman in the first century AD 1. And not just any Roman. It is the beginning of a letter Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend Gallus. Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61-113 AD) was among others friends with Tacitus, and imperial magistrate under Trajan (see the article ‘Centumcellae, the port of Trajan’). Therefore he often stayed in Rome, but did not feel the need for a longer stay in that city, or any other city, than necessary. Cities where dirty, full of traffic and the smell was often unbearable. And if you expected that during the night it would stop, then you would be disappointed. Due to a decree by Julius Caesar it was forbidden to deliver goods during the daytime and therefore also at night there was an unbelievable uproar 2.

Fig. 1: A number of villas south of Ostia 3

Pliny had, like most wealthy Romans, one or more country houses. If he had to be in Rome, he often stayed in his country house on the coast, south of the port city of Ostia, in Laurentum. He was not the only one, there were a lot of country houses along the coast (see fig. 1). His letter is also one of the few surviving texts describing the Roman country house. It continued with a description of the route towards his villa: “There are two different roads to it: if you go by that of Laurentum, you must turn off at the fourteenth mile-stone; if by that of Ostia, at the eleventh. Both of them are sandy in places, which makes it a little heavier and longer by carriage, but short and easy on horseback. The landscape affords plenty of variety, the view in some places being closed in by woods, in others extending over broad meadows, where numerous flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, which the severity of the winter has driven from the mountains, fatten in the spring warmth, and on the rich pasturage”.

Fig. 2: The geoarchaeologist Tonnie Huijzendveld walking on the
antique beach south of Ostia - on the right side began the sea

There are several well-preserved remains of Roman villas just south of Ostia, in the natural area now known as Castel Fusano. One of these, called today Villa della Palombara, was seen for years as the Laurentum villa of Pliny. However, scientists have shown that this villa differs too much from the description by Pliny. According to Eugenia Salza Ricotti, an Italian scholar of classical architecture, the actual Laurentine villa would be located further south at a place which is called La Grotta di Piastra (see fig. 1). Nevertheless, we would like to describe here the Villa della Palombara, because it is located near Ostia, can be visited today and is a good example of the size and luxury of a country house by the sea. The villa, located a few meters away from the famous Via Severiana, owes its name to the presence of a large oak tree in this area, that in the 19th century was used for hunting wild pidgeons (palombi).

Villa della Palombara

Fig. 3: Today the Villa della Palombara, surrounded by woods,
is open to the public

The earliest excavations date from the first half of the 18th century. Professor Antonio Maria Colini, who performed new excavations in the middle of the 19th century, ascribed the villa to the famous Roman orator Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114 - 50 BC). The most recent excavations (1989-2008) show us six different building stages, from the late republic to the middle of the empire 4.

plattegrond villa engels
Plan of the villa
Fig. 4: Peristyle with arch and fountain from the fifth stage

The first stage (first half of 1st century BC - early 1st century AD)
The villa, with the main entrance on the southwest side, looked out over the coastline. From two towers (D2 and D3) you had a beautiful sea view. From the towers you walked right away into the living area. To its left we find a peristyle, a large square courtyard surrounded by a colonnade (A). Through this space one had access to the beach, probably through a portal with a large arch that now is no longer visible. Also at the opposite side the colonnade was interrupted by an arch. The arch you can see today on this place is a reconstruction from the fifties of the last century, created by professor Antonio Colini.

Fig. 5: The back side of the arc with the triclinium in front

The arch gave access to triclinium A1 (a dining room with reclining couches on three sides). This space had a black and white mosaic floor. Under this floor a second floor has been found with a small water basin that was connected with a channel. Perhaps this was originally an atrium and the basin a kind of impluvium in which the rain water was collected. Courtyard A had a double row of white plastered brick columns supporting the roof. The bottom of the walls inside the gallery was probably painted red and the top of the walls decorated with plant motifs. On the aast side of the gallery was an elevated room with a view to the hinterland (A2). This was probably accessible by stairs. In the western corner of the gallery we find some small rooms (A3), which might be intended for the personnel.

Fig. 6: Room B during the last campaign
(photo Inst. Poligrafico e Zecca dello stato)
Fig. 7: Rooms C, plan 5

Southeast of the rooms a cistern (a container for water storage) of two floors was found (C1). South of the cistern and the rooms was the living area (D), which was probably built against a natural dune. The living area was on three sides surrounded by a passage formed by a covered colonnade. During his campaign professor Colini discovered here a piece of floor in 'opus sectile' (made of pieces of marble) that perhaps had fallen down from the upper floor.

Fig. 8: The base of tower D3 with the collapsed upper floor
(photo Inst. Poligrafico e Zecca dello stato)

During the same campaign he found a passageway in the north, probably from the second construction phase, which gave access to court C2, which connected rooms C with the covered colonnade and the living area. In the east corner of colonnade D1 traces of a staircase to the first floor were found. This staircase probably gave access to the cubicula (bedrooms). It is possible that there was a gallery on the second floor on the seafront or a balcony accessible from the two towers D2 and D3. Column fragments suggest that also the southeast wall and the northwest wall were provided with a gallery.

The second stage (Julio-Claudian, 14-68 AD)
In this period a wall was built around the villa on three sides, using opus incertum (small tufa blocks). The side towards the sea remained open. Behind space A1 a big entrance (E1) to the complex of approximately 20 meters appears. The original entrance, probably in room B, was closed. On the north side of B a new piece of land of 105 x 85 meter, probably meant as viridarium (garden, park), was added and walled in. One of the entrances (2.50 meter wide) of this garden was recovered in the southwest corner.

Sector B had to endure many changes by these walls. New dividing walls and a large square stone bench were added. We can see parts of the new floor. In this space some amphorae in which food was preserved have been found. Partly because of other finds we know that this space was used as a kitchen during the second period (see fig. 6).

The third stage (2nd half of first century AD)
In this phase there was mainly an extension in the northeast part of the complex.

Fig. 9: Rooms F, plan 6

During the last campaign a building in opus reticulatum 7has been discovered here (F). The building offered shelter to the personnel. It consists of seven identical small spaces. Each space consisted of two rooms that were not directly connected with each other, but through a corridor. Just to the north of these rooms a drain covered with tiles was uncovered. This channel probably transported the rain water or was connected to the water system of cistern C1. Through a stamp on some of the tiles we can date this channel to the middle of the first century AD. Other structures from this period are found on the southeast side (H). The correct interpretation of these buildings is not clear.

Fig. 10: The praefurnium in which a water kettle was placed

The presence of opus reticulatum in combination with brick indicates that also structure L, dug up by Colini on the west side, dates from this period. One enters a square space with, on the north side, a round construction, the praefurnium (hearth for heating).

The fourth stage (Trajanic-Hadrianic, 98-138 AD)
In this phase the site expanded yet again, this time by about half an acre on the northwest side of the villa. This space (G) was walled. Walls were erected on the south side (G1) and even on the side of the beach. In the same stage, every five metres, pillars in opus vittatum (horizontal tuff layers alternating with brick layers) were placed along the west wall of the viridarium (E). Along the other walls of the enclosure traces of the same columns are found.

The fifth stage (Hadrianic–Antonine, 130 - 192 AD)
During this phase the bath house (I) was built or rebuilt. The complex is a pavilion on the southwest side of the peristyle. The constructions are difficult to interpret, because Colini left little excavation data behind and because the walls were restored many times during the last centuries. For this reason it is also difficult to determine the correct dating. Inside the bath complex we can notice structures of so called opus mixtum (a combination of opus reticulatum and brick), fitting well within this building stage, and structures in only brick, many of which clearly have been restored.

Fig. 11: The bath complex with the peristyle and entrance stairs on the left

The entrance to the bathhouse was located in the west corner of the colonnade and accessible via a staircase (completely restored), spanning a difference in height of approximately one meter with the colonnaded garden.

Fig. 12: The apodyterium

Via the stairs one entered a small entrance hall and hence the apodyterium (dressing room), paved with a mosaic of victory over the sea by Neptune. The deity is portrayed in a carriage drawn by two seahorses. Around his carriage we see a parade of sea creatures. Pictured at the top are two musicians, a woman with a sistrum and a man with a flute. On the other side we see a woman with a fish tail. Just like the opposite side, here too a second person was probably depicted. The mosaic is strongly reminiscent of the large mosaic from the Bathhouse of Neptune in Ostia (139 AD).

Fig. 13: The mosaic of the apodyterium
plattegrond badengels
Fig. 14: The bath complex, after a drawing by N. Saviane

On the northeast side of the vestibule we find two small rooms, maybe changing rooms. The first of the two rooms was paved with a mosaic tha is unfortunately no longer visible. Through the vestibule you walk into the frigidarium (coldwater bath), at the northeast side equipped with a semicircular pool and three rectangular pools on the northwest side. Both the semicircular pool and the middle rectangular pool was entered by one step covered by marble. Through the frigidarium one could enter the tepidarium (lukewarm bath), in which almost all over the entire space a large rectangular pool was built (3.30 m x 6.50 m). You entered this bath via three steps on the northeast side. On the southeast side of the tepidarium you find the caldarium (hot water bath), a circular room that was accessed via two semicircular steps. The space was heated through terracotta pipes in the walls that were in direct connection with the praefurnium (heating area) on the southeast side. Here a water kettle was once installed (fig. 10). In this kettle water was brought in through lead or brick pipes from the cistern and, after heating in the praefurnium, transported to the various baths. The two areas north and west of the frigidarium were probably used for massages.

Fig. 15: The cistern along the northwest side of the peristyle

During this phase further rectangular rooms were placed against the northwest wall of the peristyle, including a large bath cistern and six buttresses on the other side. In the middle of the courtyard (A) came a brick fountain and between the inner row of columns a balustrade was built. The space on the northwest side had a staircase to the upper floor. During the last campaign a well (H), built in this stage, was found on the southeastern side of the villa. The structure consists of a square brick reservoir (5.80 x 1.80) with a cement floor and equipped with a drain tube on the southeastern wall. The northeast side of the well has a different wall of 90 cm high and is built in opus reticulatum in which a large brick arch is present, flanked by two additional small brick arches.

The sixth stage (Severan, 193-235 AD)
In this last stage a series of small changes occurred. The bath house turns out to have undergone quite a few changes. The well (H) was restored in opus vittatum. Northeast of the well is a construction with an earthenware basin (H2). This basin is connected to a channel that runs towards the northwest / southeast. The channel is in poor condition and the use of this channel is not certain. Another adaptation was a construction in opus reticulatum in the viridarium, parallel to the northwest wall, the northeast wall and the southeast wall, in order to create a corridor with a length of approximately 4.50 meters. Along the southeast wall of the villa a new rectangular area was created (E2), right in the corner of the perimeter walls.

Fig. 16: Remains on the south-east side of the villa

After reading this description of such a large villa by the sea, with all the comfort, servants, slaves, and a private bath complex, maybe you can imagine how wonderful it was for the wealthy in Roman times to live in the silence of nature, far away from the busy city with a breath of fresh air. Pliny ends his argument as follows:
"Iustisne de causis iam tibi videor incolere inhabitare diligere secessum? quem tu nimis urbanus es nisi concupiscis. Atque utinam concupiscas! ut tot tantisque dotibus villulae nostrae maxima commendatio ex tuo contubernio accedat. Vale!"
"Tell me now, have I not good reason for living in, staying in, loving, such a retreat? And if you feel no appetite for it, you must be morbidly attached to town. And I only wish you would feel inclined to come down to it, that to so many charms with which my little villa abounds, it might have the very considerable addition of your company to recommend it. Farewell."

  • Notes
  • 1: Click here to read the whole letter from Plinius to Gallus in Latin with English translation.
  • 2: Jérôme Carcopino: "La vie quotidienne à Rome à l'apogée de l'Empire", Librairie Hachette, Paris 1987.
  • 3: Carta degli insediamenti del litorale laurentino da Lanciani 1903, cit. a nota 5, tav. XIII, fig. 3.
  • 4: This report and the description of the Villa della Palombara is a summary of "La Villa della Palombara (cd. Villa di Plinio) a Castelfusano (Ostia). Nuovi dati dalle campagne di scavo 2007-2008", by Stefano Buonaguro, Carmelina Camardo and Nicoletta Saviane . Click here to read the whole report.
  • 5: Fig. 7: after a composition drawing by E. Civitelli.
  • 6: Fig. 9: after a composition drawing by S. Buonaguro.
  • 7: Opus reticulatum: small diamond shaped tuff stones.

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