Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 27, 2017
Mantha Zarmakoupi Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE‒79 CE) Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 352 pp.; 135 b/w ills. $160.00 (9780199678389)

This ambitious study originated in 2007 as Mantha Zarmakoupi’s Oxford University DPhil thesis. Several years of further research have allowed her to develop her ideas and deepen her bibliographic research on the archaeology and architecture of Roman villas and the cultural life that villas framed. She aims, in brief, to examine “the ways in which Romans conceptualized the architectural design of luxurious villas in order to accommodate a life of educated leisure in the countryside” (1). In doing so she recapitulates and extends a now-familiar narrative of the ideology, architecture, and social functions of such establishments, a narrative based on extensive research by previous scholars that provides a context for her analyses of the architectural remains of several well-preserved villas in the region of Mount Vesuvius. As an architectural historian Zarmakoupi argues that by appropriating selected elements of Hellenistic and Roman architecture designers created a new architectural language for Roman luxury villas, a language which itself “became an agent of Roman cultural identity” (13). It is in Zarmakoupi’s analyses of the physical components of this language that the primary contribution of the book lies.

In chapter 1, “Roman Luxury Villas: Introduction, Historiography, and Scope,” beyond presenting a brief overview of the history of scholarship on the well-known cultural phenomenon of Roman luxury villas, Zarmakoupi explains not only the scope but also the methodology of her study. She pays particular homage to the eminent architectural historian James S. Ackerman. In her view, his stimulating book The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) marks a significant advance in understanding the ideology and architecture of villas from Roman antiquity to the twentieth century in light of contemporaneous social and economic conditions (10).

Chapter 2, “Case Studies,” introduces five well-known and exceptionally well-preserved villas on the Bay of Naples—the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, Villa A at Oplontis (Torre Annunziata), and three villas at Stabiae: Villa Arianna A, Villa Arianna B, and Villa San Marco. Zarmakoupi does an admirable job of summarizing the history of excavations in each case and giving the reader a clear idea of what is and is not currently known about each villa’s architecture and the dating of various components.

In the case of the Villa of the Papyri, whose plan is known primarily by tunneling carried out in the 1700s, Zarmakoupi points out that the most recent excavations, ending in the past decade, brought new architectural structures to light, and that a study of the construction techniques resulted in a change in the dating of the initial construction of this villa to the third quarter of the first century BCE. This is substantially later than has long been claimed and alters the villa’s place in the traditional chronological sequencing of the five villas under consideration in this volume. I would point out, however, that while the initial construction of the Villa of the Papyri now comes after that of Villa A at Oplontis (ca. 50 BCE), ongoing excavation at Oplontis and Stabiae continue to refine an understanding of these villas and their development over time.

The complex plans of the three Stabian villas are clearly explained. However, the illustrated plans do not always contain the numbers or letters of rooms and spaces referred to in the text. Nor are all of them oriented in the same direction (north) for easy cross-referencing. Nevertheless, one gains a sense of how the five different villa sites worked—what they have in common, what is distinctive about each of them, and what the archaeology of each site offers in the way of architectural components and decorative features. Zarmakoupi’s analysis of four of these components and features forms the heart of the study. These are: the porticus and cryptoporticus (chapter 3); porticoed gardens (chapter 4); water features—euripi, natationes, and nymphaea (chapter 5); and triclinia and dining facilities (chapter 6). Together they comprise what she calls the “architectural language” of luxury villas (14).

Zarmakoupi elaborates upon her previously published ideas in chapter 3, “Porticus and Cryptoporticus.” She clarifies the meaning of the term cryptoporticus as an enclosed passageway with windows, partially or wholly above ground, and she makes a plausible case for the invention of this form to suit the needs of villa life. Although only Pliny the Younger uses the term, based on his description of a cryptoporticus in one of his own villas, Zarmakoupi identifies examples of such passageways, focusing especially on those in Villa A at Oplontis. The cryptoporticus served as a practical alternative to open-air colonnaded porticoes. It protected occupants from extremes of heat and cold or from inclement weather, while windows provided light and views out to gardens or the surrounding landscape. Together, she argues, the two forms of passageway, along with painted representations of them, came to signify the luxury villa.

Chapter 4, “Porticoed Gardens,” extends the discussion of porticoes to include elements of landscape. Zarmakoupi argues that the “perystilium-garden,” enclosed on four sides by colonnaded porticoes, and especially the more open and extensive garden partially framed by porticoes, responded to growing interest in the local landscape, as evidenced in literature, painting, and architecture. The villa designers’ embrace of the landscape therefore constituted, in her view, an essential element of the new design language that was characteristic of the luxury villa.

In chapter 5, “Water Features,” Zarmakoupi emphasizes the familiar idea that flowing water was a Roman luxury made available by the construction of aqueducts. Elaborate fountains (nymphaea), long reflecting pools (Nile and Euripus), and swimming pools (natationes) are the principal forms discussed here as essential features of luxury villas. The rich mythological and symbolic associations of water were visually articulated in decorations in several media: sculpture, mosaic, stucco, and painting. Further, the sound of running water provided “white noise” that mitigated the disturbance from household activities and helped to create a relaxing ambience. Water, then, was another essential feature of the luxury villa.

Chapter 6, “Triclinia and Dining Facilities,” reviews the elements of a Roman dinner party as a central component of villa life, intended to garner social and political prestige for the owner. Building primarily on the work of Katherine Dunbabin (Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Zarmakoupi analyzes the transformation of the architecture of traditional dining rooms to accommodate the elaborate entertainments that accompanied dinner in the later phases of the villas’ life, around the middle of the first century CE.

A concluding chapter 7, “Designing for Luxury,” sums up Zarmakoupi’s findings and compares the various components of this new design language to modern structures that help illustrate the four main characteristics of luxury villa architecture. She frames these characteristics in language more familiar to architects and architectural historians than to archaeologists. The first is that there was “no core” in the luxury villa by the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the central role of the traditional atrium as the principal reception space having passed by then to dining rooms (220–23). The second is the openness of the villa’s structure (thus the “perforated architectural body”; 223–29). The third is the villa’s appeal to the senses (thus, an “architecture of the senses”; 229–35); and the fourth is the porticus and cryptoporticus (the “connective tissue” that provides cohesion among the parts; 235–40).

In a remarkably candid statement at the end her text, Zarmakoupi offers a disclaimer: “I would like to point out . . . that this culturally informed notion of an architectural language is always a matter of conceptualization, perceived either retrospectively (by Renaissance art historians) or contemporaneously (by architects/advocates of modernism) and, in light of such a reservation, I conclude” (241). Rather than claiming the last word on the subject, then, she opens the door to rethinking her own conclusions. Indeed, given that her view of the architectural language of luxury villas is based on a very small sample from only one part of the Roman empire, and given also that Roman domestic art and architecture is a vibrant field of current research, study of the remains of many other villas on the Bay of Naples and elsewhere in the Roman world will no doubt challenge her conclusions and stimulate further investigation into the very questions she asks. The relationship between villas and their landscapes, for example, is ripe for further analysis. Zarmakoupi has offered future scholars much to think about.

Art and architectural historians who do not specialize in the Roman period will be well served by this volume’s discussions of cultural context. Specialists in the period, already familiar with that context, will find Designing for Luxury more valuable for Zarmakoupi’s architectural analyses. Unfortunately, the lack of tonal contrast in the black-and-white illustrations diminishes their readability. A few color plates could have evoked the beauty of the landscape settings and the richness of the décor.

Elaine K. Gazda
Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, Department of the History of Art, and Curator of Roman Antiquities, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor