Ancient Stabiae

Ancient Stabiae

Site Information

Country: Italy
State: Castellammare di Stabia
Location: 40° 41' 58" N - 14° 29' 31" E
Field Documentation Date(s): April 15th, 2013
Project Release Date(s): July 9th, 2014
Time Range: 89 BCE - 79 CE
Era: Ancient Rome
world map with location

Photograph of the western end of Villa Arianna, Stabiae

Site Description


Ancient Stabiae lies only 4 km from Pompeii, but is a very different type of site: it is primarily occupied by a half-dozen enormous panoramic villas, up to 22,000 m2, built directly next to one another over a distance of c. 1.8 km along the edge of a 50 m high sea-cliff facing the Bay of Naples. Thanks to the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24 (or November 23), A.D. 79, the villas are spectacularly well preserved. Walls stand in some cases to the second storey, hundreds of square meters of frescoes are in brilliant condition, garden surfaces are perfectly preserved when first cleared. The architecture has many innovative features and the frescoes are among the highest quality of those in the Roman Empire.

The site has been an archaeological preserve since 1957 and as a result is relatively unencumbered by modern buildings. It also preserves the view of the sea and the mountains of the Sorrento peninsula from the villas. Only at Stabiae can one stand in a fully frescoed sea-view triclinium (three-couch dining room) and enjoy the cooling sea breezes as one could two thousand years earlier. Only at Stabiae can archaeology recover the complete ambience of these villas.

The site was first excavated by open trenches and tunnels between 1749 and 1782, but then was backfilled. Although good plans were drawn, by the nineteenth century the location of the site was completely forgotten. In 1950 a new phase of excavation was initiated and this cleared--for a second time-- only a small part of what was seen in the eighteenth century. No more than a sixth of the site is now exposed and it is open to the public today.

In 2007 a third phase of excavation was initiated by the Superintendency of Archaeology of Pompeii together with the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, an innovative Italo-American non-profit which works with the Superintendency to fully excavate two or three of the villas and develop long-term sustainable archaeological park and research and teaching organization. Stabiae is the only site in the Vesuvian area where large new excavations are to be permitted.

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The Villas of Stabiae were all built and functioned in a concentrated period of time between 89 B.C. and A.D. 79. In 89 B.C. the small port village of Stabiae, long since superseded by Pompeii, was laid waste by legate commander Lucius Cornelius Sulla during the Social War, who also besieged Pompeii, and afterwards, according to Pliny the Elder, the entire area was built over with villas (ad villam abiit).

The first villas at Stabiae were built in the last years of the Roman Republic (c. 80-49 B.C.), a time of accelerating furious political competition which climaxed in the civil wars of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus (49-44 B.C.) and those between Mark Anthony and Octavian (44-30 B.C.). It was during this period that the competitive senatorial elite sponsored, among other things, an explosive growth of a new type of architecture: the panoramic luxury villa, designed to unite the arts of culture and nature. This quintessential type of Roman architecture was in large part invented in Campania, as was the concept of the ideal elite lifestyle which it supported: otium, freedom from business to support the pursuit of personal cultural refinement.

Campania and the Bay of Naples was one of the richest and most beautiful parts of Roman Italy, and the villas were built there for the same reason that Madame de Staël noted early in the 19th century: “Nothing…gives a more voluptuous idea of life than this climate which intimately unites man to nature.”

And, for another reason: after the Social War, Campania also had Roman citizenship. Roman senators, campaigning for votes, hobnobbed with rich and powerful local “municipales” (municipal councillors and businessmen) and enjoyed access to sophisticated Greek culture. Cicero, far from the richest senator, had seven or eight villas, three in the area. At his Cumean villa (modern Baia) Cicero was so mobbed by visitors that he called it his “little Rome.” He liked his modest villa at Pompeii because no one bothered him there. He says that one of his greatest pleasures was “perigrinatio,” the going about the Bay visiting other elite villas.

Stabiae was certainly not the main center of senatorial villa culture on the Bay of Naples. The epicenter of this intense social and political life was the coastline north of the sleepy, cultured Greek city of Naples, the naval port of Misenum, the sophisticated resorts of Baiae and Cumae with their natural hot springs, oyster beds and bathing establishments, and the great international port city of Puteolis. All these centers were well populated with villas, but Stabiae is the only place where a number of such very large villas are well preserved and accessible to excavation.

Most of the villas at Stabiae were built from the time of Augustus onward, in the early Empire (c. 30 B.C. following), and they evince a new “panoramic” sensibility parallel to the lyricism of Augustan poetry: rooms which reach out to the views; landscape painting with a painterly sense of light and atmosphere, gardens which artfully imitate wild nature; a control of environment by shaping breezes, water and shade; and finally one of the earliest examples of complex use of curve and counter-curve in Roman villa architecture.

During the eruption of A.D. 79 Stabiae was downwind of Vesuvius and was buried under about 14 m. of dry lapilli (cinder). Often wood and tile roofs are found just as they collapsed. An extraordinary characteristic of Stabiae is that often ceiling frescoes are found intact under the collapsed roofs. Pliny the Elder, the administrator of the fleet at Misenum, spent the night at the Stabiae villa of a friend called Pomponianus, and he died on the beach the next morning when the sixth and last pyroclastic surge hit the site.

The first phase of modern archaeology in the Western world began with the large-scale excavations at Herculaneum (1738), Pompeii (1748) and Stabiae (1749). They were carried out by military engineers of Charles VII, king of Naples (later Charles III of Spain). At Stabiae excavations were carried out in open trenches and shallow tunnels which clung to the walls. The best vignettes from the frescoes were cut out and transported to the Royal collections in Portici and Naples, and some were given away as diplomatic gifts. The “Seller of Loves, perhaps the most famous original Roman painting in Europe in the eighteenth century, as well as the Flora, come from the Villa Arianna (“Ariadne”) at Stabiae. Excavations ceased and were backfilled in 1782 and although excellent plans were drawn by Swiss military engineer Karl Weber, the location of the site was completely forgotten by the mid-nineteenth century.

Stabiae existed (and still exists) in the shadow of the more famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and it was generally not appreciated how different it was from those town sites till recently. Excavation was reopened in 1950 through the passionate dedication of the principal of the local classical high school, Libero D’Orsi, who started excavations with his own pocket money and a janitor and an unemployed car mechanic. Excavations gradually expanded and were passed to the Superintendancy of Archaeology of Pompeii (SAP) in the 1960’s.

Between 1998 and 2002 a new and innovative type of non-profit foundation was formed to partner with the SAP to formulate and execute an ambitious master plan to transform the site into a major “archaeological park.” The Restoring Ancient Stabiae (RAS) Foundation was shaped with international board representation from the SAP, from the University of Maryland School of Architecture and a local “Committee of Stabiae Reborn.” It is the first foundation created under a 1998 Italian law which permits a semi-public, semi-private non-profit to both receive and spend, both public and private funds, from Italy and from abroad. The Foundation has survived and prospered in good part because of huge amounts of local support and donated time from locals and from international professionals, though it has had funding from the EU and Italian research foundations. Another Italian legal innovation which benefits the Foundation and Italy is that any U.S. institution which supports the RAS Foundation’s work has the right to request long-term loans of Italian antiquities. In 2004-2008 the RAS Foundation had the first long-term loan of antiquities from Stabiae which toured the U.S. in nine locations under the title In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite.

This Foundation is transforming the ways in which archaeological sites not only are excavated but are managed in a sustainable fashion long term. Because of long-term loans, museums are changing their attitudes about collecting antiquities, and this is reducing the risk of damaging archaeological sites to obtain and sell illegally exported antiquities. As one university museum director said a few years ago, “You know, we really don’t have to own our antiquities any more.” The Master Plan 2001 for the site, which originally estimated a total cost of c. €140 million, is unusually global, coordinating not only archaeology and conservation but also urbanism, physical and financial sustainability, and aspects of education and outreach. As a permanent Foundation, the plan is that the SAP will delegate to RAS some aspects of managing the visitor services at the site.

In 2007 the Foundation, together with the SAP, began the third series of large-scale excavations revealing (for the second time) the entrance courtyard of the so-called Villa San Marco and-- for the first time-- the extraordinarily wekk preserved-- and extraordinarily huge-- formal garden of the Villa Arianna.

The Foundation, also in 2007, assumed management and gradual purchase of a fully equipped academic campus (The Vesuvian International Institute of Archaeology and Humanities) on a hill overlooking the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia. It is the first large residential research institute in Italy south of Rome, with 90 rooms, two theaters, excellent dining room, classrooms, sports grounds, and is hosting a growing range of innovative educational and research programs. The Foundation is actively seeking U.S. and international partners in archaeological research and educational programs. Active partners in the archaeological activity include Cornell, Columbia University, Hermitage State Museums-St. Petersburg, Univ. of Molise, Birmingham U.K., Univ. Akron, Univ. Mississippi, Southwestern Univ. TX, Brock, Ontario, and others, and the Foundation has formal relations with several Neapolitan and Italian Universities, including Universita di Napoli, Federico II, the Normale di Pisa and the Orientale di Napoli.

The largest excavation and conservation programs have yet to be executed, and the Vesuvian Institute is moving toward establishing a permanent study-abroad program managed by U.S. academic partners. Opportunities for universities and museums to assume leadership role in the framework established by the Foundation are wide open.

The Foundation has already used lidar scanning and modeling on the Stabiae to record crucial features which have since vanished: namely the original excellently preserved garden surface which was revealed in the excavation of 2007, and which since has weathered, degrading its original condition. The study team, primarily from University of Maryland and Cornell University, is using that model as a crucial tool in shaping the publication.

In summer 2013 the first field team from CyArk Oakland arrived on the site to begin the extraordinarily complex recording of the labyrinthine architecture and virtuosic frescoes of the hundreds of rooms, tunnels and 30 m. high terrace walls all of the villas of Stabiae.

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Perspective of the bath complex

Project Narrative


In the summer of 2013, CyArk began the digital documentation of the ruins of Ancient Stabiae in a collaborative project with the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS). The project was generously funded by the Friends of Heritage Preservation, with additional matching funds from The mission of the RAS is to define Ancient Stabiae as an archaeological park, a plan that calls for the complete excavation of two of the large villas on the site, one of which is the Vila of Arianna. The Coordinator General of the RAS Foundation requested CyArk's assistance in the provision of digital documentation of select priority areas around the site, contributing to Ancient Stabiae's archive by providing accurate drawings and measurements to be used in interpreting the site. CyArk has already scanned the panoramic rooms of Villa Arianna, the oldest villa of Ancient Stabiae known for its complex architecture and exquisite frescoes, as well as the Villa's luxurious private bath complex.
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Drawing of the north wall elevation of the bath complex at Villa Arianna



The site of Stabiae is in fact quite privileged relative to Pompeii and Herculaneum, in that the site has been open only since 1950, and has always been under some kind of roof, albeit often leaky roofs which get blown away in severe winter storms blowing in of the Mediterranean. The conservation history has also been much shorter and much more consistent.

Nonetheless the site is recognized to be at risk. A major advance was achieved in late 2012 when the SAP completed the task of providing most of the site with new roofing of ancient-style tiles and heavy timbers, a construction method which is much more resistant to earthquake damage than the concrete lintels which previously had been used on the site. (A severe earthquake in 1980 collapsed some 60 m. of colonnade in the Villa San Marco, completely destroying dozens of spirally fluted columns.)

The cliff on which the villas stand is geologically unstable and large sections of the front of the villas have collapsed into the terrain below them. It can be stabilized but requires very accurate knowledge of the hydrology of the site, which in turn requires very accurate 3d recording. Movement of damp through the buildings is a major source of damage to frescoes. This seems not to have happened in antiquity, which implies ancient builders knew how to prevent it. One goal is to investigate the ancient water systems and put them back in use, an approach which has been applied with some success recently at Herculaneum.

The scanning models to be produced by Cyark for Stabiae will not just be archived but will be a flexible tool of the Foundation to achieve progress toward creating a sustainable archaeological park. The scanned models can help detect geological movement before it becomes dangerous. They serve as a permanent record of a three-dimensionally complex site which is still in a remarkable state of preservation. They will obviously be a critical archaeological study tool as the primary 3D record of the villas, and will also serve as a major outreach tool for the didactic public mission of the Foundation. Cyark has proposed returning to the Stabiae site in the next years as excavation progresses in order to add new areas to those already recorded in order to maintain a consistent technical record, rather than a patchwork put together by various technicians in different ways. Cyark also has programs in “technology transfer” which should mesh with the RAS Foundation/Vesuvian Institute’s long term educational mission, which extends beyond Stabiae and includes establishing a regular program in advanced architectural-archaeological recording.
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