We stand in a mid-day drowse, like the citizens of ancient Rome must have stood – the sun is warm; the sea glistens; and there is the distant rise and fall of bells. Behind us roll green hills and to our front, the double-backed outline of Vesuvius steals the horizon.
So peaceful … yet it never has been, and still is not. There remains a threat below the surface.
The danger seems clear to us now, but two thousand years ago it was not so obvious to the wealthy Roman elite. They had known earthquakes but had no knowledge of the violence of Vesuvius. Instead, seduced by the beauty of Campania, they chose Stabiae for their villas.
Even the brilliant Roman, Pliny the Elder, in command of the imperial naval base at Misenum across the Bay of Naples, had no idea of what was to come.
When it did happen, when the volcano blasted a high plume of dark smoke towards the heavens in late August AD79, Pliny sailed directly towards the danger to offer help. He reached his destination but never made it back to Misenum – he died on the shore at Stabiae.
I peer over the railings of the Villa Arianna and try to imagine the scene but where there might have been sand there is now only housing. The new town has been built over the past, right to the edge of the property.
Today Arianna, like an elegant lady in recovery from a brutal mugging, is a little shaky on her feet and her finery is somewhat dishevelled, but her pedigree and character are evident – she is lofty and well positioned, and already she stares defiantly back across the valley towards Vesuvius.
It’s extraordinary that she’s here at all.
In AD 79 she was obliterated by the volcano. Her owners had no recognisable warning that the mountain was about to erupt – it just suddenly did. What should have been an ordinary day exploded into hours of fire, gas, hailing pumice and suffocating ash … there was little that anyone could do to protect themselves or their properties. Those who could not flee in time were simply buried.
The trauma was immense. The land was left to hide its secrets for well over another 1,500 years.
It was only in the mid-eighteenth century that Arianna, and others like her, were discovered buried beneath metres of ash and pumice. There followed a flurry of activity in Stabiae – brief excavations were begun … but then, once again, the villas were abandoned.
That would have been the end of it if it had not been for the efforts two hundred years later, in the 1950s of a local school principal, Libero d’Orsi. He could not bear to think that a site, once home to some of the most influential and powerful people on earth, should simply be forgotten … so he and his small team began to dig.
Now that the villas are back in the sun we at least have their damaged glory to give us a sense of how much of the Roman Republic’s finest was lost in just two days. All this is, in the main, thanks to the work begun by Libero d’Orsi and supported now by the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS).
On the day we visit we are shown around Arianna by a guide who appears out of nowhere.
The entrance hall, the atrium, is high-walled and spacious whilst the bedrooms are dark, set into the hillside, with few if any windows. The eating area is light and airy, close to the sea views, with the latest in ancient baths to one side of the building.
There are patterned mosaics on the floors of the ancient villa; and on the walls are scraps of colour, patches from murals, graffiti – the remnants of family life from a time before the eruption.
And, of course, there are the views, especially from the walkways and terraces positioned between the ocean on one side and the building on the other, with stairs that lead down through the levels below to the shore.
Not far from the Villa Arianna in Stabiae, is another ‘desirable’ property – the Villa San Marco.
Here, the old building is more complete and feels a little sturdier. It’s not quite as close to the beach as the Villa Arianna but it does have a courtyard pool, shaded by trees with views towards Vesuvius.
Roofs are in place; a cool breeze fills the rooms; there is a sense of peace – of sandalled feet and togas.
When we visit no guide appears from the shadows. We are left to wander. The villa is ours – we are alone in the generous rooms, free to explore the domestic luxury of an elite who lived two thousand years before us.
There are mosaics, fragments of frescoes, columns, courtyards, and space.
The rooms we are in are above the town, with exclusive views over the crowded lives below. We eat our sandwiches in the peristyle beyond the swimming pool, where we watch lizards and listen to the soft thud of the cones that drop from the tall pines around us.
All is quiet … unthreatening … apart from Vesuvius whose two humps are pale blue, hazy in the heat and indifferent to the occasional puff of fireworks that bang cheekily at its feet.
I study the volcano from where we sit. I scowl at it, try not to be lulled by it, watch it … yet, however hard I stare, and despite the evidence around me, I still can’t imagine its destructive power.
We finish our picnic and then leave the villa and the view, with a wave to the friendly lady in the small booth near the entrance.
In a few hundred yards we move from the ancient world to the new, via satnav. We twist back through the streets towards the autostrada for the drive north, with the sprawl of Naples to our left and the unsettling escort of Vesuvius to our right.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018
Here are links for further information on the Villa Arianna, the Villa San Marco and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS).