One of Pompeii’s most precious gems, the Villa of Mysteries, is now at risk of collapse due to seismic activity in the Bay of Naples, as well as vibrations from a nearby train line transporting tourists. That's the conclusion of a recent study conducted by Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA). The news comes only a few months after the reopening of the house, whose stunning frescoes had just been restored.
As The Telegraph reports, the high-tech study showed that “in addition to the vibrations from the Vesuvius light railway commuter trains, which ferry tourists to Pompeii from Naples, the protective structure around the villa, built in armored cement, wood and steel 50 years ago is threatened by its own weight and water ingress.”
Buried under 9 meters (30 feet) of ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the Villa of Mysteries has a floor space of 3,700 square meters (40,000 square feet) and 60 rooms. It functioned at various times as both a farm house and as what Romans called an otium, a luxury home in the countryside where owners would greet guests and organize sumptuous parties.
The villa features an atrium and a tablinum similar to Roman urban houses. But it is distinguished by its external porticoes, gardens, living quarters and dining rooms, which are organized to take advantage of the scenery. Built just outside Pompeii’s Herculaneum Gate, the villa stands on a hillside and faces the sea, a location typical of the first constructions in the Bay of Naples between the third and second centuries BC, which developed far from the coastline to avoid building on swamps and protect its inhabitants from piracy.
Although the architecture of the building was fairly simple, the walls were adorned with frescoes of the Second Style, which were characterized by their depictions of architectural features such as columns and overhanging pediments. The most spectacular fresco can be found in the dining room, where life-size figures are depicted in what is probably an initiation ritual for the cult of Dionysus.
When the excavation of the villa began in 1909, the frescoes and structures were immediately exposed to damage. As Jarrett A. Lobell writes in an account of the recent restoration for Archaeology, “Five months after the Villa of the Mysteries was first uncovered, it still had no roof to protect it. Moisture began to infiltrate and weaken the walls and damage the frescoes, harmful salts from the wet ground left white splotches on the paintings, and the sun began to fade the fragile pigments.”
The Villa of Mysteries was covered by a modern shell later in the 20th century, but the structure was built at various times using many materials, resulting in a lack of structural consistency. In addition, misguided techniques of conservation from the era had damaged the villa itself, not only removing the frescoes, rebuilding walls, and then rehanging the frescoes, but also filling the cracks with wax, which sealed moisture inside the walls and weakened the structures.
After a beam supporting the protective shell over the peristyle collapsed in 2012, conservators became wary about the building’s security. The ENEA subsequently evaluated the building’s structural integrity, and the report was unequivocal: while some of the rooms’ cement structures are highly vulnerable to seismic activity, the main structural problems concern the heavy wooden beams supporting the roof. The conservation team cleaned and preserved the frescoes with lasers, and assessed the decay of the walls using ultrasound and thermal imaging. But now the house’s modern shell needs to be reconsidered, after the ENEA team used drones to comprehensively examine the roof from above for the first time.
Hopefully, the Villa of Mysteries will remain. The Villa of Gladiators collapsed in 2010, and others followed in the year after. Under these circumstances, the EU threatened to cut Italy’s funding if the country did not spend €105 million on maintenance and restoration projects in Pompeii by the end of the year. As of now, Italian Cultural Minister Enrico Franceschini needs to keep up with EU requirements, and we expect the Villa of Mysteries to be at the top of his list.
- Carol C Mattusch ed., Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples (New York; London: Thames & Hudson, 2008)