Preserving the Past for Posterity
September 13, 2018
Stepping into history
Ensconced on the Bay of Naples just four kilometers from Pompeii lies Stabiae, an ancient Roman town with a complicated history. During the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, the naturalist and Roman navy commander Pliny the Elder famously died while trying to rescue friends and other residents of the resort town from the volcano. The town lay hidden beneath 3.5 meters of cinder and ash for centuries until 1749, when amateurish excavations began under the reign of King Charles VII of Naples. But the digs were abandoned and the site backfilled, reinterring the city yet again until a local high school principal used his own pocket money to recommence archaeological study with a group of volunteers in 1951.
And in the summer of 2018, supervised by Professor of Art and Art History and Chair of Art History Thomas Noble Howe, four students from Southwestern became part of the archaeological history of the site by traveling to Italy to help produce 3D architectural drawings of Stabiae’s exhumed residences: Abigail Jendrusch ’19, Kyle Leon ’20, Jake Stagner ’20, and Haley Druart ’21.
“The importance of Stabiae is that it is probably the best place where archaeology can recover the powerful communities of Roman villas, the senatorial so-called villae maritimae, around the Bay of Baiae on the north side of Naples,” says Howe.
Stabiae houses the largest concentration of well-preserved large seaside villas in the entire Mediterranean. “The importance of Stabiae is that it is probably the best place where archaeology can recover the powerful communities of Roman villas, the senatorial so-called villae maritimae, around the Bay of Baiae on the north side of Naples,” says Howe, who is also the coordinator generale (scientific director) of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae (RAS) Foundation and lead excavation director of the garden of the great peristyle of the Villa Arianna in Stabiae. “In the first century B.C and A.D., some of the most important events of the late Roman Republic and early Empire occurred in the villas on the Bay of Naples” because the capital virtually moved from Rome to Stabiae or its environs during senatorial holidays. Among the renowned inhabitants of those villas were Julius Caesar, Cicero, and the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Hadrian. “Only at Stabiae,” says Howe, “can you stand in a frescoed dining room, a triclinium, and look out to the Bay of Naples and feel the cooling breezes and the carefully calculated shade, an environment created by virtuoso architects and artists of the first century B.C.”
Stagner, a classics major, echoes Howe’s rapturous sense of sharing a space with historical figures from antiquity. “Being on site and being in the villas—that was just fantastic. You’re basically walking where the Romans walked or looking out over the balcony and looking at Vesuvius and seeing what Pliny saw. Or you can look out at Capri and see Tiberius’s base of operations… . You’re stepping into history,” Stagner says with relish.
Documenting and preserving antiquity
Howe—along with Kathryn Gleason, Michele Palmer, and Ian Sutherland—is the coauthor and coeditor of the 2016 book Excavation and Study of the Garden of the Great Peristyle of the Villa Arianna, Stabiae, 2007–2012 (Associazione Internazionale Amici di Pompei, RAS Foundation, and Nicola Longobardi Editore). He returns to Stabiae every summer—and often six or eight times throughout the rest of the year. He often brings Southwestern architecture, classics, history, art, and art history students, especially for the summer program. “It is such a wonderful, high-impact learning experience for students. For them to have the opportunity to work on such a site … it’s truly life-changing.” Howe has led field seasons of as many as 110 people from 12 institutions and seven countries. Since 1999, he has been working to create a world-class “archaeological park” of six Stabiae villas, all of them dating from between 80 B.C. and A.D. 79. This site will become a museum where visitors can explore Roman villa culture of the Bay of Naples, in turn leading to a cultural and economic revival of the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia.
The study abroad experience itself is a three-week course hosted by the RAS Foundation, with residency at the Vesuvian Institute, a modern Salesian monastery where students missed central air conditioning but were served authentic Italian cuisine and took in extraordinary views of the Mediterranean Sea or the mountains of the Sorrento Peninsula. The participants spent the first week at the Villa Arianna, named for a fresco depicting the mythological scene of Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus on Naxos. The villa houses the largest, best-preserved Roman garden ever discovered; Howe describes it as “the first actual archaeological evidence of the existence of the type of garden seen in the famous garden fresco of the villa of the Empress Livia at Prima Porta.” The garden also very likely demonstrates “the arrival of the professional landscape architect in Roman architecture, the artful shaping of space and human movement with plants,” Howe says. In the midst of this once-luxurious site, the students sketched by hand and took photos of the garden. Next, they conducted 3-D scans to create photorealistic renderings using tools most often reserved for professional architects, surveyors, and building engineers, such as total station theodolite, LiDAR, and CAD (computer-aided design and drafting) software. During their second and third weeks, the students compiled those scans into 3D models and engaged in photo stitching, the painstaking process of combining multiple images with overlapping elements to create a high-resolution, undistorted illustration of, for example, a garden wall. They then make critiques, modifications, and corrections in the field, creating innovative ways of recording details and making previously unseen observations, such as mistakes made by the ancient Roman fresco painters.
The importance of this work is to preserve the site for posterity. “We have to do documentation because the Villa Arianna sits on a fault-line escarpment, so every time there’s a mudslide, landslide, or earthquake, there’s a chance the villa will go off. By getting models of the interior, we’re preserving it,” Stagner says. Leon, an international studies major with an art history focus, adds that by submitting their work to government officials and the archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae, “We were reminded that our work was extremely important. It was truly scholarly work that would provide researchers with valuable information.”
Drawing near the ancients
Howe sees the program as an intense but terrific hands-on experience for students exploring archaeology, architecture, and historic preservation as careers. Leon appreciated the professional impacts of the course: “I wanted tangible skills, and I got exactly that.” Stagner agrees that the program resulted in a lot of discipline-specific knowledge, especially about Roman construction and the maintenance of Roman gardens. For Druart, an art history major and religion and French double minor, the experience revived her creative spirit as well: “I haven’t drawn in a really long time, but this reignited my love of drawing again working among master’s architecture students. They encouraged everyone, even those of us who weren’t well versed in drawing.”
But beyond gaining occupational experience and creative inspiration, the most enjoyable parts of the program for several of the SU students were the site excursions. The participants had the opportunity to visit such nearby sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum, an ancient Greek city in southern Italy where visitors can see three Doric temples and a largely intact amphitheater. “Being in [the National Archaeological] Museum of Naples, you’re seeing pieces of art that you’ve seen in Howe’s Greco-Roman art class,” Stagner reflects, “and you go, ‘oh my gosh, that’s the original or the copy in marble!’ And you’re just agape.” Leon echoes this feeling. While viewing slides and taking notes in a classroom back in Georgetown, “Photos can only give you so much information. But seeing them in person, you see details you don’t see in photos.”
That humanistic viewpoint was something that all four Southwestern students were able to bring to Italy.
Having an up-close-and-personal perspective of Roman antiquity expanded Druart’s thinking about the provenance of ancient landmarks, artworks, and buildings. “A hands-on experience helps you consider what has been changed in the object or copy, like damage and looting,” she says. “You’re able to see what it was versus what it is now. It helps you think about preservation and all the people who are involved in bringing these images to you and helping you learn about these things.” That humanistic viewpoint was something that all four Southwestern students were able to bring to Italy, complementing the design perspectives of the University of Maryland architecture students: “We could think about the importance of the people who made the things, not just whether or how a building is architecturally sound or how you might paint on [particular materials],” Druart continues. “We could think about the history and culture of the people who built the walls and made the art.”
November 2018 will mark the 20th year since the beginning of the Stabiae project and Howe’s initiation of the master plan for the site’s architecture and archaeology.