Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis



























Chi tante male azioni fa, una grossa ne aspetta.
(He who does many bad deeds can expect a big one in return.)

Nook of Naples:  An ancient map named this suburb city of Pompeii "Oplontis."  Today, the modern city is known as "Torre Annunziata".  What remains of the Roman suburb is a well-preserved villa thirty feet below the modern level where visitors can roam a massive residential complex that once belonged to Nero's wife, Poppaea Sabina.

Buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, the rooms still tell a story about the daily lives of its former inhabitants.  The first room at the entrance of the villa is the Atrium, a grand sitting room with an opening in the roof and a corresponding tub in the center of the floor that collects rainwater.  

A brick oven looks as though it could still be fired up and the adjacent triclinium still boasts red frescoes.  The triclinium once had cots along the walls where people lay down to eat.  

There are latrines with top slabs and a canal below.  At the entrance to the bathroom, a tub once contained water used to clean out the canal.  

The baths are particularly impressive, including a calidarium and tepidarium that once had an advanced system of hot & warm air flowing along the walls and under the floor.  

Roofless indoor gardens still depict lush vegetation on the walls and vast gardens are lined with marble sculptures.  Archeologists have created casts out of the roots of tall trees they found here.  The trees are believed to be sycamores.

The villa truly comes alive with the history of Poppaea Sabina (30-65 A.D.).  Born in Pompeii, her distinguished mother committed suicide when Poppaea was 17.  At the age of 14 she had already married Rufrius Crispinus, a man of Egyptian origin and leader of the Praetorian Guard.  (The military group that assisted emperors in campaigns and were known for their intrigues and assassinations.)  But Poppaea divorced him and married Otho, a good friend of Emperor Nero.

Nero fell in love with her and she became his favorite mistress.  Tacitus describes her as ambitious and ruthless.  She enticed Nero to kill his mother, Agrippina and after Nero's mother was out of the way, she pressured Nero to divorce and later execute his wife, Claudia Octavia.

Poppaea became pregnant and bore Nero one daughter who died at four months of age.  Two years later, while pregnant with their second child, rumors held that she and Nero quarreled about him spending too much time at the races.  In a fit of rage, Nero kicked her in the abdomen.  She and her child died.  Nevertheless, she was given a state funeral and Nero praised her during the eulogy.

Apparently, Poppaea enjoyed taking milk baths.

Movie Recommendation:   It Started In Naples (1960) with Sophia Lauren and Clark Gable.

La Cucina Napoletana:  My next few posts will be dedicated to the villas around Naples.  In keeping with this theme, I would like to translate (loosely) some recipes from the book Ricette Della Cucina Romana A Pompeii (Recipes from the Roman Kitchen at Pompeii.) by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti.  Because Pompeii was so well-preserved, today we know quite a bit about their eating habits.  The author of this cookbook is also an archeologist who has written extensively on the period.  The book is filled with delightful nuggets, but for today, very appropriately, I post the dessert called:

Cassata di Oplontis 
(Tutti-Frutti of Oplontis)

(Serves 15-20)
3 lbs. ricotta
2 1/2 cups honey
3/4 cup dried apricots
3/4 cup prunes
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup walnuts -- shelled and peeled
10 dates
3/4 cup almond flour
Red colored powder bought from a bakery

Cut and dice the dried fruit.  Put aside the nicest pieces as well as the dates for decoration.  Bring the walnuts to a boil in some of the honey until they are caramelized.  Break the pieces apart.

Next, pass the ricotta through a sieve.  Reserve about a half cup for decoration, then mix the rest with honey until the ricotta is adequately sweet (more or less at the level of the Sicilian tutti-frutti).  Work the cream until it becomes extremely smooth, soft, and light.  At this point, add the diced fruit and the caramelized walnuts.

Take more honey and kneed it into the almond flour along with the red coloring powder until a ball forms.  Line a baking tin with greased wax-paper.  Stretch the marzipan with a rolling pin and then press the dough into the tin.  Fill the tin with the cream of ricotta and place in the refrigerator for at least one day.  (Don't put in the freezer).

Delicately remove the wax-paper from the tin, then remove the wax-paper from the marzipan, and place on a round tray.  Layer the top with the ricotta and decorate with the dried fruits -- imitating as much as possible the desserts you see in the frescoes of Oplontis.

Eat while taking a long tepid milk bath in your tepidarium.

Buon Divertimento!

5 comments:

Bella Baita View said...

This looks like a great cassata to try my hand at.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I will be traveling from Sorrento to Naples on the Circumvesuviana train this spring. We would like to stop at Torre Annunziata to see the villa, but I’ve heard from a few travelers that Torre Annunziata is a rough town and that we should be very careful there.

Our thoughts were to jump off at the train stop and walk the few blocks to the villa. Then we would simply walk back to the train station and catch the next train that came along to Naples. Is that safe? We’re experienced travelers, but really do not speak much Italian at all. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question, and please keep posting your interesting blog articles. We love them.

Larry
Nashville, TN, USA

Anonymous said...

My wife and I will be traveling from Sorrento to Naples on the Circumvesuviana train this spring. We would like to stop at Torre Annunziata to see the villa, but I’ve heard from a few travelers that Torre Annunziata is a rough town and that we should be very careful there.

Our thoughts were to jump off at the train stop and walk the few blocks to the villa. Then we would simply walk back to the train station and catch the next train that came along to Naples. Is that safe? We’re experienced travelers, but really do not speak much Italian at all. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question, and please keep posting your interesting blog articles. We love them.

Larry
Nashville, TN, USA

Barbara said...

Thanks for writing and glad you enjoy the blog. And from Nashville! What a wonderful place to live. (I love visiting the South.)

When I think of Villa Poppaea I have to sigh in happiness... Stabia was also breathtaking as it sits on a cliff. But I understand your concern about safety.

I'm always a little confused by the statements of it being dangerous here. Naples is, bar none, the safest city in Europe as well as the U.S. in that it has the absolute lowest number of violent crime anywhere in the Western world. So you need not worry about murder, rape, or being held up at gunpoint. For this, you can brag to your friends that Naples is even much safer than Nashville.

The violent crime is exclusively among mafia. If you are not part of the mafia, they leave you alone.

That said -- people want your money. And they will try to steal it while you are not looking. So I always make several notes to myself as I travel:
-- I try not to stand out as a tourist, but blend in. That means I never wear shorts, sweats, baseball caps, or T-shirts with writing on it (Italians never wear them). Other than that, you'll be okay.
-- I always find a money belt shoved in my pants is best -- I keep my passport, ID's, and money in the belt and then carry a purse with some change (about 20 Euro) so I can easily pull out money for entry fees or a caffe.
-- I do however insist on carrying my very expensive digital camera with me everywhere. I don't wear it over one shoulder, but across my chest so that nobody can pull it off and run away.
-- Italians understand that the roads are confusing and often unmarked. So they ask everyone directions themselves. You can always feel good about asking directions and asking often, starting with "Buongiorno" and saying "Grazie" a lot. If they don't speak English, they will point with their fingers... you'll walk down the block where they pointed and then ask another person again.
--People around the Oplontis, Herculaneum, and Pompeii areas will try to ask you questions or try to say they are tour guides. Usually they want you to give them money or hire them for an hour (even if they don't speak English), but they are actually vagabonds of some kind. Simply say 'No, Grazie. No, Grazie' as you walk away. They won't be aggressive and try to stop you. You don't have to feel scared of them. Just be firm.
-- Traffic is intense (much like NYC). While walking or driving, you have to watch the road rather than street signs or the ruins, otherwise you'll be run over. Motorinos have the right of way. Cars don't heed any traffic signs and nobody uses the crosswalks. So the traffic can make things very dangerous and you must be very aware while you walk.

My concern about you sightseeing in Oplontis (and possibly Boscoreale and Stabia) is not the danger factor. Rather, I myself drove there by car and had to go three times before I actually found the places. Unlike Mt. Vesuvius & Pompeii, which are easy to get to, Oplontis is darn hard to find and you could end up taking several hours roaming around, asking, asking, and still searching for the ruins. I would suggest either having a really good map with you and charting out your walk beforehand, or negotiating a reasonable fee with a cab driver to take you there for an afternoon or asking at the hotel if they have a tour or a recommendation for a tour guide.

If you can find a cab or a driver, it will be one of the most worthwhile experiences of a lifetime. Pompeii and Herculaneum are definitely amazing. But in Oplontis and Stabia, the villas are incredibly well preserved with the frescoes on the walls still in tact. Plus, very few tourists take the time to go there, so you'll find that you aren't amidst a large number of people. It will feel like Poppaea and Nero are going to walk down a hall to greet you at any moment.

Saluti da Napoli,
Barbara

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