Art & Culture

Life of the Romans at the MAR in Positano

Destroyed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the MAR today bears witness to the wealth of the ancient aristocracy present on the Amalfi Coast.

By Anna Volpicelli, photo by Vito Fusco

In Piazza Flavio Gioia in Positano, a few steps from the beach of Marina Grande, under the oratory of the church of Santa Maria Assunta, is the Roman Archeological Museum- MAR. Derived from an ancient Roman Villa dating back to the end of the first century B.C., the luxurious residence was probably designed as a dwelling dedicated to ‘otium,‘ (leisure), a sort of vacation home where the nobility of the past spent time to regenerate and rest. 

Historical notes

The Villa, hidden for centuries, was buried under the ashes and mud of the tragic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which hit the city of Pompeii hard. The outbreak was so violent that it managed to cross the Lattari Mountains and reach the Roman residence. It took ten years of investigations, excavations, and hard work by the SABAP of Salerno Avellino, the superintendent Francesca Casule and the archaeological officer Silvia Pacifico, to trace what was once the life, or part of the life, of the Roman aristocracy. The first hints of the luxury of the past can be found in the writings of 1758 by Karl Weber, a Swiss architect responsible for the excavations on behalf of the Bourbons in the cities of Pompeii Herculaneum and Stabia, who illustrates the refinement and wonder of the frescoes. The complex of Positano, Weber wrote in his report, had a peristyle with a central garden and a fountain. The same academic Matteo Della Corte, a world-renowned Italian archaeologist and epigrapher attributed the Villa to Posides Claudi Caesaris, a mighty man freed by Emperor Claudius, from whom Positano would take its name. It took two excavation campaigns (2004/2006; 2015/2016), still ongoing, to recover the hidden treasures. 

The 69 masonry casting seats in the upper crypt, photo by Vito Fusco, courtesy of MAR

From funeral rites to daily life

Access to the museum is gained by descending the stairs located to the square’s right. Here, the upper crypt opens up to display cases containing some osteological finds recovered during excavations. A little further on, a large room exhibits as many as 69 masonry casting seats which, it seems, were used in the Bourbon era to dry the bodies of the dead. The adjacent environment preserves several cases containing furnishings and various objects that recall daily life. Among these are bronze containers, metal vessels used to prepare food and serve the different dishes, tools for work in the fields, and candelabra. 

The complexity of the frescoes

The heart of the museum is the triclinium, located 11 cm below the upper crypt. A series of frescoes from the beginning of the IV century decorate the entire room. The upper part preserves stuccoes depicting cupids, hippocampi, dolphins. Looking a little further down, images illustrate mythological narratives, including Chiron giving Achilles a lesson, Dionysus, a woman, and a child. At the bottom, the last part of the fresco, there are paintings of Juno animals, including peacocks that have always symbolized wealth and rebirth. The MAR website states: “Most of the ancient colors were of mineral origin: the yellows, reds, browns, some greens, are obtained by decanting – and sometimes by calcination – of natural earth. Others are of vegetable origin, such as pink black, often obtained from carbon black. Particularly expensive was blue, also known as Egyptian blue obtained by heating a mixture composed of copper silicate, calcite, and sodium carbonate as a flux.”

The frescoes in the trilicium, photo by Vito Fusco, courtesy of MAR

The Lower Crypt

A few steps from the museum, another room brings to life the remains of an early medieval hypogeum, probably built just before the 12th century. It is located about 15 feet below the mother church. The environment preserves some masonry casting seats for the drying of the dead. The central apse is covered by two cross vaults and the rectangular one by four barrel vaults. Inside there are also elements of perusal, including twisted columns. The entire museum is still archaeological study and recovery that will soon emerge to the surface. 

Info:

Roman Archeological Museum – MAR, Piazza Flavio Gioia, 7, Positano (SA), tel: +39.331.208.581, email: ticketoffice@marpositano.it, marpositano.it

 

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