The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Katrina Kelly
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The textual source that repeatedly draws me back – Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – couldn’t be any less comforting, except that its gruesome events, uncomfortable imagery and emotional intensity make you realise that things in your own life really aren’t that bad! Linguistically, the Agamemnon is notoriously fiendish and not a relaxing piece to grapple with but the challenge it brings is in itself exciting. The text’s opacity and obscurity lend it eternal power.
My greatest comfort though is derived from the gardens and frescoes of the Villa di Poppea at Oplontis.
When did you first come across this site?
My first visit to the bay of Naples was in 2013 on a school trip which happily coincided with my sixteenth birthday – it was certainly memorable to spend it in Pompeii, not just for the evocative surroundings but also for the torrential rain that pursued us around the site and all the way to the modern town of Torre Annunziata (ancient Oplontis) where we finished the day. Feeling soggy, the light fading, the villa at Oplontis was virtually empty and eerily atmospheric. I was struck by the vividness of the colours dancing on the walls of the caldarium and oecus – their painted scenes were bright windows to the past.
Although seeing these sites in the flesh was a brilliant experience that left a lasting impression on me, it wasn’t until four years later and the infamous ‘Texts and Contexts’ module of the Oxford Classics course that I was able to write about Oplontis and other Neapolitan villas and then study them in more detail for my undergraduate dissertation on Roman gardens and women (titled Metella est in horto!).
Can you tell me a bit about the Villa and its context?
The Villa Poppaea was a seaside retreat built in the mid first-century BC on the southern side of Vesuvius, to the north west of Pompeii. It grew to become a notable and fashionable villa maritima that may well have belonged to Nero’s second wife Poppaea during the first century AD and was, no doubt, the scene of many an interesting party and many an important moment within the politics of the imperial family. The villa has survived remarkably well and is outstanding for its size and scale – both the number and variety of its rooms, and its grandiose approach to decoration and architectural principles – as well as for its large outdoor piscina (swimming pool).
The villa had an internal bath complex fuelled by a hypocaust, a large service area to cater for and entertain illustrious guests, statement pieces such as the huge piscina, and was designed as a retreat from urban business but it also had productive areas for the small-scale industries of high-end products such as fish, birds and dormice. Oplontis is, therefore, a rich site (in both senses of the word) that tells us much about contemporary aristocratic tastes, artistic styles and about the complex interplay between otium (leisure) and negotium (business) in elite Roman culture.
What is it about this place that appeals to you most?
Although I felt far more at home in the narrow streets of Pompeii, it was the feeling of what must once have been glorious green space, coupled with the vibrancy of the extant murals inside the villa, that captivated me. The villa contains thirteen separate gardens including a three-quarter open peristyle, orchards, and an enclosed garden with detailed wall paintings of more green spaces: these artistic representations help to blend art and nature seamlessly and give a framed visual axis to allow the spectator to look directly through interior rooms to an external space.
Many Roman domestic buildings were designed with the distinction between public and private space in mind, drawing the eye to emphasise space, art, opulence and nature. Oplontis provides the perfect example of this, both in the villa’s design and in its artwork: decadent pieces in what August Mau termed the ‘second style’ of painting contain imagined landscapes, such as in the main triclinium, adding depth to relatively small rooms. The atrium with its shaded impluvium forms the entry to the villa and then one’s gaze is focused through a courtyard and a further room towards the gardens extending to the front of the villa, integrating the beauty of the natural landscape with the carefully crafted design of the interior.
There is still so much to be discovered and (re)imagined at Oplontis, particularly in the gardens where a gardener’s tools lay abandoned – a mundane sign of daily labor. So much excavatory work in the gardens of nearby Pompeii has yielded fascinating facts, gleaned from pottery sherds and loom weights, carbonised seeds and fruits.
I’m very much looking forward to when we are allowed to travel again and I can find comfort and enjoyment in wandering through the streets, houses and villas of ancient Italy looking at gardens – from the humble heredium (vegetable patch) to larger peristyles and ornamental planted areas – and seeing the outdoor places where Roman women in particular used to live, work, host, relax and perform familial, religious and cultural duties.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I do a handstand! I’ve done gymnastics since I was a young child and have always loved being upside-down – it’s my mission to still be able to do this in later life so daily practice is important. I find, too, that it’s a great way to relieve stress and find inspiration: the blood-rush helps me compose my next email, report or essay! Whilst it’s been very frustrating and difficult not to be able to see friends and train for team and indoor sports recently, at least we are still allowed to run, so I’ve been running along the beach in the afternoons and trying to memorise all the side streets and alleyways in my local area.
For ultimate comfort, I bake scones and watch Miss Marple (the Joan Hickson series of course) or curl up with a book – preferably a biography or memoir. It’s been great to read more in lockdown and running our local Classical Association branch Book Club (free and open to all!) has made me really enjoy getting back into reading great works of historical fiction too.
Katrina Kelly is a Research Assistant for the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics. She is also the Branches Officer of the Classical Association and has been Chair of the Lytham St Annes CA since she founded the branch in 2014 as a sixth-former. Her research interests span Greek tragedy, the urban and economic history of the Roman world, and garden spaces, both ancient and modern. She is currently writing her MA dissertation at the Open University on pleasure gardens at the Victorian seaside. With the LSA CA, she co-ordinates a team of Classics Ambassadors and organises an annual international Classics Competition for students.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.