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Saving the Villa of the Mysteries

Beneath the surface of Pompeii's most famous house

March/April 2014

Pompeii Villa Mysteries Dionysus


The moment the Villa of the Mysteries was discovered in spring 1909, it was at risk. Once protected by a layer of at least 30 feet of the volcanic ash and soil that had fallen on Pompeii in A.D. 79, the villa’s stunning decoration was immediately exposed to potential damage from the elements and earthquakes, one of which occurred a bit more than a month after excavations began. As each wheelbarrow of debris was removed, revealing columns, artifacts, mosaics, and frescoes, the threat increased. It soon became clear that the house and its vibrant paintings were extraordinarily vulnerable, not only to sun, rain, and wind, but also to theft. Just three weeks after the discovery of one of the most stunning finds in the famed ancient city, excavations were halted and the focus shifted to protection and conservation. It would take archaeologists two more decades to completely excavate the property.


For more than a century, there have been many efforts, some successful, some less so, to conserve the villa’s walls, floors, and frescoes. Now, several teams of archaeologists, architects, chemists, and physicists have embarked on a yearlong project, using both time-tested methods and innovative technologies, to remedy the damage done by earlier conservators and by time, and to restore the villa and its remarkable interior once again.


Pompeii Villa Mysteries Ultrasonic SurveyBuilt just outside one of Pompeii’s main gates in the first half of the second century B.C., the Villa of the Mysteries covered about 40,000 square feet and had at least 60 rooms. In A.D. 79, the house was already more than two hundred years old and had likely had several different owners, been redecorated, and been heavily repaired, particularly after a large earthquake struck Pompeii in A.D. 62, damaging many buildings and necessitating repairs all over the city. At various times the villa functioned, as many ancient Roman estates did, as both luxury home and working farm. There were areas for pressing grapes into wine, several large kitchens and baths, gardens, shrines, marble statues, and all the spaces necessary for a wealthy patron to welcome guests for both business and pleasure. Many rooms were covered in frescoes, including a bedroom with simple black walls, an atrium decorated with panels painted to resemble stone, several rooms that contain fantastical architecture and landscapes, and scenes of sacrifices, gods, and satyrs.


The most spectacular frescoes, painted in the mid-first century B.C., were found less than a week after excavations began, in an approximately 15-by-15-foot space that was likely used as a dining room. There, against a vivid red background, more than two dozen life-size figures engage in what has been variously interpreted as a play or pantomime, a bride’s preparations for her wedding, or, most often, an initiation ritual into the mystery cult of Dionysus. (In contrast to recognized public religion and worship, in the Greco-Roman world the mystery cults required the worshipper to be initiated.) 


For more than two decades the house was known as the “Villa Item” after Aurelio Item, owner of Pompeii’s Hotel Suisse, and the private excavator who first discovered the villa. But in 1931, Amadeo Maiuri, the director of excavations at Pompeii, changed the name to the “Villa of the Mysteries” upon publication of his excavation report to focus attention on the red room’s decoration, the property’s most extraordinary feature.




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