Pliny's Laurentinum villa, model (reconstruction)

Plan reconstruction

Perspective reconstruction

Elevation reconstruction by Karl Friedrich Schinkel

 

"Miraris cur me Laurentinum uel (si ita mauis), Laurens menum tanto opere delectet; desines mirari, cum cognoueris gratiam uillae, opportunitatem loci, litoris spatiu."

[You wonder why my Laurentinum (or if you prefer, my Laurens) delights me so. You will cease to wonder when you have become acquainted with the charm of the villa itself, the convenience of the location and the spaciousness of the shore.]

In these opening lines of a letter written to his friend Gallus around the end of the first century A.D., Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus-Pliny the Younger -proudly and lovingly praised the virtues of this seaside villa at Laurentinum, on the Tyrrhenian coast southwest of Rome. Although its precise location has never been pinpointed, a recent study of Pliny's Laurentine villa by a team of architecture and classics scholars provides some interesting insights into life in a Roman villa, the villa tradition in ancient Roman society, and some implications for contemporary architecture.

Pliny the Younger was so called to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Pliny the Elder, an indefatigable scholar and writer who produced the celebrated thirty-seven-volume Natural History (characterized by one scholar as "a storehouse of ancient errors"). The younger Pliny, a successful lawyer and imperial administrator, is best known to classical scholars as the author of the nine-volume Epistularium, a collection of elegantly written letters that convey a wealth of information about social, literary, political, and domestic life in first-century Rome.

Like most wealthy Romans, Pliny owned a lot of real estate, including a country place in Tuscany as well as the villa at Laurentinum. Two of his letters describe these villas, and a number of scholars have used information in the letters to "reconstruct" them. Their actual locations have never been identified, however, so the reconstructions remain speculative. Pliny's letter tells us that the Laurentine villa was not far from Ostia, a busy Roman seaport at the mouth of the Tiber through which grain and other commodities from all over the empire made their way to the imperial capital. The remains of ancient Ostia-Ostia Antica-were excavated in the late 1930s, and they reveal a great deal about daily life in Pliny's time in this important crossroads of the Roman Empire.

Ruins at a site near Ostia Antica known as Scavi di Laurentinum were thought for many years to be the remains of Pliny's villa, but careful investigation has proved that many features of these ruins do not correspond to Pliny's descriptions. Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, an Italian scholar of classical architecture, has investigated another site not far from Ostia Antica known as Grotta di Piastra. She is convinced that it is the location of the Laurentine villa, but her findings have not won widespread acceptance in the archaeological community.

Pliny's descriptions of his Laurentine villa suggest that he was a studious man of modest tastes. He does not mention rich furnishings, statues, or paintings; the only piece of furniture that he describes in any detail is a bookcase that "holds volumes deserving not only to be read but to be perused frequently." His pleasure in the villa comes from its convenient location, the nearby sea, the design of the garden, and the congenial and practical arrangement of the rooms. A garden walk is encircled by boxwood and rosemary, and along its inner circuit runs "a delicate and shady vine, soft and yielding even to bare feet. Thick mulberry and fig clothe the garden; the soil, hostile to other varieties is especially favorable to them." Pliny writes with great satisfaction about a cubiculum-a small room-that serves as his study. "Whenever I retreat into this room," he writes, "I seem to have left my villa and I take great pleasure in that, especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is resounding with the license and festive uproar of those days. That way neither am I a hindrance to the merriment of the household nor they to my studies."

 

--Excerpted from The Pliny Project by Henry Lansford