The Nymphaeum

In the Central Area of the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa site sits an impressive structure that combines Roman concrete construction and the Imperial Period fascination with the control and display of water. The resulting building is a large vaulted space over a pool and walls decorated with niches that mimic the interior of a grotto. This form of architecture is best characterized as a nymphaeum, that is, a building that projects the artifice of being in a natural space through the manipulation of water and decorative elements. Nymphaea are features of elite Roman houses beginning in the Late Republican period. The scale and decoration of the nymphaeum at the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa indicate that it was constructed in the Imperial Period and was designed to impress visitors to the estate as well as provide a pleasant ambiance for the residents of the villa.

We invite you to explore a 3D model of the nymphaeum from the 2019 excavations:

Central Area Nymphaeum Model July 2020 by trasimenoscavi on Sketchfab

At the end of the 2019 campaign, the east side of the nymphaeum was exposed. The building appears to have been open to the south, with a view across the Clanis River and the Lago di Chiusi towards the city of Chiusi beyond. On the north side, a stairway (first excavated in 2017, see Scavi 2016-2019) descends from an upper terrace and bisects the structure. There are two niches on either side of the stairway. Those niches continue along the east side of the building and, given the Roman’s interest in symmetry, were probably also on the west, for a total of twelve niches altogether. Overall the structure is 6.5 m wide and at least 8.30 m long (the south side remains to be excavated).

The niches rest on top of a thick wall of cocciopesto, water-proof cement, that is 0.40 m high. Below this is a tile floor mortared to the bottom of the cocciopesto, creating a pool, which is the central feature of a nymphaeum. The stairway may have been a sort of waterfall supplying the pool below. The interior of the niches are decorated with plaster set with small stones and blue-glass tesserae, pasta vitrea, that give the appearance of a natural surface, like the interior of the grotto. The blue-glass in the walls would reflect light bouncing off the surface of the water in the pool creating a playful and spectacular effect. The pillars between the niches were decorated with plaster painted in red, yellow, white, and black (unfortunately not enough of the wall plaster remains in situ to determine the pattern).

View of the niches and pillars from the floor of the pool.

One can imagine an impressive structure, perhaps with a vaulted ceiling, employing multiple decorative techniques to delight the mind with an interplay between the natural and built environments, between water and light, between art and artifice.

There are no buildings comparable to this in Umbria. Parallels may be found among the Roman luxury villas outside Rome and on the Bay of Naples, especially Imperial villas. This is further indication that in the first and second centuries AD, the owners of the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa were not simply wealthy Roman landowners, but they also had a significant political and social role, perhaps even with connections to the Imperial family.

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