Thursday, 12 October 2017

Julia's villa

Last month, I wrote about my family's trip this summer to Ventotene, a small island of the coast of Lazio, and our adventures swimming in the ancient Roman fish pond there.

This month, more on why we were there - and Julia's villa. My work in progress is about Julia, the errant daughter of the Emperor Augustus. She was exiled to the island of Ventotene, then called Pandateria, by her father, for the alleged crimes of adultery. The rules of her exile were stringent: no wine, no visitors and no men were to be allowed in her presence unless the Emperor was personally informed of their physical appearance.

Julia the Elder

She was on the island for five long years, before Augustus relented and allowed her to move to a less austere exile on the mainland. Julia never returned to Rome. When her ex-husband Tiberius became Emperor, he took away her living allowance. She died of malnutrition, far from home. Three of her five children pre-deceased her: Gaius, Lucius and Agrippa Postumus. The two girls survived, but their fates were not happy - Julia the Younger was also exiled to an island for adultery, thus allowing generations of male historians to endow her and her mother with a 'guilty-slut gene'. The last child, Agrippina, was mother to Caligula and Grandmother to Nero.

Before we went to Ventotene I had done my research. I had poured over maps. I had read whatever archaeological works I could get my hands on. But actually being there was incredible, and changed the book immensely. Here are some of my revelations:

- I had not appreciated the scale and luxury of the Villa. It had been built as a Summer leisure palace for the Emperor, one of many properties. I suppose in my mind, I had been thinking of the best case luxury villa in modern terms. This was something else: Russian oligarchs would struggle to match the Villa Julia. I had completely underestimated its size, and the skeleton staff needed to keep it from crumbling into the sea. This prompted a major rewrite. It also reinforced an extant theme about luxury as a prison and leisure as a burden.
Part of the slaves' quarters

The promontory of Punta Eolo, across which spread the Villa Julia. 

- I had not understood why the villa was sited on Pandateria - a rocky outcrop with no natural water. Then I went there, and realised that, by covering the promontory, the villa could catch the sunset on one side and the sunrise on the other. The Romans loved to play with natural light, and this place could be used to create a perfect marriage of artifice and nature.

The sun beginning to set, and catching the arch above the stairs down to the sea.

- I had not given sufficient weight to the idea that this was a villa built for the Summer. We were in Ventotene during heatwave Lucifer. It was unbelievably hot. As we left the island, the weather broke, and we spent a miserable two hours on a ferry in 15 foot waves as one in four of the passengers threw up, violently, into little paper bags. the Med is not just the azure sea of British middle-class fantasies. It is violent, dangerous, and pretty bleak in winter. 

- There was one detail of the research there which was worth the flights on its own. In the small museum in Ventotene's bourbon town hall was a reconstruction of the hot room in the Villa's bath complex. There is a figure sitting alone in that giant, beautiful space, built on the West side of the promontory to catch the sunsets. On a tour of the ruins, I discovered an archaeological nugget that had not been in any of the articles: during Julia's time on the island, this giant beautiful caldarium stopped being used. A different, and much smaller space was converted into a caldarium instead. What a nugget. What a cry for help from history. Apologies for the poor image, but here is Julia, sitting alone in her luxury pool.

Poor little rich girl.

Ignore me - sorry! behind, you can see the remains of the Caldarium; much more interesting!
All in all, an extraordinary trip. I'd love to hear your stories! How has going somewhere altered your books, in theme or plot?