Archaeologists investigating the Tuscan island of Elba have identified the remains of the villa belonging to the real-life individual that inspired one of the principal characters in the epic tale of Ben-Hur.
Overlooking Portoferraio’s bay, the once magnificent 1st-century B.C. estate, known as Villa Le Grotte (the Caves) because of the shape of its vaulted facades facing the sea, has long been believed to have been owned by Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, portrayed as Ben-Hur in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlton Heston.
While Ben-Hur was a fictional villain dreamed up in Lew Wallace's 1880 novel and immortalized in the 1959 MGM movie, the Messalla character was based on a real-world historical figure.
According to archaeologists Laura Pagliantini, Luisa Zito and Luisa Quaglia, of the Archeo Color Association, the now ruined villa, which is currently closed to the public, has long been associated to Messalla’s patrician family but no evidence was ever found to confirm the speculation.
“The poet Ovid of whom Messalla was patron, recounts how he went to visit Messalla’s son on Elba prior to his exile to Tomis on the Black Sea, but he doesn’t provide any detail about the place he was staying,” Pagliantini told Discovery News.
The villa where Ovid stayed as a guest could have been one of the three monumental residences which are known to have been built on Elba.
Startling evidence about Le Grotte’s owner came when archaeologists led by Franco Cambi, professor of methodology of archaeological research at the University of Siena, excavated the area just below the villa.
“We were looking for ancient furnaces used in the production of iron, but we ended up with a surprising finding,” Cambi told Discovery News.
Along with the remains of a large collapsed building, the archaeologists found five dolia -- large earthenware vases -- complete with their covers. Each vase could hold between 1,300 and 1,500 liters of wine.
“Clearly, the site was a farm serving the Roman villa above,” Cambi said.