Wednesday 18 May 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 4: The Villa of the Papyri

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Herculaneum. Past and Future.
(Frances Lincoln, 2011; 352 pages, ISBN-10: 0711231427; ISBN-13: 978-0711231429)

(For the introduction to this series of posts about Herculaneum Past and Future, see here)

Posted on behalf of Ia McIlwaine:

The Villa of the Papyri

The Villa of the Papyri provides a microcosm of all the various aspects of Herculaneum. It features in the history of the excavations and the literature advocating further excavation, both recent and historical. It is noted with interest in the writings of 18th and 19th century travellers and was a major cultural influence in the Neoclassic movement. The eponymous papyri have generated a great deal of literature, they figure in the early travel accounts of visitors and in the contributions to the Philosophical Proceedings of the Royal Society in the 18th century and were the cause for a Royal Commission at the time when Britain was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. But the art is also of major importance, both sculpture and painting, mirrored in numerous “Pompeian rooms” across Europe.

This last facet is well brought out in AWH’s book, and enhanced by the excellent illustrations which are a major feature of the publication. A particular bonus is the treatment of paintings and sculpture discovered in the excavations of the past ten years or so. The principal section on the Villa is in the chapter on “The town and its setting” but a glance at the index under “Houses” demonstrates the all-pervading interest that the house provides. AWH rightly states that a full understanding of the Villa and its relationship to the city will not be reached until the site has been properly excavated, a goal that the late Marcello Gigante, who in 1969 established the Centro Internazionale per i Papiri Ercolanesi and lobbied tirelessly for a proper excavation, held close to his heart. He also established the “learned journal” referred to on p. 114, Cronache ercolanesi, which though largely devoted to editions of papyri always carried at least one other article on a different aspect of the Villa.

In his examination of the ownership of the Villa which has been much discussed in the literature on the subject AWH follows the usual attribution of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, with the proviso that the evidence is circumstantial not documentary and the valid point is made that it neither a town nor a country residence but rather a “Mouseion”, a fact that is mirrored in the reproduction designed for J. Paul Getty at Malibu to contain his collection of antiquities. The Villa housed a collection of statues and other works of art as well as a library and differs in this respect from other villas such as the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii or the Villa of Arianna at Stabiae.

The original excavation undertaken in the Bourbon period was carried out by Carl Weber who recorded the finds meticulously and drew the much reproduced plan of the Villa. Work in the present era has been considerably hampered by the practice of the Bourbons to tunnel and retrieve works of art, ignoring the structure of the building that they were exploring and creating a network that destroyed much that lay in the path of the treasure seekers. The Bourbon tunnellers left some items behind for the later generation to find, especially wall paintings and decorated ceilings shown in the photograph of the recently excavated room on the lower terrace of the villa on pp. 116/117. Items that they unearthed were not always identified initially, for example the papyrus rolls were originally thought to be blocks of wood and writing on them was discovered accidentally. This led eventually to the invention of Piaggio’s unrolling machine, still in evidence in the Centro and until modern times not superseded as a method of unravelling their contents.

The geographical features (or lack of them) present another mystery. Cornelius Sisenna when writing about the Social War, refers to Herculaneum as a ‘town on a steep rise by the sea, with little walls, between two rivers beneath Vesuvius’. AWH explores this in relation to what has been revealed in the most recent excavations. He relates the finds to the Bourbon records and identifies two possible locations. One river he suggests ran down to the East of the Palaestra and the harbour was probably located in the area where the new ticket office is located. The second one he suggests lay between the Western insulae and the Villa of the Papyri where there is “a sort of blank” without any ancient buildings. This would make sense, as the Villa must have been located outside the main town, styled as it is more in the manner of a country villa. There is, however, now no sign of the river, as is clearly demonstrated in the illustration of the excavation trench leading to the Villa and the conservation work and protective covers put up in 2009. [p.106]. 

©Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Excavation trench leading to the Villa of the Papyri, after conservation work and new protective shelters (2009).

The discoveries of the recent past provide a tantalising glimpse of what may yet remain. No further papyri have come to light, though the hope of discovering the “lost books of Livy” expressed by Charles Waldstein in 1904 remains a much discussed prospect. The problems of new excavation versus conservation of what has already been discovered and the cost of each remain a vexed question. The Herculaneum Conservation Project has managed to achieve a happy medium but future funding and the over-riding problems of the modern town over part of the site of the ancient city present major difficulties. Above all, the volcano looms and there is always the possibility of another eruption which cannot be ignored.

Links to the other posts in this series:

Herculaneum. Past and Future.
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview, a response
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 2: Excavation and conservation
Herculaneum. Past and Future: PART 3: Early development and topography
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 5: Herculaneum's public buildings

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