Villa of the Papyri library

From The Australian. Thanks to Explorator for the link

The unique library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, buried beneath lava by Vesuvius’s eruption in AD79, is slowly revealing its long-held secrets

STORED in a sky-lit reading room on the top floor of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples are the charred remains of the only library to survive from classical antiquity. The ancient world’s other great book collections — at Athens, Alexandria and Rome — all perished in the chaos of the centuries. But the library of the Villa of the Papyri was conserved, paradoxically, by an act of destruction.

Lying to the northwest of ancient Herculaneum, this sumptuous seaside mansion was buried beneath 30m of petrified volcanic mud during the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24, AD79. Antiquities hunters in the mid-18th century sunk shafts and dug tunnels around Herculaneum and found the villa, surfacing with a magnificent booty of bronzes and marbles. Most of these, including a svelte seated Hermes modelled in the manner of Lyssipus, now grace the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

The excavators also found what they took to be chunks of coal deep inside the villa, and set them alight to illuminate their passage underground. Only when they noticed how many torches had solidified around an umbilicus — a core of wood or bone to which the roll was attached — did the true nature of the find become apparent. Here was a trove of ancient texts, carbonised by the heat surge of the eruption. About 1800 were eventually retrieved.

A cluster of the villa’s papyrus scrolls, in much the same state as they were found 250 years ago, lies in a display case in the Biblioteca Nazionale’s Herculaneum reading room. The individual scrolls, which extend in some cases to 9m unrolled, look not unlike charcoaled arboreal limbs left at the bottom of a campfire. A group of six rolls, compacted by the weight of volcanic debris, has emulsified into one unsightly pile.

In a corner of the room stands a device invented in 1756 by the abbot Antonio Piaggio, a conservator of ancient manuscripts in the Vatican Library, to unroll the papyri by suspending them from silk threads attached to their surface with a paste of fish oil. These were fixed in place by a slice of pig’s bladder. Piaggio’s machine, though painstakingly slow, was used successfully until the beginning of the 20th century. The room also contains a 3m length of scroll unrolled by Piaggio’s machine, with 40 columns of Greek text in a rhythmic procession.

Scholars today, using multi-spectral imaging technology, are able to decipher the otherwise inscrutable surface of black ink on black fabric of the papyrus scrolls. A multinational team has assembled to transcribe the collection. But work has stalled as they await refinement of a new technique, an application of the CT scan, which will allow some of the untouched texts to be deciphered without exposing them to the risk of further damage.

When I ask to view a papyrus fragment from the vaults, a librarian pauses to absorb the request, returning my gaze a little blankly. Just as I begin to frame a withdrawal of this possibly audacious demand, she blinks, smiles amiably, and disappears down one of the library’s vast corridors. She returns carrying a gun-metal tray on which a sheet of papyrus, older than many a classical fluted column and as brittle as a desiccated insect wing, has been laid out with reverential delicacy. The glitter of ink is clearly visible under the lights. But the material itself has been scorched in antiquity, then torn and tattered in an effort to prise it open.

I am looking at one of the Dead Sea scrolls of classical antiquity: a shard of half-recovered time. It belongs, I realise, to a genre of accidental art that speaks of our relationship to the past more precisely than any intact work; it is the art of the fragment, an art that yields to us, but never surrenders.

The Villa of the Papyri is believed to have been owned by Roman statesman Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. He was a man of wealth and refined taste. Like many members of the Roman elite of the time, Piso looked back fondly to the glories of ancient Greece. His library, written mostly in Greek, was dominated by works of the Epicurean school, which sought a salve for the troubled soul in the taming of runaway desire.

Epicurus, the creed’s founder, was a fourth century BC atomist philosopher with an atheistic bent and a medicinal aim. He wanted to remedy human pain in this life rather than prepare sufferers for the next. “Nothing to fear in God,” he wrote, displaying a talent for pithy distillation. “Nothing to feel in death. Good can be attained. Evil can be endured.”

Shortly before 300BC Epicurus withdrew his followers to a commune outside Athens, known to all as The Garden. Friendship and frugality were its guiding principles. In fact, Epicurus would regard the modern use of the adjective epicurean as a travesty of his ideals. “Plain fare gives us as much pleasure as a costly diet,” he said. True pleasure for Epicurus was a “pot of cheese”, though he was thought to enjoy a tipple from a wineskin.

Ancient gossip links him with a fellow communard called Mammarion (big breasts), which only shows that the sage was human.

Epicureanism takes up a radical position in the Hellenistic world, standing apart from the philosophical mainstream. When Paul addresses the Athenians, in Acts 17 of the Bible, he speaks of Epicureans and Stoics in the same breath. Christianity, naturally, set itself firmly against Epicurean materialism and its implicit atheism. But the Stoics were equally stern disputants. Epicureans, as a result, found themselves traduced by their fellow pagans and damned by the early church. The Garden, nevertheless, flourished for some eight centuries.

“Epicurus’s philosophy exercised so widespread an influence that for a long time it was touch and go whether Christianity might not have to give way before it,” writes Lawrence Durrell in a tone of lament.

One consequence of Christian hostility, a kind of passive resistance, is a broken tradition. Epicureanism was ignored by the monastic scribes who transferred the works of approved authors from the school of Athens, particularly Aristotle and Plato, from papyrus to parchment and vellum. Only a few letters, sayings and principles survive from the 300 scrolls attributed to Epicurus in antiquity.

A few fragments from Epicurus’s lost work, On Nature, inspiration for the Roman poet Lucretius’s magisterial poem, On the Nature of Things, have been unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri. But the Herculaneum scrolls are mainly the works of an Epicurean sage named Philodemus, previously known as the author of some rather racy light verse.

These finds are contributing to a revival of scholarly interest in Epicureanism, Europe’s first green philosophy, at a time when the West urgently seeks advice on living with less. Epicurean counsel sounds at times like contemporary wisdom; it provides the philosophical language for an eco-friendly art of life. A few lines from Lucretius, penned at the apogee of paganism, are equally applicable in the age of the plasma screen:

But while we can’t get what we want, that seems
Of all things most desirable. Once got,
We must have something else.

But there is an exquisite edge to the discovery of this Epicurean library in Herculaneum, and it is honed not so much by the knowledge of what has been found as the fear of what might be lost. An alliance of mainly British and American scholars, convinced that more texts remain to be found at the Villa of the Papyri, are calling for its urgent excavation. They cite the threat posed to the villa, which has never been completely liberated from its prison of rock, by a further eruption of Vesuvius. The volcano’s bellows were heard as recently as 1998.

Richard Janko, head of classical studies at the University of Michigan, believes the Villa of the Papyri promises to yield the greatest number of new texts since the discoveries in the 16th century that nourished the High Renaissance and fashioned Western secular humanism. “This is the only place in the world where we know for certain that a Greco-Roman library was entombed in a manner that ensured its preservation,” Janko says.

“There are almost certainly more books to be found there.”

He points out that many of the scrolls were discovered in carrying containers arrayed in a line, as if being evacuated towards the sea.

Robert Fowler, professor of Greek and dean of arts at Bristol University, hopes that a study recently published by the local archeological superintendent’s office on the future conservation of the Herculaneum site, ancient and modern, might show the way forward.

“The villa remains one of the great buildings of the ancient world and it should certainly be excavated,” Fowler says. “This would be true even if we were to find no further papyri, though the likelihood that we will find them adds much to the case. The building will certainly contain many other things, and is of unique historical interest. If we know of a site that should be excavated, and we have the capacity, let us get on with it. Of all the sites in the world, this one ranks close to the top of the list for potential and historical importance.”

If a significant number of lost classics are found at the Villa of the Papyri it would enlarge the cultural and intellectual tradition, and might even alter its course. Should scholars find the famous lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, the narrative spring of Umberto Eco’s best-selling medieval mystery, The Name of the Rose, the discovery might shift the ground of Western aesthetics. Of Sophocles’ 120 plays, only seven are known, and of these the Oedipus trilogy has embossed itself eternally on the Western imagination. The Kypria, a martial epic believed to have been Homer’s source material, disappeared some time in antiquity.

All gone. Or perhaps only lost from view.

Locking horns with scholars campaigning for a complete excavation at the Villa of the Papyri is the Italian Government. Local archeological authorities are mindful of the fact that while 50m of the villa has been brought to light, a further 250m of this extraordinary palatial structure lie beneath a mass of petrified lava-mud. Above it, literally, sits the modern town of Ercolano. The villa’s thorough excavation requires the exercise of benign political judgment and sophisticated urban planning, qualities in rather short supply on the Gulf of Naples.

Roman Herculaneum, named after the musclebound demigod Hercules, lay at the foot of Vesuvius on a bluff overlooking the sea. It was last seen intact on the afternoon that the volcano, which had been dormant longer than living memory, roared into life. A heat blast of about 350C killed those of the city’s inhabitants who had not managed to flee: the unflinching postures of skeletons found at the beach suggest they died instantaneously, microwaved in a millisecond.

Next, from the shattered cone of Vesuvius oozed a slow-moving river of liquid fire that swallowed the town whole. The eruption lasted 18 hours.

In the silent days that followed, the lava-mud cooled into a cement skin beneath which the Villa of the Papyri, a gorgeous three-storey beachfront mansion with unimpeded sea views, slept undisturbed for 17 centuries. Pompeii, lying to the south, received a much lighter covering of volcanic matter, which is one reason excavators shifted their attention there soon after the Villa of the Payri was discovered: it was an easier get.

The dead cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii were disinterred in stages from 1710, when a French aristocrat found a marble floor aglow at the bottom of a well at Herculaneum. His shafts yielded a set of beautiful statues garbed in the finest drapery, which he promptly purloined. Four decades later the Villa of the Papyri was discovered by Swiss engineer Karl Weber, who was excavating under the patronage of the Bourbon monarchy. Weber’s architectural map of the subterranean villa, drafted from the evidence of his elaborate tunnel system, has proved to be accurate within a few centimetres.

So precise were his measurements that when American billionaire J.P. Getty decided to build a mansion in California evoking the villa’s memory, his architects were able to consult Weber’s plans with confidence. What emerged is a structure that recreates the Villa of the Papyri at an almost neurotic level of structural precision. Recently renovated, it now serves as the Getty Antiquities Museum.

Despite its glittering reputation as one of the famed monuments of the ancient world, the villa today is an aesthetic disaster: more open-cut mine than excavation.

With a grave and ceremonial air, Giuseppe Zolfo, Herculaneum’s director of conservation and restoration, unlocks a metal gate protecting the site. Tourist visits are severely restricted and for the past six months access of any kind has been banned. On one side rises a solid wall of volcanic tuff; on the other, some 20m below today’s ground level, stands a small excavated section of the buried villa.

Things improve with a tighter focus. As Zolfo leads the way towards an uncovered atrium whose floors are decorated in plain black-and-white tessellated tiles, we reach a plinth on which a team of archeologists busy themselves with odds and ends.

The walls in this southwest section of the villa were mostly shorn away by the eruption. But a small vaulted chamber, or cryptoporticus, has been excavated recently. After hooking up a battery of lights, Zolfo throws a switch to illuminate frescoed walls unseen for the past two millennia: dancing in the artificial light are images of cupids and a miniature maritime landscape. Painted in Pompeian red, yellow and cobalt blue, these are of a freshness rarely seen in the dead cities themselves.

The sight of this modest, yet exciting advance into the villa’s buried remains invites the obvious question: What next?

“We cannot keep going down,” Zolfo says, kicking at the floor of compacted mud. “We have a big problem with the water. If we excavate here, after one month we have a metre of water.”

He adds that the western end of Herculaneum, which lies 4m below the water table, is kept dry only by an extensive system of pumps.

I ask one of the site archeologists, who has followed us into the villa’s newly excavated room, if he thinks more scrolls remain to be found. He lifts his shoulders, turns out his palms, and offers a crooked pout. I take this dumb show to mean “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Before leaving the site I step inside one of Weber’s 18th-century tunnels, venturing several metres, and many centuries, into the past. I have seen scholars of the papyri wince at the thought of Weber’s men setting the carbonised scrolls alight. But such is the obdurate darkness of this gallery, which would have been some 20m below ground level in the 1750s, that they can hardly beblamed.

When I meet the archeological superintendent of the region, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, at his office in Pompeii, the curtains are partly drawn across a hard, bright Neapolitan sky. The author of several books on the region’s antiquities, Guzzo is a genial man with a professorial air who speaks in heavily accented English.

“So you have seen the villa,” he says, lighting a pipe, a lifted brow accenting his playful tone. “They make this cavity, this cave. It is not soclear, and they bring into view only a small part. And when they finish we have to manage the cave.”

The chief impediment to further excavation, Guzzo adds, is not so much financial as political. “Our task is to preserve what is found but it is very difficult to project an entire excavation. Digging at the villa, that’s a huge undertaking. We would have to change streets, demolish houses and change the lives of thousands of people in Ercolano and Portici. It is a problem for the mayors. It is a political decision in the true sense of the word.”

Guzzo points out that barely half of the scrolls found at the villa have been read by scholars, and questions the motivation of those pushing for an excavation in search of antiquity’s lost works. “For me they must open and read all the papyri they have had for centuries, before we look for others,” he says. “If I want to eat a meal at my home I don’t go to the supermarket if I have a full fridge.”

He concedes, on the other hand, the strong possibility that more remains to be found in “parts of the villa where the ancient diggers don’t go”. And this seems to add weight to the claim by scholars such as Fowler and Janko that another wing of the library, perhaps a separate Latin collection, awaits discovery.

Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 as Allied soldiers were thrusting up the Sorrentine coast against the retreating Reich. It remains a restive, brooding presence. Scholars with a passionate concern for the Villa of the Papyri hear the ticking of the volcano’s geological clock.

Guzzo, however, regards the threat with a combination of Neapolitan fatalism and incorrigible pragmatism. “Earthquakes are possible,” he says. “But they are not. What can we do about nature?

“Today I think the method of archeology is not to find treasures,” he concludes. “It’s to solve historical problems.”

Janko, not surprisingly, bridles at the likening of his scholarly impulse to the exploits of a tomb raider. “It is amazing to claim that it is treasure hunting when one asks to have the papyri excavated before Vesuvius buries them definitively,” he says. “If lava flows over the site again, I doubt we will ever have access to them.

“As for the publication of all the papyri being demanded before more are excavated, might one ask that the whole of Pompeii and Herculaneum be properly published before anything more there is unearthed? It seems to me to be arrogance to deny future generations the opportunity to read more such books, just because there are at present very few classical scholars with the competence and the energy to decipher and bring out those that we do have.”

Fowler stresses an obvious point that may have been overlooked: that conservation, restoration and excavation are not necessarily inconflict.

“There are, of course, serious issues about conservation and the interface with the modern city, which are not to be dismissed lightly,” he says. “They are solvable. There is huge potential also for an excavation to contribute to the local economy and urban regeneration, if agreement could be reached on options.”

But the path ahead, if Guzzo’s account is taken at face value, lies through a thicket of southern Italian politics in which the Neapolitan mafia, or camorra, is deeply entwined.

A less cheering scenario, from the point of view of those fearing the permanent loss of Western culture’s missing classics, can scarcely be imagined.

Meanwhile, scholars are confident that new technologies will allow them to make inroads into the trove of scrolls recovered from the Villa of the Papyri, most of which are stored at the Biblioteca Nazionale. As knowledge of Epicureanism deepens, a neglected and misunderstood creed is enjoying a revival.

“Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated,” said the philosopher of the Garden. “For just as there is no use for a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of the body, so there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.”

That sickness, in Epicurean terms, is rampant desire. If the Villa of the Papyri were to contribute nothing more to the 21st century than the taming of consumption, it might help save the planet as well as the soul.

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One Response

  1. The searching for new scrolls in the Villa of the Papyri is fundamental. Despite the bad consequences of this act, it would be a great benefit for all the humankind to recover some lost work from Classical Antiquity buried in the Villa of the Papyri.

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