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Villa of the Papyri


During the summer of 1750 well diggers came across what turned out to be the belvedere of a sumptious Roman villa. For six years the remains of the building were explored by tunnelling operations under the supervision of Karl Weber, a Swiss engineer acting on behalf of Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre. He made detailed plans of the layout of the villa that were well ahead of their time (see below). For an expanded view of this plan, you can display the three additional pages in this section from the Navigation Box or click here.

The villa, believed to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, stretched for more than 250m along the shoreline. It would appear that it was originally built in the first century BC, as a formal atrium villa, subsequently extended to what we see today. (The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, based on Weber's plans, gives a good good idea of what it would have looked like - see picture below).

The tunnelling was not only arduous but also dangerous, due to the build up of gases in the shafts. However, due to the excavators' persistence   90 sculptures were eventually uncovered before pressure from the residents of Resina forced Alcubierre to abandon the excavations in 1765.

On the western side of the building is a large peristyle over 90m long and 30m wide, with an ornamental pool running down the centre. The peristyle contained many fine statues in bronze and marble including the five 'Dancers of Herculaneum' which can be seen in the National Archeological Museum of Naples.

There were also busts of Greek men of letters, including philosophers and statesman, outside and inside the villa, lending credence to the belief that the owner was a reader and intellectual.

In 1752 an astonishing find was made when a tunnel was extended, opening up a room lined with shelves and crates stacked with scrolls. 'Scrolls' may be too fine a word, for what they found was a collection of blackened cylinders that at first were a mystery to the excavators. On examining some broken fragments, however, it was discovered that the cylinders were indeed scrolls containing Greek text written on scorched papyrus.

All attempts to read the papyri (altogether over 1800 scrolls were recovered) resulted in the destruction of the document, until Antonio Piaggio, a priest from the Vatican Library, created a mechanical 'unroller'. His process was extremely slow, but it did allow the documents to be read. Most of the scrolls have turned out to be the work of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher of the first century BC.
Much of the villa remains to be excavated (over 2500 sq m). Excavations in the 1990s revealed two previously undiscovered levels, but since then there has been little further progress.

The Italian government has generally insisted on a policy of conservation and not excavation, being more interested in protecting what has already been uncovered. A paper presented at the Naples Conference 2006 is worth a read.
On 24th October 2007 excavations recommenced at the site. The building has now been closed to the public so that archaeologists can excavate the frescoed rooms on the lower ground floor.

They are also conserving mosaics and frescoes already found on the top floor of the building (above and lower left) to protect them from damp and erosion. The photograph upper left shows the section of the villa that has been excavated so far.

Detailed Description

For a more in depth description of the villa please check out these additional pages:

.....................Bourbon Excavation - a description of the early excavation of the villa.

.................Description of the Villa - a walkthrough of the villa with photographs of the current excavations.

.........f....Catalogue of Sculptures - a description of where each sculpture was found, its catalogue number, ........................................................its location on the accompanying plans and photographs where possible.

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