The luxurious Villa of the Papyri was revealed by excavators in the 18th Century – and its many treasures are now on display in Los Angeles. Daisy Dunn takes a look.

When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, hundreds of residents of Herculaneum, in the Bay of Naples, sought shelter in the boat houses near the shore. The volcano sat just 7 km (4.3 miles) away, and had begun to spew terrifying burning avalanches of ash, gas and rock. Hurtling down the slopes at a minimum of 100km/hour (62mph), and at temperatures exceeding 400C, these violent surges soon overwhelmed them and their town. Until then, it had generally been assumed that Vesuvius, dormant for the past seven centuries, was merely a mountain.

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The volcanic debris, as I learned while researching my new book, In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, covered the region so thickly that, in the words of Pliny the Younger, who wrote the sole surviving eyewitness account of the eruption: “Everything… changed, buried deep in ash as if in snow”. Like the neighbouring city of Pompeii, Herculaneum remained concealed beneath the compacted layers until the mid-18th Century, when excavators set to work on the site. Little did they know what marvels lurked 20 or more metres underfoot.

In 1750, over a decade after the excavations commenced, some workmen happened to be digging a well nearby when they came across a magnificent marble floor. To their astonishment they had chanced upon the grandest ancient villa yet found at Herculaneum. Inside this hidden mansion was not only the largest collection of classical sculptures ever discovered in a single building, but also, remarkably, the only library to survive from the Graeco-Roman world.

The villa is recognised today as one of the most important buildings preserved by the volcanic eruption

Treasures from the extraordinary Villa dei Papiri or Villa of the Papyri have now gone on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Los Angeles. Commissioned by the oil billionaire J Paul Getty at the beginning of the 1970s, the museum was modelled on the ground plan of the ancient villa itself. For the first time, therefore, it is possible to view the contents of the house in a setting inspired by their original surroundings. 

The Villa of the Papyri, which is thought to have been built between about 40 and 20BC, occupied more than 20,000 sq m (220,000 sq ft) and overlooked the sea. It had a large pool, gardens, and a sprawling ‘peristyle’ or covered walkway filled with sculptures, including two exquisite bronze athletes captured as if on the starting line of a race. Most intriguing of all was the library which, though modest by comparison with the other rooms, contained over 1000 papyrus scrolls.  

While the villa is recognised today as one of the most important buildings to have been preserved by the volcanic eruption, its first excavators, some of whom were convicts conscripted for the task, were not always aware of the significance of what they were seeing. The scrolls had been carbonised by the pyroclastic flows to such an extent that they resembled tree bark. They were so blackened, in fact, that several were used as fuel in the mistaken belief that they were charcoal or logs. It was only when someone dropped one to expose the writing inside that they realised what they had found.

While many skeletons have been recovered from Herculaneum’s boat stores, not a single body has been found in the Villa of the Papyri, which is still partially unexcavated. Perhaps its residents escaped in time. Although the identity of its final owner is not known, the villa is thought to have belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, in the century before the eruption.

Living the good life

A successful senator, Piso had had the misfortune to fall foul of Cicero, whom he failed to protect from being sent into exile. He consequently went down in history as the ineloquent, self-congratulating drunk with ‘bristly cheeks’ and ‘rotten teeth’ that Cicero caricatured. Piso served as a consul or top magistrate of Rome, and also as governor of Macedonia but, according to Cicero, was so grasping that he “left not a single image or picture or adornment in any public or religious place”.

Piso’s home, which might have passed down to his son – and perhaps then to a grandson – with many of his possessions still in place, was certainly rich in artworks. Among the dozens of bronzes and marbles discovered in the Villa of the Papyri are some of the most celebrated pieces from the Roman world. On the lower terrace was a beautiful portrait bust of an Amazon, and in the peristyle (porch), among many other sculptures, were the Drunken Satyr and a representation of the sylvan god Pan having sex with a goat. The last of these was considered so risqué in the 18th Century that one had to apply to view it in private.  

Piso had a particular interest in Greek Epicurean philosophy. Displayed in his villa was a bronze sculpture of a jumping pig in reference to the fact that the Epicureans were dubbed ‘pigs’ by non-Epicureans. Hundreds of years earlier, Epicurus had taught his followers to aspire to live comfortable lives free from pain and fear. The poet Horace proudly pronounced himself “a well-fed and well-bred radiant pig from the sty of Epicurus”. The inhabitants of the Villa of the Papyri appear similarly to have lived the good life.

Piso was the patron of an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus, who originally came from Gadara, in modern Jordan. The majority of the scrolls found in the library of the Villa of the Papyri were written in Greek, and contained works of Epicurean philosophy, many of them by Philodemus himself.

“This seems to have been the professional library of Philodemus,” Kenneth Lapatin, curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Getty Villa, tells BBC Culture. “It is a very specialised philosophical library.”

“It gives us insight into the Romans’ views of their Greek predecessors. It is fascinating that the first echelons of Roman power would be interested in what seems to us today to be obscure.”

Other texts found in the villa’s library include several books of Epicurus’s On Nature, the writings of a Stoic philosopher named Chrysippus, and parts of the De Rerum Natura, an Epicurean poem by the Latin writer Lucretius. Around half the scrolls found, however, are still sealed. Given that Philodemus knew both Horace and Virgil, it is possible that more literary works are still waiting to be unravelled. The challenge is how to do so without destroying them in the process.

If you have a garden in your library you will lack nothing – Cicero

When the scrolls were first found, many were simply sliced open like baguettes. While this enabled some of the writing to be read and copied, large chunks were consequently ruined. A few years after the villa was discovered, Father Antonio Piaggio, curator of manuscripts at the Vatican, designed a ‘papyrus unrolling machine’, which was used to unfurl hundreds more of the scrolls, but again the fragile paper often crumbled. Later, scientists attempted to prise open the scrolls using a variety of gases and glues, but with limited success. More recently, scientists have discovered that when a scroll is placed under infrared light, the black ink will stand out from the blackened papyrus, so that it is legible.

Given the damage caused to scrolls by unwinding them, and the speed with which their ink fades when exposed to daylight, the preference today is for ‘virtual unwrapping’. Scrolls that remain sealed are scanned – by Micro CT-scan, for example – and then ‘read’ using advanced computer software. The Getty exhibition highlights the work scholars have conducted across the globe – from Utah to Oxford to Paris – to read the scrolls using such techniques. “It is very much an international effort,” says Lapatin.

These scrolls are so fragile that one forgets that they must once have been handled quite casually. According to the ground plan of the villa drawn up by Karl Weber, a Swiss military engineer who oversaw the initial excavations in the 18th Century, the library was situated near the baths and gardens, suggesting that people would take the scrolls outside to read, if not to the plunge pools. “If you have a garden in your library,” as Cicero once said, “you’ll lack nothing”. He could never have imagined that Piso’s scrolls, brimming with Epicurean advice on how not to fear death, would be preserved in a tragedy that took the lives of so many.

Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri is at the Getty Villa until 27 October.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny by Daisy Dunn is published by HarperCollins.

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