The Italian Almanac

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Italian News - May 14

They look like lumps of coal, but before being hit by a cascade of molten volcanic rock at more than 400C (the so-called pyroclastic flow that inundated the town), these now-blackened and nondescript objects were part of the library of the grandest villa in the town, where the father-in-law of Julius Caesar was regaled with the epigrammatic gems of his in-house Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus

A group of classical scholars is now calling for excavations inside the Villa of Papyri to be resumed without delay. Thanks to the fluke of its preservation within the inferno of the eruption, this is by far the oldest extant library in the world. And nobody has a clue what is in it. It is known that its owner when Philodemus was alive was Lucius Calpurnius Piso Cesoninus, a senator and a wealthy, cultured figure who entertained Roman high society down here at his fabulous country pad by the sea. The villa was full of beautiful vases and statues and other works of art, many of which are now in a museum in Naples.

It is highly probable that Piso also possessed a large library, as became someone of his wealth and culture: not merely the works of Epicurean philosophy that reflected the special interest of Philodemus, but all the other works, Greek and Roman, with which a man of his civilised tastes could be expected to be familiar: the plays of the Greek tragedians, for example, or the dialogues of Aristotle, or Livy's History of Rome. And given the freakish survival of Philodemus's collection, it is argued, the rest of the library may be in a similar condition: carbonised but accessible.

So why aren't the archaeologists and engineers busy burrowing under the Villa of the Papyri now, as we speak, to bring this hypothetical treasure to the light? The essential reason is contained in a paradox: under present circumstances, the only way to ensure the survival of whatever may emerge from the villa is to leave it exactly where it is, encased in rock.

A villa of this quite exceptional magnificence evidently had many treasures other than its papyri, including other types of documentation (wooden tablets with legal transactions and records) and an abundance of other organic materials, including grain and foodstuffs, fabric and wooden furniture. But with rain, polluted air and pigeon droppings assailing the site daily, that unique organic fabric is crumbling fast.

Herculaneum's fate is in the hands of the Superintendent, Professor Piero Guzzo. Listening keenly to the arguments is David Woodley Packard, the American billionaire philanthropist, a scion of the Hewlett-Packard dynasty, whose Packard Humanities Institute is committed to funding the site's development. Initially on the side of those who argue for a rapid new start to excavation, he too has come round to the view that the first priority is to stop the existing site from disintegrating further.