Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.01.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.01.40

Kenneth Lapatin (ed.), Buried by Vesuvius: The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019.  Pp. ix, 276.  ISBN 9781606065921.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Nancy H. Ramage, Ithaca College (


This is a book with multiple authors on numerous topics, all shedding light on different aspects of the celebrated Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum and its contents. Published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it accompanied an exhibition on the same topic, entitled “Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri” (June 26 to October 28, 2019). Sumptuously illustrated on nearly every page, it brings to life many lesser-known works as well as the old chestnuts. The book is dedicated to the memory of Benedicte Gilman, a much-revered editor of Getty books who died as the book was going to press.

Discovered in the 18th century by Karl Jacob Weber, the villa has generated enormous excitement ever since, whether for the paintings, sculptures and fine objects found therein, for the papyri that have frustrated generations of scholars trying to decipher them, or for the geologic and other scientific evidence for the pyroclastic flow that buried it.

Each of the introductory chapters gives a thorough background on the topic at hand, and is supported by footnotes and a full bibliography. The overall high quality of the editing of the volume is seen in the frequent referencing of the catalogue descriptions in the opening essays of the book, and vice versa. Another feature of great value is the careful work of all the authors to fit the interior decoration—painting, mosaics, plaster, sculpture—into the proper place in the villa so that one gets a sense not only where they were found but, in addition, what the experience of being there might have been like.

The first chapters (Part I), by Kenneth Lapatin (who is also the editor) and Jeffrey Fish, set the villa in context by discussing its owner and its burial by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. The villa is thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar and patron of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. A chapter on the eruption of Vesuvius by Aldo Cinque and Giolinda Iroldo brings us up to date on the evidence for the pyroclastic flow, the beaches, and the altered coastline. As explained in their footnote 8, and in Lapatin’s introduction (p. 3), the eruption is now thought to have occurred not in August of AD 79, as previously thought, but in the fall, that is, between late October and November or possibly even December of that year.

Part II has four chapters on the villa’s rediscovery in the 18th century. The Bourbon-era excavations, described by Christopher Parslow, are fascinating, and although the author and others had already laid out the history of the excavations,1 this chapter is a breathtaking summary of the difficulties faced by the engineers and excavators. An essay by Carol Mattusch and Luigia Melillo, “Restoring the Finds,” brings up a whole host of details on the history of restoration of the objects in the collection of Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples, with particular strength on bronzes.

A depressing story on the history of efforts to decipher the texts on the papyrus scrolls is related by Sofia Maresca. The machinery designed by Antonio Piaggio (also discussed in cat. 5) still serves as one of the best ways to unravel the papyri. One attempt after another failed to allow scholars to read the texts, and indeed in most cases ended up destroying the very objects they were trying to save and read. It is a useful and informative history of the efforts since their discovery. This chapter should be read in conjunction with a later one (chapter 15, by Brent Seales and Christy Chapman) on the technological advances that now allow a reading of the unfurled scrolls in a noninvasive method. Using tomography, a scanning electron microscope, and multispectral imaging, specialists can decipher the dark ink as distinct from the charred papyrus. With a technique called “virtual unwrapping,” scholars can for the first time see texts that are deep within the layers of the scroll.

A chapter by Pablo Vázquez-Gestal, “Printing Antiquities: Herculaneum and the Cultural Politics of the Two Sicilies (1738-59)” summarizes the publications of Charles of Bourbon, beginning with the early Disegni Intagliati of 1746 (see also cat. 50), of which very few copies were printed, to the Prodromo and Catalogo of Ottavio Antonio Bayardi, all of which were dismally unsuccessful. The French scholar Anne Claude Philippe Caylus, among others, had been eager for reports of the antiquities, partly for his own major seven-volume publication that was underway.2 The essay shows how the king’s several mediocre publications prepared the way for the great success of the eight-volume Antichità di Ercolano, which he also initiated.

The five chapters of Part III discuss the villa and its contents. Mantha Zarmakoupi uses digital reconstructions to describe the gardens and peristyles of the villa. She emphasizes the importance of the sound of water from the gurgling fountains that must have permeated the house and gardens. Valerio Papaccio discusses the inlaid marble floors, those that survive and others known only from drawings or paintings. One of the photographs (9.7), showing the rock tunnel receding into the distance, is evocative of what it must have been like to excavate here in the 18th century (see also fig. 13.6). Based on the dating of the floors, he proposes a date for the villa between 40 and 20 BC. Domenico Esposito discusses the paintings and stucco that decorated the walls, and suggests that they too support a date in the third quarter of the first century BC, or 40-25 BC. Here again, careful explanations allow the reader to understand where in the villa each surviving fragment originates.

A chapter on the sculpture and furnishings of the villa is by far the longest essay. The author, Christopher Hallett, believes that this was not a “sculpture collection,” but rather an assemblage of objects acquired by the owner more like pieces of furniture to decorate his villa than artworks. On the other hand, Hallett singles out various themes, such as that in the library that was graced by herms and busts of Greek literary figures, including some, like Demosthenes, that were repeated several times. Portraits of Hellenistic rulers, including Seleukos I of Syria (cat. 31) and Demetrios Poliorketes, king of Macedon (cat. 38), were found in the peristyle garden. The library of scrolls itself was perhaps surprisingly modest, but would have been typical of country villas where the works of the masters would be discussed by the owner and his intellectual friends. The owner himself must have been an Epicurean, given that the library was that of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, and also because of the predominance of portraits of Epicurus (see cats. 8 and 9). The texts themselves are discussed in more detail in the following chapter by David Sider.

Part IV of the book has four chapters on the recent approaches to the study of the villa. Domenico Camardo discusses excavations at the site from the 1990s to 2008. All tunneling and digging had ceased in 1764 upon the death of Karl Jacob Weber, and the only knowledge of the villa and its finds was based on the remains in the Naples Archaeological Museum and the plan drawn by Weber, also housed in the museum. New excavations began in the 1980s, and especially in the ’90s, and were then renewed in this century. Much knowledge has been gained, such as the fact that the villa had at least two floors below the piano nobile. After following the Bourbon tunnels, a good deal of archaeological work in the open has allowed a remarkable understanding of the side of the villa toward the beaches and has revealed beautifully decorated architecture, some of which was being restored when the volcano hit.

Some remarkable finds from the excavations of 2007 are described by the excavator, Maria Paola Guidobaldi. At least three tripods and two straight-legged tables made of wood were covered with carved ivory veneer. The refined relief decoration includes a kalathiskos dancer, cupids, statues of Priapus, and a satyr with the baby Dionysus.

The topics of the chapters, then, range from the rediscovery in the 18th century to the details of the villa and its contents, including recent approaches to the study of the complex. Then follows a fully illustrated catalogue of 51objects, mostly sculpture but also individual frescoes, some of which had not been well published before. Especially remarkable is a comparison of the printing history of fragments of the heads of Silenos and Medusa in the Antichità di Ercolano with the less well known Disegni Intagliati (cats. 47-50). Other entries include the plan of the Villa dei Papiri by Weber (cat. 1), and the papyrus-unrolling machine invented by Father Piaggio (cat. 5). Among the bronze sculptures are the portraits of Epicurus and Demosthenes, the running piglet, the so-called Herculaneum Dancers, and busts of the Doryphoros and an Amazon (cats. 8-9, 11, 12, 20-21, 29-30) and many others. Unfortunately, the entries are not individually listed in the table of contents, thus making it difficult to find specific items except by thumbing through the book. That omission seems to this reviewer to be the chief drawback. Also, while there is a discussion of the restoration of bronzes and the making of bronze copies (p. 26), there is little mention of the industry of making copies of marble statues and other marble decorations in the villa. The efforts of sculpture restorers like Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and later Vincenzo Pacetti to make marble copies and derivatives of famous newly discovered sculptures, and restorations from fragments, would have added a useful dimension to the volume.3

The illustrations are sumptuous throughout. Not only photographs but also plans are revealing; even for those who are already familiar with many or most of the sculptures, it is stunning to look at the gatefold plan (pp. 138-139) showing the findspot of each piece. The price of the volume, which must have been heavily subsidized by the Getty, is extremely reasonable. The book is easily accessible and free of jargon, thus making it useful for students and scholars alike. It is an enormous contribution to the literature on Herculaneum in general and on the Villa dei Papiri in particular, and will be a crucial source for all future research on these and related topics.


1.   Christopher C. Parslow, Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae (New York 1995); Mantha Zarmakoupi, Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE-79CE) (Oxford 2014); and Maria Paola Guidobaldi and Domenico Esposito, “New Archaeological Research at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum,” in Mantha Zarmakoupi, The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction (Berlin 2010), pp. 21-62.
2.   Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, greques e romaines (Paris 1752-67).
3.   History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures, ed. Janet Burnett Grossman, Jerry Podany, and Marion True (J. Paul Getty Museum 2003).

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