Friday, October 28, 2011


Mantha Zarmakoupi (ed.), The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction. Sozomena: studies in the recovery of ancient texts: edited on behalf of the Herculaneum Society, 1. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. ix, 221, 78 p. of plates. ISBN 9783110203882. $147.00/€98.00.

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Oude Geschiedenis – Universiteit van Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents.

This volume presents ten contributions by various authors on different aspects of the 'Villa of the Papyri' at Herculaneum, including investigation of the villa itself and of objects recovered from it. The first two chapters focus on new research (including the first open air excavations) conducted on the villa between the mid 1980s and 2009. Next follow two chapters on the wall paintings and the sculptural collection; two more chapters deal with questions related with the papyri recovered in the Villa; and two chapters discuss the reception of the Villa in the 18th century (when the building was first discovered and explored) and the 20th century. Two chapters on its real and on its virtual reconstruction conclude the contributions. The volume is the result of an Oxford conference held in 2007; all contributions are in English, with two chapters translated from the original Italian. Though the volume is clearly not aimed at a general audience, it is suitable for an informed readership from undergraduate level onwards. The blurb itself on the publisher's website informs us that this volume is aimed at "Academics, Libraries, Institutes." This is a noncommittal phrase. Nevertheless, the book is a welcome addition to the literature available on Herculaneum in general and the 'Villa dei Papiri' in particular.

In 'Rediscovering the Villa of the Papyri' (1-20), Antonio De Simone explains goals and progress of investigation in Herculaneum and, more specifically, the Villa since its initial discovery in the mid-18th century, while Maria Paola Guidobaldi and Domenico Esposito discuss (21-62) the 'New Archaeological Research at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum'. The account by De Simone is generally factual and clear, though I would have welcomed a larger map of Herculaneum ( replacing Plate 14, Fig. 27), e.g., inserted at the beginning of the first quire as a (king-size) fold out, to make his account easier to follow. To collect all figures at the end of the volume may be a defensible choice for a number of technical reasons, but in this case it is not helping the ease of use. Such a map might also have served the other articles, especially that by Guidobaldi and Esposito. Their excavation "revealed the presence of two other floors arranged on artificial terraces under the main storey," a feature that "was impossible to envisage on the basis of the Bourbon plans" (33), –that is, the plans, notably that by Weber, based on the tunnel excavations of the 18th century. The result of the excavations appear to fix the date of the Villa, in its present state, to the second half of the first century BCE, especially on the basis of added features like floors, decorations, and statues, suggesting that "it would be appropriate to lower the chronology of the first phase … to the third quarter of the first century B.C.E." (58). This means that the dating in the first half of that century, previously accepted, would no longer be tenable. The excavations also demonstrated that the upper floors of the Villa were being restored at the time of the Vesuvian eruption of AD 79, a restoration made necessary by several reasons. The photographs at the end of the volume are clear and illustrative: but the letter for the ramp in the captions for Figs. 38-39 (Plates 33-34) should be 'f' instead of 'e' (see Fig. 35, Plate 32).

In "Wall Paintings in the Villa of the Papyri: Old and New Finds" (63-78), Eric M. Moormann surveys the extant murals of the Villa, starting from a previous (1984) paper on the same topic and reassessing its contents. The majority of the preserved items belong to the Second Style — the style that was common when the Villa was built. It suggests that the owners appreciated this form of decoration for their Villa and preserved it for almost 140 years. Apart from the Second Style paintings the Villa possesses murals in Fourth Style as well. They "seem to come from the last decade of the Fourth Style and have a precious elegance, typical for Herculaneum" (78).

These latter paintings were probably executed between AD 68 and the moment of the eruption, possibly in a period when the Villa was undergoing restoration. The illustrations support the text nicely, though Fig. 1 Plate 40 is very small. So far, not all parts of the Villa have been located. Neither the service areas nor the family's private apartments, to mention a few examples, have as yet been identified. What has been excavated has yielded a large number ( more than 85: p. 88) of sculptures "of different styles, techniques, materials, and sizes, meaning that they must have come from different workshops at different times" (81). They are the subject of Carol C. Mattusch's paper "Programming Sculpture? Collection and Display in the Villa of the Papyri" (79-88). One of the problems one encounters studying the sculptural material is its faulty recording, notably during the Bourbon diggings, as well as the imperfect description or identification: "There are sculptures of literally every style that had been created from as early as the sixth century B.C.E. to as late as the 70s C.E. Some of the sculptures are marble, but most of them are bronze" (84). "It is clear that this collection of sculptures represents a broad range of collecting interests, rather than an all-inclusive program or theme" (ibid.). The paper discusses the problems regarding the collection, but in this form offers no direction to tackle this 'Gordian knot'. In this respect her 2005 book on the collection of the Villa seemed more promising.1

A key feature of the Villa obviously is its collection of papyri. The place in this volume of "Who Lived in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum – A Settled Question?" (89-113), suggests that Mario Capasso will use the collection in an attempt to determine the owner of the Villa. Capasso's contribution focuses on four basic questions. He believes that, in spite of the evidence adduced by recent excavations, the (rural?) origin of the Villa lies in the first half of the first century BCE (90). He admits, nevertheless, that the absence of a complete stratigraphy of the whole complex is an absolute impediment to definite conclusions on the date of origin of the Villa. He believes, however, that the available evidence suggests three phases of habitation (91). Most people, especially in English-speaking circles, believe the Villa was built for Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus; Capasso argues that there is, at present, no incontrovertible proof that the Villa belonged to a particular family, though the Pisonian connection is the best grounded of all hypotheses because of Philodemus' many works recovered in the Villa. Though it is an interesting contribution, its use of papyrological evidence is relatively limited. David Sider, on the other hand, does fully discuss "The Books of the Villa of the Papyri" (115-127). Though charred, its papyri are the unique remains of a library with literary texts from antiquity. Due to their state and the methods of early researchers to unroll them, the papyri from the Villa often prove to be more difficult to access than papyri normally already are. The author most frequently represented in the Villa library is Philodemus, for several reasons considered a protégé of Piso Caesoninus. The number of Latin texts found so far is meagre. Whether there still remains part of the library to be excavated is a tantalizing possibility (126). It is a pity that Sider's contribution precedes recent developments in computerized tomography reading of the scrolls, though he hints at the possibilities this technique might offer. I believe Sider's contribution on the Villa books could have been more substantial. In "The Getty Villa: Recreating the Villa of the Papyri in Malibu" (129-138) Kenneth Lapatin mainly discusses J. Paul Getty's views on the Villa, which he, as much as possible in his time, knew first-hand. Though Getty's villa resembled to some extent the building in Herculaneum ( after Weber's plan), it was no copy of it. For instance, to fit the differing topography of the site at Malibu, many adaptations had to be made, one of them being that the outbuilding where the Villa's library had been located was omitted (133-4). Interesting though the story of Getty's villa may be, I believe this paper adds little to our understanding of the reception of the Villa at Herculaneum; unfortunately, part of this information is repeated by Favro (see below). More relevant appears the paper by Dana Arnold, "En Foüllant à l'Aveugle: Discovering the Villa of the Papyri in the 18th century" (139-154). The first part of the title of her contribution, 'Digging in the dark' [no orthographic error, but 18th century French], is taken from a 1749 letter by Charles de Brosses (151). It fairly describes the situation, both for the underground workers and those engaged in making sense of the discoveries. Arnold's chosen simile, to compare the work at Herculaneum to Sigmund Freud's attempts to access the human mind, occasionally seems a bit far-fetched but in the end not at all misguided when she describes the making of Weber's plan.

As contrasted with that plan, that essentially depicted the Villa as a two dimensional structure, we are today able to contemplate at least parts of the Villa in three dimensions. For a long time in the 20th century such 3D reconstructions were viewed as "not Academic", as Diane Favro explains in "From pleasure, to "guilty pleasure," to simulation: rebirthing the Villa of the Papyri" (155-179). Today, new techniques enable us to implement sufficient data in programs to "breathe life into the spaces illusively represented on Weber's plan" (160). Nevertheless, much has to be provided by researchers' visual imagination and interpretation of texts. A first attempt to create such an environment was Getty's villa that opened in 1974, though not all opportunities it offered were fully explored. The last attempts involve digital technologies led by scholarly expertise in the field. One such attempt, by Mantha Zarmakoupi, is explained in her paper, "The virtual reality digital model of the Villa of the Papyri project" (181-193), which succinctly describes her model developed at UCLA. Different from the Getty "reconstruction" and a virtual reconstruction by Capware in 1997, this recreation is based upon all available evidence and "distinguishes the material remains of the Villa from hypothetical additions" (184). The photos of the model are impressive, but unfortunately offer too little for the interested "visitor" of the Villa. Zarmakoupi and De Gruyter could have rendered a real service by adding a virtual walk through the Villa on a DVD-disk. As it is, the final impression, as with several contributions in this volume, is one of mild disappointment.

Despite my criticism of this volume, I stand by my remark in the first paragraph—that "this volume is a welcome addition to the literature available on Herculaneum in general and the 'Villa dei Papiri' in particular". One specific feature adding to the volume's interest is the excellent bibliography (197-213). A succinct General Index closes the volume. The book itself, as to be expected from a De Gruyter publication, is well produced and has very few typos.


1.   C.C. Mattusch, The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum: life and afterlife of a sculpture collection, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.

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