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The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction

Edited by Mantha Zarmakoupi (Sozomena: Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts 1). Pp. ix + 221, pls. 78, table 1. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2010. $147. ISBN 978-3-11-020388-2 (cloth).

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This volume will bring the English-speaking reader up-to-date on what we know about the Villa of the Papyri, with brief synthetic essays summarizing recent archaeological, textual, and interpretive work. The editor wisely waited to include the reports of Guidobaldi and Esposito on their work done after the symposium that occasioned this volume in 2007.

De Simone’s essay is the first in the volume, setting out the process of rediscovering the villa, first by relocating the Bourbon tunnels, then through coring carried out in the area of the ancient seashore, and finally with the use of heavy earthmoving equipment (1991–1998) to remove the huge burden of volcanic material in the area between the ancient seashore and the atrium of the villa. A visitor sees 20 m cliffs that dwarf the area of the villa, its main floor 16 m above the ancient sea level. The site looks like a deep strip mine, complete with the constant drone of pumps to expel seawater. The discovery of two barrel-vaulted terraces making up the basis villae, as well as a complex of buildings at sea level, reveals the villa to be a sea-view villa, like the Villa San Marco at Stabiae, with its system of ramps leading up from the ancient shore, or Oplontis Villa A, now known—thanks to recent geoprospection work—to have been perched on a 14 m cliff above its own little harbor. Like the Villa of the Papyri, Oplontis A had shoreline buildings, known from materials emerging from the cores taken in 2010–2011.

Infratecna, the construction company that handed over the new excavations to the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii in 1999, left their work unfinished, with no provisions for conservation. Looking at the before and after photographs accompanying the essays of Guidobaldi and Esposito, we realize what a mess Infratecna left to be cleaned up. Guidobaldi and Esposito worked through 2009 to complete the excavations and conserve the precarious remains. Their discoveries in the atrium quarter, the Bourbon tunnels, in the rooms of the first and second levels of the basis villae, and in the extensive sea level area belonging to the villa (called “VPSO,” or Villa of the Papyri Southwest Sector) make fundamental contributions to our understanding of the Roman luxury villa. Their full report was published in Vesuviana (M.P. Guidobaldi, D. Esposito, and E. Formisano, “L’Insula I, l’Insula nord-occidentale e la Villa dei Papiri di Ercolano: Una sintesi delle conoscenze alla luce delle recenti indagini archeologiche, con una premessa di Pietro Giovanni Guzzo,” Vesuviana 1 [2009] 43–180).

With the atrium opened up, Moormann was able to revisit his 1984 reconstruction of the wall painting program of the villa, carried out through examination of manuscript materials that document the paintings removed before 1765 and kept in the Naples Archaeological Museum. What emerges is a modest and quite lacunose Fourth Style program of wall paintings and mosaics, with a precious fragment of the Second Style megalography kept by the owner as a period piece. Proto (“Frammenti d’affresco dalla Villa dei Papiri nel Museo Archeologico di Napoli tra vecchi errori e nuove scoperte,” in G. Gasparri et al., eds., Dall’immagine alla storia: Studi per ricordare Stefania Adamo Muscettola [Naples 2011] 375–86) has added further evidence for the painting program, and Zarmakoupi has integrated Moormann’s reconstructions of these paintings into some of the digital reconstructions that appear at the end of the volume.

Mattusch summarizes the results of her fine monograph on the sculpture collection of the villa (The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum: Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection [Los Angeles 2005]). Despite Weber’s efforts to record the findspots of the 85 sculptures retrieved, and those of scholars to identify each and determine their place in some kind of unified program, a remarkable number of marbles and bronzes remain unidentified; neither the themes announced nor the disparate styles and dates of the works (sixth century B.C.E.–79 C.E.) add up to a coherent program. She reminds us that bronzes, although prized by modern collectors because of their rarity, were much cheaper to produce in antiquity than marbles. Mattusch estimates the size of the villa to be about 65,000 square feet (20,000 m²) emphasizing that it was a multistory structure.

Capasso’s detailed discussion of 130 years of scholarship on the ownership of the villa ultimately leans toward Comparetti’s hypothesis that it was built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonianus ca. 60 B.C.E. After his death ca. 42 B.C.E., it passed to his son, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Pontifex, remaining in the hands of the gens Calpurnia even to the end, when the villa probably saw conversion into a farm. He provides careful summaries of all the scholarly hypotheses, including the most successful—that of Mattusch. In his brief essay, Sider offers a parallel summary on the discovery of the papyrus rolls, the attempts to open them, and their content.

Lapatin provides a brief account of J. Paul Getty’s recreation of the villa in Malibu, with comments on how the collection and its display reflect the way Getty understood Roman society and values. Particularly interesting is his discussion of how architects Rudolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti remodeled the 1974 building, framing it with postmodern elements.

Arnold interweaves two theoretical positions, Freud’s metaphor of the archaeology of the subconscious and Derrida’s framing of psychoanalysis as a theory of the archive. He relates these theories to the “blind” digging of the villa by means of vertical shafts and tunnels. Favro reminds us of the difference between dry scholarship and the sensual pleasures that the Roman villa provided. If a modern reconstruction like the Getty Museum can recreate those pleasures within fixed limits, Favro demonstrates how born-digital reconstructions encourage historical sensorial research, allowing scholars to explore viewsheds, spatial sequencing, kinetic pathways, sound, light, and changes to the structure over time. Finally, Zarmakoupi explains the scholarly values embodied in the information-laden virtual reality model of the villa developed by her and the University of California, Los Angeles, Cultural Virtual Reality Laboratory.

This book is indispensable for anyone wanting an English-language synthesis of this key monument in the history of ancient art and architecture. My only lament is that the tiny format of the book prevents the reader (even with a magnifying glass) from seeing the details such as room numbers in the plans and model, and that the color typography is so imprecise as to render some of the color-coded plans illegible. Far better to have loaded these images at full resolution onto a DVD bundled with the book or onto a Web server made available to the reader.

John R. Clarke
Department of Art and Art History
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712-0421

Book Review of The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction, edited by Mantha Zarmakoupi

Reviewed by John R. Clarke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Clarke

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