Antonio De Simone, "Herculaneum and the Villa of the Papyri: Studies, Excavation, and Prospects"

I thank the Herculaneum Society and Professor Fowler for giving me the opportunity to present to this conference the status quaestionis of the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri. Research has been going on now for 25 years and it seems a good moment to recall the salient phases of a difficult but exciting journey, and to set out the unexpected and actual characteristics of the momument as a piece of urban architecture, such as only excavation sub divo, in the open air, could reveal. In my opinion future research and excavation must be based on the results of this work, to achieve a scientific and objective evaluation. In recent years the debate has been directed towards a false problem: it is fundamentally wrong to implant the suspicion that excavating the Villa impedes restoration of the city, and also to present excavation and conservation as antithetically opposed activities. To bring the discussion back onto the right track we should look at how the excavation came about, what its results were, and what one can expect for the future.

In the preface to the first volume of Cronache Ercolanesi in 1971, Marcello Gigante stated anew the idea of locating the Villa, and expressed hope of its excavation. How very ironic this hope proved to be for our friend, no longer among us. At the beginning of the 1980s the discovery of the boat by the ancient seashore, and of the bodies of numerous victims, trapped in the hardened mud of the eruption of 79, brought new knowledge of great archaeological importance. Gigante’s wish now seemed prophetic. It is no coincidence that in 1980 Carlo Knight and Andrea Jorio published their work on the location of the Villa. This study signalled a real change in focus: since 1765, when the Bourbon exploration by means of tunnels was interrupted, many studies have been dedicated to the reading of the papyri, to the sculptures, and to the documentation produced in the course of the 18th-century excavation; now for the first time the object of study—with appreciable results—was the location of the Villa.

In 1982 the Ministry of Culture set up a working group to prepare a study concerning the feasibility of the excavation of the Villa. Subsequently the Ministry incorporated this study into a more comprehensive project to manage all the archaeological sites around Vesuvius. In coordinating and carrying out the project, begun in 1983, many experts from the Ministry were involved. The study concerning the feasibility of the excavation of the Villa was entrusted directly to the Superintendency.

The investigations and work needed for putting together the feasibility study were conducted between 1986 and 1989. There is no need here to repeat what I have set out in detail elsewhere; however, some of the activities can be usefully mentioned. The discovery of the Villa on 16 October 1986 through a well, dubbed by us ‘Veneruso I’, was not the result of chance. By rereading the 18th-century documentation and chronologically correlating sundry documents, we were able to sketch a notional diary of the excavation, useful in turn for pinpointing the excavation sites, locating the entrances to the tunnels, contextualising the surviving data, and reconstructing the methods and techniques adopted in the course of the Bourbon exploration.

We also looked at contemporary cartography, beginning with the maps drawn by La Vega, which show the 18th-century topography and the reconstruction of the ancient terrain, on the basis of the wells and tunnels explored at that time. We also reconstructed the 18th-century property boundaries and the names of landowners, some of whom, as contemporary documents show, received payment for damages caused by the exploration. Using this information we did a sketch of the modern terrain, and following the traces completed the reconnaissance of the wells, until we found the one which allowed us to re-enter the Villa after more than 200 years.

We also conducted trial excavations of the subsoil in order to determine its characteristics, which turned out to be incompatible with the proposal to excavate the Villa by means of galleries. The Villa is covered by the solidified mud of the eruption of A.D. 79; on top of the mud there are the deposits of various successive eruptions, including the edge of a lava flow of 1632, which is very friable. The disparate nature of such material prevents the construction of a gallery. The studies and documents prepared at that time are kept in the Soprintendenza.

By removing the backfill from some of the tunnels to which the wells gave us access we were able to conduct a partial exploration of the Villa, and consequently to position it correctly with respect to the ground above. The difference from the position determined by Knight and Jorio is minimal. Verifying the position seemed necessary for expropriations preparatory to future excavations and to enable the Ministry on 23 May 1990 to declare public property of special interest the wells of the Bourbon period and ‘... the subterranean structures of the Roman period, the ancient Villa of the Pisones or the Villa of the Papyri, situated in the Community of Ercolano (Na), discovered by excavations in underground tunnels and only recently correctly located’.

Our work between 1983 and 1990 produced a series of results:

- The structures of the Villa that survived the havoc wrought by the Bourbon exploration were still remarkable for their quantity and quality; direct observation made possible by excavation sub divo permitted a reading of the archaeological and architectural data much different from the problematic and partial observation hitherto conducted on the basis of the 18th-century documentation.

- The complexity of the observed structures excluded the possibility of exploration through tunnels: the 18th-century network of tunnels had already caused disturbance. Such excavation can be useful if your aim is treasure-hunting, but not for carrying out a proper archaeological investigation.

- The character of the overlying soil does not permit the construction of a gallery within which one might carry out the archaeological investigation. It is also useful to mention, well-known fact though it is, that excavation is conducted stratigraphically and therefore from top to bottom; excavation by means of a gallery proceeds by means of vertical shafts which are accordingly destructive and incompatible with a scientific investigation.

These results suggest several considerations. The exposed archaeological area is delimited on the southwest and southeast by its own natural border; on the northeast, beyond the decumanus maximus, by the impassable boundary of the modern city; on the northwest the border is formed by the Vico del Mare, beyond which, below land which is for the most part still free of buildings, are the furthest insulae (apartment blocks) of the ancient city, partially known from the 18th-century documentation. Immediately beyond these is the Villa of the Papyri. Thus the only way to expand our knowledge of the ancient city was to resume exploration in this direction. This would also throw light on the definition of public spaces in the central area of the city, which remain obscure despite notable recent contributions such as those of Pagano and some notes by Torelli.

Another consideration regarding the excavation of the Villa became clear. The multiplicity of interpretations, often divergent, of the character of the monument demonstrate the limit of studies based solely on the 18th-century documentation. Therefore exploration of the Villa by means of excavation, quite apart from the hope of finding other parts of the Library, seemed to be the only way to define the nature of the monument’s architecture, which is unique for its central position on the Bay of Naples, and quite unusual in its dimensions and composite character.

It thus seemed necessary to conjoin the excavation of the Villa with that of the northwest sector of the city, with the aim of restoring to the scientific world and as wide a public as possible the vision of an integral urban organism, physically connected with the adjacent suburb.

The excavation had to be conducted proceeding inland from the sea. In A.D. 79 Vesuvius covered the area with a remarkable volume of material, cascading down the slope and dragging towards the sea fragments and entire sections of buildings located on the mountain. Excavating in the other direction would have entailed the loss of valuable knowledge: it is no coincidence that Maiuri himself proceeded in a similar manner when he started excavating the city in 1926.

The resumption of excavations at Herculaneum, including the Villa, was presented as a long-term undertaking to be conducted in stages, the first of which involved the parts of the city and the Villa closest to the coast, with the intention of tackling the regions further inland in subsequent decades.

The resumption of excavation was to signal the beginning of restoration of the whole ancient city. No-one ever intended to privilege excavation at the expense of restoration, as undertakings in the last years of the 20th century demonstrate, with restoration of archaeological sites around Vesuvius. Many of those who worked on the restoration and excavation of Herculaneum proceeded at the same time to work on restoring and fixing up Pompeii. It gives me pleasure to present some of my own achievements in these years, which show above all the comprehensive extent of these undertakings, involving 17 insulae of the 100 which make up the city, the suburban baths, the Grande Palestra, the Via di Mercurio and the façades of the monumental houses located there, and a whole section of the walls near the Porta di Nocera. Among the restored insulae there are splendid examples of ancient building like the House of Menander and the House of the Citharist. These restorations bring positive changes to the appearance of the ancient city: the houses recover their dignity as monuments. I take pride in showing you Regions I and II as they appeared before and after restoration. These monuments are now regularly visited and open to the public, and the work shows how restoration of individual monuments recovers comprehensively the image of the city. If the restoration is well done, simple acts of ordinary maintenance will preserve the site very well; such is indeed the Soprintendenza’s method of work.

I have worked in a similar manner at Stabiae where the reparation of the hill of Varano has restored our understanding of the basis villae of the Villa of Ariadne and made possible a large-scale project to manage the site. These projects help one understand the context in which the project of Herculaneum took shape and the professional awareness of those who work on excavation, restoration and conservation.

All that I have said up to now forms the basis of the plan for the archaeological site of Herculaneum, in which the exploration of insulae still underground and the Villa had their place. But before looking at this project and illustrating the results, I need to make a few remarks of a rather bureaucratic and financial character, even if it might seem a little boring.

The excavation of the Villa of the Papyri was an Act of the state of Italy. The Gazzetta Ufficiale, the organ for laws and provisions of the Government, accordingly published project number 110 on 14 May 1990. Objections have been raised in some quarters to the cost of the project, which are well-known and which I am happy to state to all and sundry. The budget net of taxes was roughly equivalent to 9.4 million euros, including the cost of acquiring 30,000 square metres of land where the work took place and which is now public property. In fact this is a modest sum.

It is worth mentioning that the project was conceived as the first stage of a more wide-ranging project with the aim of restoring the entire city and excavating the whole northwest sector of Herculaneum including the excavation sub divo of the Villa of the Papyri. The project envisaged the restoration of the seafront of the city and the suburban baths, reopening access to the archaeological site through the gallery, installing sump pumps, and excavating the extended frontage of the northwest insulae up to the atrium quarter of the Villa of the Papyri. The planned work was carried out between 1991 and 1998, and finished with a final inspection and reconsignment of the site to the Soprintendenza. The inspection is the verification of work done by a committee appointed by the Ministry, including members of the Soprintendenza; when the committee, or rather the committee and the Soprintendenza, certify that the work was properly done in accordance with the aims of the project, the work is handed over to the Consignor, that is the State, which is to say the Soprintendenza. All this duly took place.

In the course of operations the necessary documentation was produced; part of it, including the diary of excavation and other work totalling 440 pages, plans of the site of excavation, an inventory of the 820 boxes of material found, and the catalogue of 80 artifacts of special note, was handed over to the Soprintendenza at the time. More recently we have handed over the documentation pertinent to 625 photographs and 1295 slides. All these data are assembled in a database constructed to record the excavation data, likewise consigned to the Soprintendenza.

I find it difficult to summarise the results of eight years of restoration and excavation. Ample information on these subjects has already been published in a series of articles in the Cronache Ercolanesi. I do not pretend that reading my work is obligatory, but if one is going to offer criticism, as is right in scientific debate, one has the duty to be familiar with the pertinent bibliography. Otherwise polemic is the only result, with misunderstanding of the work done, and a slighting of what has been achieved at great sacrifice.

I limit myself here to mentioning the main features of the results of our study of the Villa and exclude, with reference to published information, the northwest insulae, the seafront of the city from the House of the Relief of Telephus to the rampart of the House of Aristides, as well as future possibilities in respect of these areas.

The archaeological evidence obtained in this phase of the study can be conveniently divided according to three parts of the building: the western part of the atrium; a portion of the frontal prospect of the basis villae and the part underlying it; and a monumental section to the south, on a much lower level and closer to the sea.

The atrium. The atrium quarter of the Villa occupies a prominent position with a panoramic view of the sea, constituting the principal level of a complex which extends over several terraces at different elevations. Of this section we identified and excavated sixteen rooms and part of the arcade which surrounds it on three sides to seaward.

The study of this sector resulted, in the first instance, in the identification of architectural and structural elements drawn from the 18th-century documentation, and the determination of their state of preservation. Nothwithstanding the destructive nature of the 18th-century exploration, the walls in many places are preserved to a maximum height of between 2.2 and 2.9 metres; they thus still display a monumentality which is worthy of note. Furthermore they preserve a significant amount of wall decoration in the Second Style, as well as mosaics, including a ‘hexagonal grid’ panel in room ‘f’.

The masonry of the excavated portion displays a uniform execution. We could see no examples of gap-filling or separate abutting sections: in fact, the prevailing tufa reticulate (small diagonal blocks), sometimes conjoined with irregular ‘quasi-reticulate’, the brickwork of the external supports, of the doorjambs of the alae, and of the interior corners, and the opus vittatum (oblong tufa blocks) of the interior doorjambs, are all of a piece.

These structural features at the point where the two main parts meet reveal an organic whole, which was at least in part provided with ornamental decoration without doubt going back to the original phase of the building. Limiting ourselves just to observation of the excavated part, we can affirm that it fits squarely in the context of elaborate luxury residences built between 60 and 40 B.C., in the period of greatest expansion of the Second Style of painting. An obvious unity of architectural and decorative idiom informs these buildings in Campania, Latium, and Etruria, in suburban, pseudo-urban, and coastal contexts, and even (as it would seem) working villas. Comparisons can be found in well-known complexes such as the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis, the Villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, the Villa of the Volusii at Lucus Feroniae, the Villa of Via Nomentana, and the Villa of Settefinestre in the ager cosanus. The studies of the Villa which preceded the excavation were in great part summarised in the work of Wojcik, who places the Villa of the Papyri ‘in the category of pseudo-urban villas characteristic of Campania’, and identifies the original nucleus in the atrium quarter, dating to the first half of the first century B.C., with the addition of the grand peristyle in a second phase, dated to before the end of the century. The study attendant upon excavation sub divo permits us to determine that the monument was an essentially unitary undertaking, to be dated close to 60 B.C.

Direct observation of the rooms produced another important result in that we could define the function of the arcade which adjoins the atrium quarter. It is useful to recall that this is where the 18th-century exploration stopped. The arcade is configured as a panoramic lookout over the bay. The columns corresponding to the openings of rooms ‘s’ and ‘b’ stand further apart, in order to preserve the view. Room ‘b’, which is the main transition between atrium and arcade, is configured as a sort of tablinum/exedra (adjoining room in line with the atrium) rather than as a large corridor, acting as a panoramic gateway to the sea and not just as an entrance into this part of the villa. The atrium ‘c’, the most damaged part of the excavated area, is enlarged by alae (side-rooms) and continues in the tablinum/exedra. It seems appropriate at this point to speak not of an atrium, which usually has a function of access and linking, but rather of a grand hall, with clear analogies in prestigious residences located along the coast, such as the Villa of Ariadne at Stabiae.

The basis villae. Of the basis upon which the main floor of the Villa is constructed we brought to light the southwest prospect along a distance of 25 metres in the northwest part of the excavation area, and to a height of about 4 metres. The evidence thus obtained attests the presence of a first lower level corresponding to the southwest sector of the atrium, which presumably extended to the northeast limit of the tablinum/exedra and its adjacent rooms. The first row of rooms lying below the arcade is attested by a series of rectangular openings at irregular intervals along the façade.

A partial investigation was conducted of the first of the rooms below the main level. It has a depth of about 3.85 metres and is connected with other rooms to the northwest and northeast. The black-and-white mosaic floor and the fine painted decoration, attributable to the transition between the third and fourth Pompeian styles, confirm its use by the owner and his guests rather than by servants.

By the northwest end of the Villa’s frontage, at the corner of that part of the excavation which is the limit of the entire site on this side, at an even lower level and connected with the frontage itself, an element was brought to light that greatly enriches our understanding of the monumental, vertical plan of the Villa. We see that its seaward face was an articulated, scenic design. This element, which could be only very partially studied in view of the physical limits imposed on the excavation, consists in an apsidal projection, or rather a curvilinear profile, in which two large rectangular windows open out. The structure has a flat roof covered with cocciopesto (lime mortar with crushed pottery) at a level about 5.3 metres below the main floor of the Villa, on a level with a similar surface, only partly investigated, outside the sill of the first opening on the northwest.

planimetriaThe simple observation of such elements reveals a basis villae articulated on several levels and a configuration of architectural forms of a strongly scenographic nature. This was quite unexpected and totally unforeseeable on the basis of the 18th-century documentation. I shall return to this point at the end of my lecture.

The lower terrace. This is the name conventionally given to the monumental section situated to the south and at an elevation 9 metres below the main level of the Villa. It is closer to the sea, and about 23 metres from the front of the basis villae. It is linked to the principal building in position and orientation, in the importance of its structures and its décor, as well as the vertical plan of the whole complex. The southwest limit of the terrace is defined by a small walled parapet, parallel to the Villa’s façade; abutting the wall is a masonry stairway descending to the sea, of which three steps have been brought to light.

On the terrace, in a central and significant alignment, there is a building of which only the foundation remains. It was a large room covered by a flat roof which collapsed entirely under the weight of the eruption. Examination of the ruins reveals that the building was a large hall, with an interior measure of 8.9 metres. The sumptuousness and overall ‘tone’ of the building are attested by some of the residual wall coverings.

statua statua 2At the interior east and south corners of the hall there were two quadrangular brick bases, whose marble cladding was found in an extremely fragmentary state. On each upper surface there were traces of an irregular concave depression. These bases supported two female statues, of the types ‘Sciarra Amazon’ and ‘Borghese Hera’, which were discovered outside the structure near the corners. The symmetrical arrangement of statues within the rooms of the Villa allows the hypothesis that there were other statues in the corners on the northeast side of the room, opposite that explored. The discovery of these two masterpieces, one can appropriately affirm, encourages the belief that further statues will be found in the parts of the Villa still underground, completing the rich collection discovered in the course of the 18th-century exploration. 

Still, the most important result arising from the recent investigation is certainly the new understanding of the Villa’s vertical dimension along its western, seaward prospect. Here I may mention that the most accepted theories, supported also by the recent re-exploration of the Bourbon tunnels, posited a large blind course of masonry to support the structure. We can now speak legitimately of a three-dimensional reality of the monument as opposed to the horizontal, two-dimensional one passed on for two centuries now by Weber’s plan. 

The level of the Villa studied in the 18th century stands at an altitude of 11 metres. Since the ancient ground level was about 5 metres deeper, we should fix the height of the main floor in antiquity at 16 metres above sea level. Our study has brought to light no fewer than four architectural levels underneath the main floor, with progressively smaller frontage in order to accommodate the slope. Their configuration suggests a predominantly residential use.

de simoneThe first level, starting from the top, extends to a height of about 5 metres from a point about 6 metres above the present ground level; this is the front of the basis already described. The second level is represented by the apsidal projection. The third level, the ‘lower terrace’, is in evidence at an altitude of about 2.3 metres; from here one descended to the beach by the previously mentioned stairway.

The discovery of the lower terrace shows that the Villa could not be limited to a one-directional scheme of about 250 metres, but involved also a second line of development in the opposite direction to that already known, from inland seaward; such a scheme, at right angles to the slope, suggests a scenic arrangement of the complex, articulated on several levels, downhill from the part explored in the 18th century. Such an arrangement has counterparts in known elements of important monumental residences fronting on the Bay of Naples, which precisely through their connection to the sea and the view of the shore afforded to the seafarer, a natural and privileged perspective in antiquity, asserted their identity and ensured their recognition. Specifically in the area struck by the eruption of 79 one may mention, for instance, remarkable complexes such as the villas of Stabiae and sites on the suburban edge of Herculaneum such as the Villa Sora and the Villa di Ponte di Rivieccio. 

This recovered vista of the Villa’s disposition on several levels opens new and fertile prospects for future research. Concrete arguments renew the hope of further sensational discoveries of material transported during the flight toward the beach below—domestic furnishings or at any rate objects typical of the Villa including the papyri. The location of the papyri in several rooms of the Villa and their distribution in portable armaria and boxes shows that there was a sudden and precipitous attempt to remove some of the household goods as the pyroclastic flow approached. The distribution of manufactured goods seems to suggest a route through a room at the juncture of the atrium quarter and peristyle from which, traversing the lower floors, one could get to the beach. The hope of rescue was perhaps denied by the fury of the volcano. 

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In spring 1997, about one year after cessation of work and in the light of the discoveries, which exceeded all expectations, I indicated the urgent need to begin work immediately on an initial, vital restoration of the structures and to ensure the management of this complex site through a coordinated effort. Maintenance requires periodic removal of vegetation, cleaning the drainage canals of rainwater, checking the sump pumps and the state of the provisional wooden supports. Such activities should be a regular and daily routine in archaeological sites and monuments, and of course were promptly put in place where our investigation was conducted. In this sense I agree with Wallace-Hadrill that ordinary maintenance should have sufficed at Herculaneum, but that this has been lacking in recent years; I would only add that there are no grounds for asserting that this lack has anything to do with the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri.

Continuing the excavation seems to me imposed by the logic of the situation. Excavation does not exclude restoration. In this respect one may readily suggest that interest in the Villa could attract private funds also for restoration. Restoration does not exclude maintenance. The excavation of Herculaneum lasted from 1926 to 1961. During so long a period new excavations were undertaken, with concomitant restoration, in several sites; in other sites previously begun restorations were completed; in other sites, open to visitors, ordinary maintenance was carried out. We have ourselves restored the seafront of the ancient city, conducting the new excavation as part of the same project. At Pompeii today the procedure is the same.

The excavation as done showed that excavation is technically possible. Nowadays I hear that it is impossible to excavate the villa—the same as Marcello Gigante used to hear when expressing the hope of rediscovery and excavation. I showed that excavation is possible.

A survey of the site shows that excavation is compatible with the modern context. In fact the modern structures, which are for the most part buildings of poor quality, impinge only in a limited way on the area of excavation. Other modern buildings are greenhouses where flowers were grown. This does not mean that continuing the excavation presents no obstacles. But these are not insurmountable, given the will; in fact in the past these obstacles have been overcome. It is our good fortune that this has been historically demonstrated; one need only look closely at Maiuri’s excavations from 1926 on.

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If, as we hope, the excavation is to continue, it will be possible only under the open sky and by constructing an appropriate relationship between ancient and modern. To me the linking of ancient and modern should be considered both useful and necessary. This can be done above all by putting in order the modern buildings which form a dreary frame to the archaeological site along the Corso Resina and the Vico del Mare, by exploiting, also in a functional sense, the 18th- and 19th-century architecture, and by preserving and celebrating as a matter of historical memory the elements which connect the two distinct realities of ancient and modern, such as the Vico del Mare which connected the built-up district of Pugliano with the new coastline, pushed towards the sea by the pyroclastic flow of the eruption of A.D. 79. In such circumstances the archaeological site has the capacity to redefine the modern urban landscape, which has deteriorated notably. Archaeological considerations can be the stimulus to redesign the seafront of the modern city. In other words archaeological excavation is not only not in conflict with modern reality, but becomes its driving force, in dialogue with it. It can be both its restoration and its redefinition.