Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Sculptures of the Villa of the Papyri

I have been astonished to learn how many of the most famous works of Greek and Roman art came from a very few archaeological sites. And the site that produced more sculptures than any other was the Villa de Papyri in Herculaneum.

The villa was discovered in 1750, and the early excavations were done in tunnels 70 feet below the surface. If you enlarge or download this plan you can see the tunnels, which are shaded brown.

A glimpse of the ruins today. The villa was actually "lost" after excavations ceased in 1765, and modern archaeologists had to work out its location from puzzling over old maps. They eventually broke into one of the old tunnels by descending 70 feet down a well, tapping on the sides until they found a spot that sounded hollow, much like Indiana Jones except without the snakes.

Reconstruction by Rocío Espín Piñar

The immense villa stretched more than 800 feet (250 m) along the shore of the Bay of Naples. It must have belonged to a very wealthy and prominent Roman; the leading candidate for the builder is Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

In terms of being able to visualize this building we are fortunate that a modern American of similar status, J. Paul Getty, was obsessed with the Villa and built his museum in Malibu as a reconstruction of it. Contemporary experts are not in love with the reconstruction but I still think it gives you a better feel for the original than shattered ruins or digital reconstructions do.

The villa takes its name from the charred papyrus "logs" found in profusion. Some of them could even be unrolled and read, filling the scholarly world with breathless anticipation – what lost masterpieces by Plato or Aeschylus would be rediscovered? – but sadly it turned out that most of them are justly forgotten works of Epicurean philosophy by the justly forgotten philosopher Philodemus of Gadara. It is known that Lucius Calpurnius Piso was Philodemus' patron, which is the main reason Piso is thought to have owned the villa. This is instructive because the very high quality of most works surviving from the ancient world deceives us as to the general level of their culture; as in all times, 95 percent of Roman books were awful.

Some delightful frescoes were removed from the villa and taken to Naples.

But as I said, the glory is the sculpture. There is so much that one hardly knows where to begin. Indeed one would like to begin with a count, but there is so much that archaeologists have lost track of some of it and there is dispute about where some pieces came from and how others should be counted. This site lists 84.

Scipio Africanus, one of my favorite ancient works.

The drunken satyr

One of the highlights (lowlights?) of the old "secret room" in the Naples museum, to which ladies were not admitted.

The art and literature of the ancient world survives mainly by luck. Half of the ancient literary works to survive did so only in a single manuscript. And many of the sculptures are known only because a single example ended up preserved in this villa, or in Pompeii or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. If you think too hard about all that we lost from those times you can make yourself very sad, but I prefer to be excited by the miracle of the things that survive.


G. Verloren said...

This is instructive because the very high quality of most works surviving from the ancient world deceives us as to the general level of their culture; as in all times, 95 percent of Roman books were awful.

This feels like projecting the present onto the past somewhat.

We live in a world where modern mass printing makes it possible for nearly anyone to write and publish a book relatively cheaply, even if only in small numbers. But for most of human history, books (and other written materials) represented a massive investment of labor to produce, which changes the overall calculus on the quality of works that people will accept as being worth their time, effort, and resources.

Mediocre books surely were written regularly, but they also surely weren't copied and disseminated to any particularly great extent, except in cases where someone was wealthy enough not to care about the cost of doing so. Why would someone agree to consume valuable papyrus and ink and set their scribes to work laboriously copying a mediocre work that wasn't likely to sell very well, except in cases where sales didn't matter because they were being paid in advance by a wealthy patron who didn't care about recouping their losses?

To be clear, I'm not quite arguing that there weren't a great many works that were of mediocre quality - I'm more arguing that the figure of "95 percent" seems far and away much too high, given the much smaller scale and scope of the literature industry prior to the invention of the printing press, and the much stronger bias toward authors being connected to the wealthy elites of society.

I might be inclined to believe that a simple majority of works were less than stellar, but not that 19 out of every 20 books in the Roman era were disappointing.

John said...

It is probably true that when reproduction was so expensive many bad books existed in only one or a few copies, and a higher percentage of those in libraries were copies of a few famous works. But one thing about the books that survived in medieval copies is that they were interesting, not just in Roman times, but to the people who copied them, which I think makes it more likely that they would be interesting to the modern world as well. Much of what the Romans liked is incomprehensible to us, for example those awful unfunny "comedies" and insider philosophical debates. I guess I am saying that some of the books that were copied widely in the Roman world were terrible, too.