Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Buried Books of Herculaneum Part 4


Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero and friend of King Charles, became the first to attempt opening the papyrus scrolls as they emerged from within the villa. A self-proclaimed "gifted" and "extraordinary" alchemist, di Sangro used mercury in an effort to soften the charred, brittle papyrus. The mercury dissolved the scrolls, and many of them were lost...

Part 3 of this series continues the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here we continue this story.

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Maria Amalia of Saxony, Public Domain
Four years after Charles succeeded to the throne, he married.  His father, King Philip V, had sought a French bride for his first born in a feeble effort to cling to the French throne. Queen Elisabetta’s wishes prevailed, however, and Charles married Prussian Princess Maria Amalia, who had grown up in the very Austrian palace containing the first statues excavated from Herculaneum - the three veiled females and the statue of Cleopatra.

Meanwhile, the second factor involved in bringing Herculaneum to light was the Enlightenment itself. The Grand Tour was in full swing, and the aristocratic travelers known to Italians as “milordi” – “my lords” – came from far and wide throughout Europe. Rome was a quintessential stopping point, and then Naples as well.

As rumors of the ancient treasures began making their way across Europe, increasing numbers of Grand Tourists became determined to see the ruins for themselves, as well as to purchase the multiple replicas of Herculaneum booty that were suddenly all the rage. Artists who could faithfully reproduce these coveted artifacts found abundant work in Naples.

One such artist was Camillo Paderni, who was both fascinated by the flawlessly frozen cross-sections of ancient Roman life and appalled that these cross-sections were being so brutally destroyed. As he toured the excavation sites, Paderni produced image upon image of the world formerly unbeknownst to the public. He also began writing letters of complaint about excavation leader Alcubierre.

Winckelmann, Public Domain
Another of Alcubierre’s critics was Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Antiquarian and well-respected writer, Winckelmann’s scathing commentaries brought the methods of Alcubierre into the light and into posterity, observing that Alcubierre knew “as much of antiquities as the moon knows of crabs.”

In 1750, Alcubierre was pulled to a different post and replaced by Karl Weber, who produced the first true maps of the Villa dei Papiri and its surroundings as well as the many tunnels now leading through the area. Approximately 1100 additional scrolls were found under Weber, and King Charles himself was fascinated with them, until the inevitable fate of monarchy politics intervened.

King Charles’ father Philip, the King of Spain and of the two Sicilies, had died in 1754. By 1759, Charles could no longer shirk his responsibility to the kingdom, and he reluctantly left for Spain. Governing in Naples in his stead was a temporary stand-in until Charles’ spoiled, eight-year-old son Ferdinand could come of age.  Excavations at Herculaneum were forcibly halted in favor of ongoing efforts at Pompeii, and so the secrets contained within the Villa would once again be forced to wait.

Charles’ mother Elisabetta, the woman who had first initiated the work, died.

Continued in Part 5 of The Buried Books of Herculaneum


This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California. 

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