Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Buried Books of Herculaneum Part 5

Maria Carolina of Austria

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...

Part 4 of this series continues the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the Novel Travelist mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here we continue this story.


Despite the recent lack of interest in Herculaneum, one man remained enthusiastic about the papyrus scrolls recovered from the ash. Vatican calligrapher priest Padre Piaggio was the first to attempt unwinding the scrolls from the Villa dei Papiri without destroying them.

Piaggio's device, Naples Archeological Museum
Piaggio’s infinite patience and sense of innovation produced a mechanical device, now located in the Naples Archeological Museum, that could at long last unwind the scrolls, at a rate of one half-inch per day. It is this device that first appeared in Part 1 of this series.

Slowly and painstakingly, Padre Piaggio eventually succeeded in being the first to unroll one papyrus document from beneath the ruins of Herculaneum. This single act took four years.

Piaggio continued unrolling additional scrolls and he set to diligently copying their text. The former Vatican calligrapher produced remarkably faithful reproductions of the text despite its condition, and also despite the fact that he neither spoke nor read modern, let alone ancient, Greek.

Translation of the content was equally difficult. The papyrus was in such terrible condition, and so many pieces had been lost, that much of the author information and content was either missing or misunderstood. Indeed, several entire scrolls were literally translated backward in their entirety, and it was only many, many years later that this mistake was even recognized as such.

Flattened papyrus scroll from Herculaneum
King Charles III's son Ferdinand came of age in 1767 and became the arrogant, ignorant boy-king of Naples - an event that would no doubt have represented the final nail in the coffin of Herculaneum and the Villa dei Papiri had it not been for one unlikely variable.

Her name was Maria Carolina, and she would become Ferdinand’s queen despite her loudly voiced opinion on the matter: “You might as well cast me into the sea.” Maria Carolina was the elder sister of a girl who would become known to history as Marie Antoinette, and whose notorious fate would only intensify Maria Carolina’s hatred of all things French.

Maria Carolina became a close friend of Padre Piaggio. She safeguarded the papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum throughout the extensive fallout in Naples from the French Revolution, and she successfully kept them from the hands of the pillaging Napoleon Bonaparte – for a while.

To be continued in Part 6 of The Buried Books of Herculaneum

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new 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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