Irene Vallejo

from Papyrus

several generations before the catastrophe, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, commissioned the building of a palace with a two-hundred-meter façade in Herculaneum. When architects uncovered the remains of this sumptuous residence in the mid-eighteenth century, they found over eighty bronze and marble statues, and the only surviving library of the classical world. The collection contains some thousand carbonized scrolls, which the eruption at once preserved and destroyed. As a result of this unprecedented discovery, Piso’s great villa is known as the Villa of the Papyri. This Roman mansion buried by lava made such an impression on the oil magnate Jean Paul Getty that he had an identical villa built for himself in Malibu. Today, the replica houses a branch of the Getty Museum.

For decades, Lucius Calpurnius’s villa had been a meeting place for a renowned circle of Epicurean philosophers, among whom was the poet Virgil. Piso was a powerful magistrate and a keen reader of Greek philosophy. His political enemy, Cicero, portrayed him as a filthy-rich aristocrat singing smutty couplets and frolicking naked “amid the stench and mire of his beloved Greeks.” Subtlety was scarce in the political invectives of the period. Regardless of whether Piso organized those sporadic orgies, it seems likely, judging by the content of his library, that guests at the villa spent their afternoons in Herculaneum engaged in thrilling, though perhaps less sensual, pastimes.

At the end of the republican and the beginning of the imperial periods, powerful Romans considered intellectual entertainment one of their most beloved privileges. Many spent long hours of their otherwise hectic lives skillfully and earnestly debating the gods, the causes of earthquakes, storms, and eclipses, the nature of good and evil, the legitimate goals of life, and the art of death. Pampered by slaves, in the comfort of their elegant villas, they clung to the treasures in their libraries and those civilized intellectual conversations as if somehow wishing to believe that their old world remained in one piece, despite civil wars, violence, social tensions, rumors of rioting, rising grain prices, and the columns of smoke steadily coughed out by Vesuvius. Those privileged men and women who lived at the epicenter of the greatest power in the world took refuge in their luxury mansions to forget about all these dangers, reducing them to remote threats, trivial matters that didn’t merit interrupting a conversation about, for example, the beaver’s testicles that so fascinated Aristotle. The Roman nobles’ taste for lying back upon purple embroidered pillows on their cushy divans—tricliniums, or dining couches—as they were served drinks and delicacies and chatted calmly with one another, gave rise to the Spanish expression “to have a long, stretched-out chat.”

Excavations at the Villa of the Papyri revealed that the sybaritic Piso’s books were kept in a three-by-three-meter room lined with shelves and a freestanding bookcase in the middle with shelves on both sides. The scrolls were taken to the adjacent patio so they could be read in good light, among opulent statues. In this design, the villa’s architect followed the Greek precedent.

That August 24, a blast of gas from the volcano carbonized the papyrus scrolls before the city was coated in fine volcanic ash that later cooled and solidified. When excavators and treasure hunters explored the city in the eighteenth century, they mistook the remains of the scrolls for pieces of coal and charred branches. In fact they used some of them as torches, burning the ancient words of lost books—a curious case of communication by smoke signal. When they realized what they had in their hands, they wondered if it would be possible to read them. In the euphoria of discovery, they resorted to clumsy methods (using their fingernails or, worse still, butcher’s knives to slice them, with predictable and regrettable results). Soon afterward, an Italian invented a machine to try to open them delicately, but it was a desperately slow procedure. It took four years to unfurl the first scroll. And the fragments obtained with the machine, as black as a burnt newspaper, were fragile and difficult to preserve since they were prone to breaking into pieces.

Since then, researchers have sought new technology to decipher the hidden secrets of Piso’s carbonized scrolls. On some of the pieces, nothing can be distinguished; on others, a few letters can be identified under a microscope. Constant handling brings with it the risk of the scrolls turning into nothing but black dust on the table. In 1999, scientists at Brigham Young University examined the papyri with infrared radiation and discovered that at a certain wavelength, they could achieve a high contrast between the paper and ink. Touched by invisible light, the letters began to blossom. Instead of black ink on black paper, the experts could make out dark lines on a pale grey surface. The possibilities of reconstructing the texts increased significantly. In 2008, multispectral imaging allowed for another step forward. However, none of the scrolls identified up until now—all in Greek—contain any of the destroyed treasures we covet: neither unknown poems by Sappho, nor long-lost tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles, nor missing dialogues by Aristotle. The books that have come to light are mostly philosophical treatises on highly specialized matters. The most remarkable discovery is probably On Nature by Epicurus. But many experts suspect that there was a Latin library in Piso’s mansion that remains to be discovered. Meanwhile, the modern city of Ercolano shakes and roars above the ancient ruins, obstructing any deeper excavations. Maybe one day, fascinating lost books will be discovered and it will be possible to read them. Perhaps in the coming decades we will witness a minor literary miracle under the volcano.

The first archaeologists at Herculaneum discovered numerous scrolls scattered throughout the Villa of the Papyri, piled on the floor and tucked into traveling cases, as if the owner had made a last-ditch attempt to move the collection before it was blanketed beneath twenty meters of volcanic detritus. I picture that man, who, two thousand years ago, took the trouble to save his books while his world disappeared, carbonized by the scorching torrent of rock and burning air that rushed at Herculaneum at thirty meters per second, at a temperature of 700 degrees centigrade. For us, in a strange historical irony, this apocalyptic library is the only one that survives on a sweeping map of erasures.

translated by Charlotte Whittle