Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: The Villa of the Papyri and its Treasures

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

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Still largely buried under 20 metres of volcanic sludge from the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, this sumptuous Roman villa may yet yield incredible artistic and literary treasures. When it was tunnelled into during the 18th century, 62 fine bronzes and 22 marble statues were discovered and removed. The contents of an ancient library with over 1,800 charred papyrus scrolls were also recovered. What might still be there and what if Vesuvius were to erupt again and seal the site? Should the villa be fully excavated now, while we still have the opportunity?

Join us for this study day as we consider the 18th and 20th century investigations, the politics of the current excavation controversy, the artistic significance of the sculpture collection and the new imaging technology that is gradually unlocking the secrets of the charred scrolls. We will conclude with a tour of the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA, that was built in the 1970s and is based on the plan of the Villa of the Papyri as it was measured in the 18th century.


The aims of this course are to:

  • provide you with information on the villa, its possible occupants, and what has been revealed by an examination of the villa and its contents
  • develop your understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the different archaeological methods that have been employed on the site during its excavation history
  • present arguments for and against the resumption and completion of excavations.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • describe deficiencies of the early excavation methods employed onsite
  • describe the development of archaeological methods onsite
  • evaluate the contribution of Karl Weber who directed excavations in the 18th century
  • demonstrate an awareness of the long and often bitter controversies about the need to undertake an open-cut excavation of the entire villa
  • evaluate the contribution of De Simone and Ruffo, who attempted an open-cut excavation of the villa in the 1990s
  • demonstrate an understanding of Roman attitudes relating to the villa
  • show an awareness of the arguments for and against the villa’s excavation
  • use art-historical terms accurately, such as ‘Hellenistic’, ‘Archaic’ and 'Archaizing'
  • evaluate the aesthetic value of sculptures in the collection
  • explain the scientific methods used in 20th and 21st century attempts to read the texts on the charred carbonised scrolls.


Exploration of the villa in the 18th and 20th centuries

We begin with the 18th century excavations of Herculaneum and the discovery and initial exploration of the villa through tunnels. We will examine the methods used on site by Karl Weber, one of the pioneers of archaeology, the difficult recovery of sculpture and papyri and his mapping of the villa and its garden. Who owned this sumptuous villa? We will survey the various theories that have been put forward and the argument that links the villa to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Various failed 19th and 20th century campaigns to recommence the excavation will be discussed. We then examine the open cut excavation of part of the villa undertaken by Antonio de Simone and Fabrizio Ruffo in the 1990s.

Attempts to read the papyri – 18th century to now

The carbonised papyrus scrolls from the villa attracted great attention in the 18th century from the moment that they were first recognised for what they were. The scholarly world was excited that here might be some of the Greek and Latin texts that we do not have from antiquity. We will survey the many and various mechanical and chemical processes attempted in Italy, France and England in a quest to open the scrolls. The damage and destruction was immense but the apparatus invented by Antonio Piaggio did result in the opening of some scrolls and fragments of text were read. The works of the Epicurian philosopher Philodemus were discovered and some small portions of text were reconstructed. However it was only in the late 20th century that new scientific techniques allowed dramatic progress to be made. We will examine new non-destructive techniques such as computer-aided pattern recognition, multi-spectral imaging and the latest X-ray phase-contrast imaging that allow the scrolls to be ‘opened’ and ‘unrolled’ on screen. What has been revealed about the content of the scrolls?

Interpretations of the villa’s collection of sculptures

The 63 bronzes and 22 marble statues recovered from the villa in the 18th century constitute one of the greatest collections of Roman sculptures ever found. In the 18th century, the find created a sensation and the museum at Portici where they were housed became a required stop on the Grand Tour. We will discuss the villa’s sculpture collection in terms of Hellenistic and Archaic Greek styles in these Roman-era copies. The recent research on the bronze-working techniques and the origins of the marbles has opened interesting new perspectives on the origins of these works. We will examine statues of gods and goddesses, statesmen, philosophers and possible family and their original placement in the villa. Were there themes to the collection? Was there a program to the placement of the sculpture in the garden? We will consider the theories put forward by Giles Sauron and Dimitrios Pandermalis and the contributions of Carole Mattusch.

The campaign to resume excavation

In this final presentation we will examine the public campaign waged in the media to reopen the open-cut excavation of the Villa of the Papyri. Those who argue for excavation, mainly classicists, point to the possibility that new Latin as well as Greek texts may be recovered and that now new imaging techniques have been developed we may be able to read unknown literary masterpieces. Citing the possibility of another eruption of Vesuvius that further bury the villa some proponents of excavation stress the urgent need for ‘rescue archaeology’ while we still have the chance.

Those who argue against excavation stress the cost and the conservation problems once the villa is recovered from under 20 metres of hardened volcanic sludge. They argue that the contents of the villa, art treasure or papyrus scrolls will always be there and are safer there until the day that there are available funds.

We end with John Paul Getty, the 20th century American oil-tycoon who, when he couldn’t convince the authorities to excavate the Villa of the Papyri, built his own villa in Malibu California to the plan drawn by Weber in the 18th century. We will tour the house and garden which evoke in a spectacular way what the original Villa of the Papyri might have looked like.

Intended audience

This course may be of interest to anyone wanting to:

  • explore Roman history
  • learn more about Roman and Greek sculptures and Roman social history including housing and gardens.
  • learn more about ancient literature and papyrology
  • learn more about the development of archaeology as a scientific discipline.



Delivery style

The course combines two formats: lecture style delivery, and class discussion.

Recommended reading

Mattusch, C 2013, The Rediscovery of Antiquity on the Bay of Naples 1710-1890 Los Angeles, the John Paul Getty Museum.

Mattusch, C 2005, The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Life and afterlife of a Sculpture Collection Los Angeles, The John Paul Getty Museum.

Parslow, C 1995, Rediscovering Antiquity. Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae, Cambridge: CUP.

Sider, D 2005, The Library of the Villa dei Papyri at Herculaneum Los Angeles, The John Paul Getty Museum.

Zarmoukoupki, M (ed.) 2010, The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Archaeology, Reception and Digital Reconstruction, Berlin and New York, De Gruyter.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

What others say.

  • Brilliant in every respect. This presenter is perfect for a session like this. Enjoyed every minute.

What others say.

  • Brilliant in every respect. This presenter is perfect for a session like this. Enjoyed every minute.
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