Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri Emerge from the Ash

The northernmost room of the first lower level of the Villa dei Papiri, re-excavated in 2007-8, revealed splendid frescoes and stucco decorations, which were being restored when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

And Are Featured in a New Exhibit at the Getty Villa


Special to Circling The News

Photos courtesy Getty Villa

A masterful curatorial accomplishment has been realized at the Getty Villa.

A large collection of discoveries unearthed from the volcanic debris found at the ancient Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum has been brought to the museum, giving the viewer an opportunity to see the authentic statues and frescos within the context of the villa re-creation in Pacific Palisades.

“Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri” presents many of the most significant artifacts discovered in the 1750s along with recent finds.

Woman Wearing a Peplos (Demeter/Hera), Roman first century AD. Marble with pigment found at the seaside pavilion.

While we are all familiar with the extensive Getty collection of Greek and Roman sculpture–some 90 bronzes and marbles–the current exhibition includes many more ancient sculptures. For the first time, visitors will be able to see the original statues whose replicas have been fixtures throughout the Getty Villa’s grounds for the past 45 years.

The Villa dei Papiri, which had been buried under some 80 feet of volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, was found by accident in 1750 by well diggers who came across a polychrome mosaic floor; the replica is located in the Getty Villa’s Temple of Hercules gallery.

From that discovery, archeologists started digging tunnels and explored extensively over the next decade, uncovering bronzes, marbles, antiquities and papyrus scrolls that had survived in the villa’s library. The cache, stored in the royal museum in Naples, was largely forgotten until new explorations ensued in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, according to Getty Antiquities Curator Kenneth Lapatin.

“What we tried to do, with the great and generous cooperation of our Italian colleagues, was to bring together a very large selection of that material from those excavations, at the time beginning in 1750, with new finds at Herculaneum from the 1990s and 2000s.”

The current exhibition presents the site in its broader context, showing the original archeological ground plan of the Villa dei Papiri created by Swiss engineer Karl Weber in the mid-1700s that provided not only a roadmap for excavation, but also the design for the Getty Villa.

In addition to showing the artistic finds, the exhibition displays a group of papyrus scrolls, the philosophical content that allowed curators to attribute ownership of the building to Lucius Calpurnius Piso.

The father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Piso was of an old senatorial family who held the highest offices of the Roman Republic. He was also the patron of philosophers, whose personal library was discovered in his luxurious private residence.

The bulk of the papyrus scrolls in his library was devoted to Epicurean treatises. We often think of excessive and wanton pleasure when we think of Epicureans, but even in Roman times, the Epicureans were misunderstood and thought to be lascivious and gluttonous, and people would call them pigs, Lapatin says.

But, quotes throughout the exhibit from the papyrus scrolls define a philosophy rather that teaches to limit our desires, and how we shouldn’t fear God, we shouldn’t worry about death. We should accept what’s good.

When J. Paul Getty decided to replicate the Villa dei Papiri for his museum, his architects relied on Weber’s 18th-century plan, since the original building remained inaccessible underground.

Digital reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri from the southeast. Museo Archeologico Virtuale di Ercolano.

“Recreating the Villa dei Papiri appealed to Mr. Getty because of its association with Julius Caesar,” Lapatin says. “Getty often compared himself to ancient Roman rulers and particularly admired Julius Caesar and the emperor Hadrian, a fellow art collector and villa owner. His reconstruction was a key component in his attempts to refashion himself from a Midwestern businessman into a European aristocrat.”

The original building we can pretty securely date to around 40 BC, says Lapatin, with additions made around 20 BC.

Plans show how similar the Villa dei Papiri was to the Getty Villa, but with differences.

The Villa dei Papri is located along the coast; the Getty Villa is set in a canyon perpendicular to the coast. The plan shows the progress of the excavations over the years. Weber marked details on his drawing indicating where important finds were located, including sculptures, frescos, papyri, pools, gutters and hinges.

Drunken Satyr (pre-conservation) Roman first century BC—first century AD. Found at the west end of the rectangular peristyle, July 10, 1754.

The most important sculptures were found in the garden, says Lapatin, including two of the so-called dancers and the Drunken Satyr, which has undergone conservation treatment and analysis in collaboration with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

“The statue is ancient and in rather good shape with some repairs,” Lapatin says. “He has original eyes, the whites are bone, the irises and pupils are gone, but were probably colored stone. His lips were copper, his teeth tin.”

The more recent excavations which re-opened some of the suburban tunnels have revealed the general accuracy of Weber’s ground plan. New discoveries include colorful mosaics floors, frescoed walls and stuccoed ceilings. Also unearthed was a seaside pavilion and swimming pool, where archeologists recovered especially rare remnants of furniture made of ivory and wood.

Ongoing research is certain to add to a clearer understanding of the initial finds from the site.

The exhibition continues to October 28. Contact:

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