Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Lost Library

A statue taken from Villa di Papyri

The Villa di Papyri [1].

In 1752 an Austrian general called Prince D'Elboeuf purchased land near Naples where, in the process of digging a well in an apricot orchard, workers had found some exceptional ancient artefacts . Further investigation revealed a luxurious villa and lots of lootable treasures. Among these were 2,000 priceless papyri that looked more like charcoal parsnips. Luckily, someone noticed writing on one of them and they were duly saved from the excavation scrapheap [2].

Further digging revealed a grand house, since named Villa di Papyri, the ruins of which comprise a fraction of a town called Herculaneum, a seaside settlement between the foot of Vesuvius and The Bay of Naples. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

The Villa di Papyri is thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who was known to be a lover of poetry. For one thing, the writings were mainly works by the Epicurean Greek philosopher Philodemus, who was part of Piso’s entourage [3].

In March 1969, thanks largely to the efforts of a scholar named Marcello Gigante, the International Centre for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri was founded. In 1979 the centre published a catalogue including relevant data and a bibliography. The most recent supplement to this, a Multimedia Catalogue, Χάρτης (Chartes), was published in 2005. Χάρτης comprised all the data of the preceding issues and offered much potential for research. Notably, each papyrus is accompanied by a digital image which gives an idea of its script and of the condition of the roll.[4]

Being charred and disfigured from a combination of rain damage, carbonization and immersion in hot mud, the papyri have been pretty much unreadable until the last few decades. Scientists who have worked on the project describe it like trying to unroll
burnt 2-ply tissue. In the last decade, however, technology such as multi-spectral imaging and an X-ray CT scanning system has helped researchers read the texts with minimum stress to the papyri.[5]

Many classicists are eager to keep on digging in order to find more papyrii, a lost library that could transform our picture of the ancient world. Contrarily and controversially, the Superintendant of both sites Pietro Giovanni Guzzo has declared a moratorium on all further excavations of both sites, arguing that conservation is the key issue at the moment.[6]

An independently funded society, the Herculaneum Conservation Project, was conceived in the summer of 2000. Its website states how it is trying to address conservation issues:

The most important challenges HCP now faces, that of establishing basic infrastructure for the ancient city (drains, protective shelters, site access for works, etc.) and evolving successful models of continuous care to guarantee the site’s long-term survival. They must be sustainable strategies for the
public arm of the project to take forward after the private partner has gone since it was, after all, the failure of such routine maintenance programmes that led to the state of neglect that the site found itself in the 1990s. [7]

The last part of this quote is probably a veiled allusion to the fact that Naples and its surrounding regions are (or were) under the thumb of the Napolese mafia, the Deadly Cammoro. As recently as 2007, buying land to continue excavating was near-impossible because it is a stronghold of the Cammoro.

According to Roberto Saviano, author of the book Gommora (now a film), the mafia is virtually indistinguishable from local government in this part of Italy:

Saviano says the problem for authorities is that the Camorra's criminal enterprises are so closely enmeshed with legitimate businesses they are practically unassailable.
The Italian state and the European community are faced with a dilemma, the organized crime in Italy generates huge sums of money. The three major mafias have a turnover of 100 billion euros a year.
The small-business federation says organized crime is the biggest business in Italy — it accounts for 7 percent of GNP. This means that in an area where no one invests, organized crime is a major provider of jobs and controls votes.
Saviano says this means that one-third of Italy is in the grips of organized crime and condemned to a permanent state of underdevelopment. [8]

An appropriate illustration of the Comorra's toxic grip on Campania was the recent rubbish crisis [9]. Mountains of garbage piled up on Napolese streets as a result of the Cammora controlling the waste industry. The syndicate made money by offering waste disposal under the table at low prices. They could afford to do this by employing children to drive toxic waste and skipping basic health and safety measures. For example, they mixed industrial waste with household garbage and held illegal burn-offs that collectively lead to massive air and soil pollution.[10]

In 2008 Berlusconi sent national guard into the area to clean up the garbage [11]. In May 2009, the police have arrested 64 mafia suspects in a publicized attempt to break the Cammora's stranglehold on the country [12].I hope it will happen if only for the sake of Herculaneum.

[1] I learned of the Villa di Papyri reading the dazzling oneiric post-modernist novel EMO, by Jack Ross (pg 89).
[2] Herculaneum info
[3] Times Article
[4]An interesting account of the history of The International Centre for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri (CISPE)
[5] Scroll technology
[6] Conservation
[8] NPR article
[9] news item
[10] Comorra
[11] Summary
[12] Arrests

Image is public domain from here

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