STORED in a sky-lit reading room on the top floor of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples are the charred remains of the only library to survive from classical antiquity. The ancient world’s other great book collections — at Athens, Alexandria and Rome — all perished in the chaos of the centuries. But the library of the Villa of the Papyri was conserved, paradoxically, by an act of destruction.
Lying to the northwest of ancient Herculaneum, this sumptuous seaside mansion was buried beneath 30m of petrified volcanic mud during the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24, AD79. Antiquities hunters in the mid-18th century sunk shafts and dug tunnels around Herculaneum and found the villa, surfacing with a magnificent booty of bronzes and marbles. Most of these, including a svelte seated Hermes modelled in the manner of Lyssipus, now grace the National Archeological Museum in Naples.
The excavators also found what they took to be chunks of coal deep inside the villa, and set them alight to illuminate their passage underground. Only when they noticed how many torches had solidified around an umbilicus — a core of wood or bone to which the roll was attached — did the true nature of the find become apparent. Here was a trove of ancient texts, carbonised by the heat surge of the eruption. About 1800 were eventually retrieved.
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