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Ancient Roman paper palace: Exploring the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum

Herculaneum TicketsVilla of the Papyri

What is the Villa of the Papyri?

The Villa of the Papyri, situated in Herculaneum, was an ancient Roman estate. It was named after its unique library of papyrus scrolls, discovered in 1750. Its location away from the main Herculaneum ruins — along the shore — ensured the villa remained remarkably well-preserved. This villa was considered one of the most luxurious houses in Herculaneum and the Roman world, showcasing exquisite architecture and a vast collection of art, including frescoes, bronzes, and sculptures.

The villa was possibly owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, the villa's library contained over 1,800 papyrus scrolls, known as the "Herculaneum papyri," making it the only surviving library from the Graeco-Roman world in its entirety. Today, many of the villa's artifacts are displayed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, with a reproduction of the villa at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu, California.

While planning your visit, do keep an eye out for when it will be accessible to visitors as the Villa of the Papyri is currently closed to the public.

Quick facts | Villa of the Papyri

villa papyri facade
  • Official name: Villa of the Papyri / Villa dei Papyri
  • Location: Herculaneum, Naples, Italy
  • Date of opening: Possibly 1st century AD; rediscovered circa 1750
  • Architectural style: Roman architecture
  • Collection size: Contained over 1,100 papyrus scrolls, bronze statues, frescoes and other artifacts
  • Function: Ancient Roman villa served as a center for art, literature and philosophy. It also housed a private library of papyrus scrolls. 

Excavated parts of the Villa of the Papyri

While the following the structures are parts of the villa that have been excavated, a vast portion of this residence still remains buried.

The garden

The garden

The garden surrounds the villa and is enclosed by porticoes. There are several vineyards and vegetable gardens leading to the harbor. These gardens also included numerous statues and busts.

Satyrs pouring water

The atrium

In ancient Roman (and even modern) architecture, the atrium is a sunlight open area that’s surrounded by a building. The atrium in Herculaneum worked as the entrance to the villa and connected the various parts of the house. Around 11 statues line the atrium, depicting Satyrs pouring water. Many other statues and busts also line the atrium walls.  

peristyle

The peristyle

The peristyle in Herculaneum, another open air structure, is flanked by 10 columns on each side with a long pool in the middle. After the tablinum (a reception area that opens out to another peristyle in the rear) is a second peristyle.

Villa of the Papyri: Highlights

Villa of the Papyri Highlights

Sculptures

Precious marble and bronze sculptures (roughly 24 and 63 respectively) were found within the villa. Many of them are now in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, or the Getty Museum in Malibu. Notable statues include a seated Hermes in contemplation and a controversial one of Pan copulating with a goat.

Villa of the Papyri Highlights

Busts

Bronze busts of various scholars were found across the Villa. Popular figures included Epicurus himself, his favorite pupil Hemarchus and more. The bust of the flying piglet captured symbolic attention as it denoted pursuing pleasure without guilt. There was also a sundial in the shape of a ham.

Villa of the Papyri Highlights

Herculaneum scrolls

Around 1100 carbonized papyrus scrolls, preserved by Vesuvius' eruption, were found in this site. These relics now offer glimpses into ancient Epicurean treatises. Initial attempts to decode the scrolls ended up destroying them as they were sliced through the middle. Now, with computerized tomography (CT), the scrolls are slowly being deciphered.

Villa of the Papyri Highlights
Villa of the Papyri

Bronze statues

One of the main attractions found in the peristyle of the villa are the bronze statues. Of note are the two statues titled the ‘runners’, poised to sprint. The figure of the drunken satyr used as a fountain ornament was also found in the peristyle. Bronze Silens (companions of Bacchus) leaning on panthers and wineskins that dispensed water were found in the atrium.

Villa of the Papyri Highlights

Recent discoveries

Excavation of the Villa of the Papyri halted in 1764 and recommenced in the 1990s, revealing the atrium, lower levels, a seaside pavilion, vibrant mosaic floors, stuccoed ceilings and frescoed walls. Among the discoveries were furniture with ivory accents and additional marble statues, such as one depicting Demeter and an Amazon.

Decoding Herculaneum scrolls

Camillo Paderni in the 18th century began to unravel the scrolls, but destroyed several in the process. In 1753, Father Antonio Piaggio from the Vatican devised a machine that helped open up the wood encasing the scroll, although this mechanism was painstaking and took a long time. Today, they are being scanned through infrared rays via CT, shedding light on many of the philosophical and literary ideas that gained currency in those times.

An ode to the Villa: The Getty Museum

In Malibu, a carefully reconstructed version of the villa exists — by name of the Getty Museum, designed by the millionaire J Getty. Since the entirety of the original villa in Herculaneum could not be excavated, Getty relied on the meticulous floor plan designed by Karl Weber in the 1700s to build the museum. 

The Getty museum now has important artifacts rescued from Herculaneum, including the statue of the drunken satyr, some papyri, the figures of the runners, and more.




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Frequently asked questions about Herculaneum's Villa of the Papyri

How was the Villa of the Papyri discovered?

In the 1750s, diggers near the site stumbled upon the polychromatic marble flooring that was part of the Villa of the Papyri. Under the aegis of Karl Weber, tunnels were dug into the villa’s depths to further explore it. Although Weber’s superiors were more interested in pillaging the finds from the villa, Weber carefully drew a floorplan of the villa, documenting where each object was found and generally laying out the map of the building. 

Is entry to the Villa of the Papyri included with Herculaneum tickets?

Yes, a visit to the villa is included in your Herculaneum entry ticket. However, this attraction is currently closed due to restoration efforts.

Why is the Villa of the Papyri so acclaimed among the Herculaneum ruins?

You’re right to wonder what the hype behind the Villa of the Papyri is all about. For starters, the Villa of the Papyri was not an ordinary luxurious country house. Reminiscent of Hellenistic palaces, the villa could only belong to the uppermost echelons of Roman aristocracy. It derives its name from the nearly 1100-odd papyrus scrolls that were carbonized by the eruption — and efforts to decipher them have yielded intriguing insights into Epicurean philosophy and thought. Experts believe that a full understanding of these texts would shed light on the intellectual and cultural milieu of the time, changing the way we think about ancient Roman life. Besides this, it also had rare collections of precious artifacts including statues, sculptures and frescoes that are now housed either at the Getty Museum in Malibu or the National Archeological Museum of Naples.

Where were these papyrus scrolls found?

Inside the villa, the scrolls were found inside a room that resembled a library. They were found in black casings on shelves and open cabinets.

Is the Villa of the Papyri located among the main Herculaneum ruins?

The villa is situated about 150 yards away from the main Herculaneum ruins, and runs parallel to the coastline.

Besides the famed Herculaneum scrolls, what are the other highlights of the Villa?

While the Villa is known for the papyrus scrolls found in its library, it also hosted an impressive collection of bronze statues and marble sculptures, frescoes, furniture, etc.

Where can one learn more about the Villa of the Papyri?

Visiting the Getty Museum in Malibu is a great option as it is modeled on the floorplan of the actual Villa of the Papyri. Visitors can get a feel of what the interiors looked like, replete with the atrium, peristyle and tablinum. It also houses a significant collection of artworks rescued from the original villa.