Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: Part 3

Philip V and Elisabetta Farese in 1743
When the booty was gone, they filled in the holes, and with no interests whatsoever in art, no such field as archeology and no apparent concept of historical preservation, there were no real records of the find.  The story might have stopped right there, had it not been for a succession of women as ambitious as Cleopatra herself...

Part 2 of this series begins the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the Novel Travelist mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here we continue this story.


Twenty-five years after d’Elboeuf abandoned the site, two factors converged to revive the excavations of Herculaneum.  The first was the ascension of a new reigning king of Naples – or rather, the true monarch - his mother.

In 1734, Naples fell under control of the “Spanish” royal dynasty controlling the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, of which neither king nor queen was actually Spanish or Sicilian.  Philip V was the French grandson of Louis XIV and was raised at the court of Versailles with aspirations of the French crown.  Instead, he was granted the lesser Spanish one.  Throughout his nominal reign, Philip suffered from a severe depression that left him categorically incapacitated most of the time.  And so his kingdom was managed by the queen.

Philip’s wife Queen Elisabetta was an Italian princess descended from the Medici dukes of Florence and the Farnese dukes of Lombardy.  On the day she rode into Madrid to marry Philip, she was greeted by Philip’s official mistress, whom Elisabetta ordered arrested and deported on the spot.  This set the tone for their marriage.

Elisabetta instated the first born son from her marriage with Philip upon the throne of Naples as the new King of Campania.  The prince was eighteen-year-old Charles.  While Charles nominally ruled the kingdom, it was his mother, Italian-born Medici Queen Elisabetta who became determined to convert the run-down, poverty- and disease-infested cesspool that was Naples into “the Florence of the South.”  And this she did, funding her ambitious endeavors by taxing the Catholic Church on its land.  As the Church was the largest landholder in Campania, tax revenues tripled.

San Carlo Opera House, Naples, 1737
Elisabetta used the newly acquired funds to build three new palaces, a royal opera house, a prison, hospices, a cemetery and a number of factories.  The palaces were intended for museums as well as for royal residences; she also set the course to transfer a vast number of pieces from the priceless Farnese collection into Naples.

At the same time, she ordered that the neglected Herculaneum excavations be resumed in hopes of finding further additions.

Under the official direction of Charles and the unofficial direction of Elisabetta, the vast cities of Herculaneum and the recently discovered Pompeii were systematically plundered.  The efforts were led by a Spanish artillery engineer, Captain Rocque Joachim Alcubierre, whose sole mission was to find everything of monetary value and pluck it from the earth.  As he exhausted one source of the buried treasure, he would delve unthinkingly into the next, backfilling each prior section with dirt from the new one.

It was under Alcubierre that the Villa dei Papiri was discovered.

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero and friend of King Charles, became the first to attempt opening the papyrus scrolls as they emerged from within the villa.  A self-proclaimed "gifted" and "extraordinary" alchemist, di Sangro used mercury in an effort to soften the charred, brittle papyrus.  The mercury dissolved the scrolls, and many of them were lost.

To be continued in part 4, May 9...

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 


  1. Dang it! What a tragedy and a travesty! When you think of what was lost...

  2. Julia...just wait - it gets worse.

  3. Wow - so many of the historical characters involved in this project have such rich lives. Like Raimondo di Sangro, injecting mercury into his servants in order to study the circulation system. Eeek! Not a man I'd want to work for.

  4. So frustrating! Thanks for this fun history trip. It is so neat learning things about the past that seem to get buried just like the scrolls were.