Skip to content

Unrolling of the Papyri


The heat of the pyroclastic flows, which destroyed the ancient city of Herculaneum in AD 79, as well as the humidity which settled upon the site over the past two millennia carbonized the papyri of Herculaneum. They are thus extremely fragile, and the question of how to unroll them properly has been of the greatest importance ever since their first discovery. After various unprofitable and destructive attempts, Antonio Piaggio, a Genovese priest, developed a new and more successful method. For this reason, at the request of Carlo di Borbone, the director of the Vatican Library sent Piaggio to Portici in June 1753. There Piaggio invented the famous machine for unrolling carbonized papyri which has opened almost all the texts we have today. Although many techniques of unrolling were tried subsequently, they produced few results. During the 1980s, however, a Norwegian team led by Kunt Kleve invented a successful method based on the application of acetic acid, gelatin and water. For many years the Norwegian team continued the unrolling and restoration of many papyri in collaboration with the National Library in Naples and the CISPE. Among these new texts one roll, donated by Napoleon to the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, contains one book by Philodemus of Gadara which mentions many of the Augustan poets: Virgil, Plotius Tucca, Quintilus Varo and Varius Rufus. This text therefore enriches our understanding of the contemporary cultural climate as well as Epicureanism in the Italian peninsula.

In addition, Kleve developed a sophisticated imaging technique. Today, through the support of Gigante an agreement between the National Library at Naples and Brigham Young Univeristy (Provo, Utah) has resulted in the multispectral imaging of the entire collection and enabled a better reading of the texts.