The Excavations of Herculaneum
According to the legend, Herculaneum was founded by Hercules, even though the history tells about various dominations (Osci, Etruscan and Samnite). In the III century the city became part of the Nocerina Confederation, and took part into the so-called "social war" of Italic populations against the Roman Empire. Herculaneum was conquered by Titus Didius (Silla's legate) in 89 BC, when it lost its autonomy and became a Roman "municipium", governed by two duumviris (consuls).
The extraordinary beauty and fertility attracted many Roman patricians, that built their sumptuous villas and residences, like the suburban Villa of Papiri, dating back to the Republican Age. During the Augustan Age, were built or deeply restored many public buildings, like the walls and the aqueduct, the central thermal baths, the theatre, the basilica and even the gym.
On the 24th of August 79AC, the restoration works after the terrible earthquake of 62AC were still in progress, when the tragic eruption of Mount Vesuvius swept away everything. The city was covered by burning clouds, hot ash and pumice-stone dust that caused thermal shocks, killing the citizens of Herculaneum, and buring the houses under a thick cover of ash, 30 metres high.
In 1709, during the excavation of a well, at some point the workers bumped into the wall belonging to the ancient theatre. From that point started the first explorations (as well as the first sackings) making underground passages. Only in 1738 Charles of Bourbon set the works going properly, under the supervision of Rocco Gioacchino d’Alcubierre, then Carlo Weber and, later on, Francesco La Vega.
First were found the ancient theatre and basilica and, in 1752, the suburban Villa of Papiri, so called for the conspicuous library of Greek books, nowadays preserved into the homonym "Officina della Biblioteca Nazionale of Naples". The villa probably belonged to Lucio Calpurnio Pisone Cesonino, Emperor Caesar's father in law.
In 1755 was built the Real Herculaneum Academy for the publication - continued until 1792 - of the eight volumes illustrating frescoes, bronzes and papyri.
In 1790 the works were suspended in order to privilege the ones under the open sky of Pompeii and Stabiae (currently called Catellammare di Stabia). In 1828, thanks to the want of Francesco I, the works were resumed for a few years and again between 1869 and 1875, thanks to Giuseppe Fiorelli and a personal contribution of the king Vittorio Emanuele II.
From 1927 has started a systematic campaign that yielded the progressive unearthing of the best part of the city on the south, until the discovery of the ancient beach and temple of Venus. On the southern side, into cavities destined to laying up the boats, known as "fornici", have been found more than 250 skeletons belonging to people sheltered as well as they could, waiting for the sea to calm down, but caught in the poison gas.
The enormous stratum of volcanic lava has better preserved the houses in Herculaneum than in Pompeii. Organic materials like wood, clothes and food have come out perfectly intact!
Among the well-preserved public buildings you must see the gym, whose access is delimited by a vestibule with a splendidly decorated vault; two thermal baths, the biggest of them very rish in frescoes; the Collegio degli Augustali and the theatre, in great measure filled in and partially visible through the tunnels.
The houses are characterized by large spaces and accurate decorations (specially the House of Bucentenario and the House of Cervi). Numerous sculptures, mosaic works, everyday stuff like wine recipients, have been found almost intact. The monumental Villa dei Papiri, situated just a bit out-of-town is still being studied and excavated (have been found 200 papyri), and only partially visible .
The ancient theatre, sacked by the first discoverers, is still bared under a thick tuff seam and you'll be able to observe some structures only going into stairs and tunnels.
How to get there:
By public transportation: Take the Circumvesuviana from the Railway Station in Naples and stop at Ercolano Portico, once there just follow the signals. The train ticket costs 3,40€ with return.
There's the possibility to buy a 3 days ticket to access 5 sites: Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale Full price: 20,00€
November - March, every day from 8.30am to 5pm (last admission 3.30 pm)
April - October, every day from 8.30am to 7.30pm (last admission 6 pm)
Except of bank holidays.
There's a spectacular fascinating world over there, just waiting for you to be caught by that magic atmosphere... these excavations are a must!
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