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Slicing and Dicing the Prosciutto Sundial from Herculaneum

Christopher Parslow

Wesleyan University

The disastrous manhandling by the excavators of the carbonized scrolls in the Villa dei Papiri and the subsequent mistreatment that led to the destruction of many of them have long been part of their sad history, thanks in large part to the vivid reports of Antonio Piaggio and J.J. Winckelmann. Piaggio, the Jesuit priest tasked with unrolling the scrolls, had become intimately familiar with the accounts of their initial discovery and the bungled attempts to decipher and read them. He had retailed these horrors to Winckelmann who in turn had broadcast them along with his own observations in his famous letters about the early finds from the Vesuvian sites. Piaggio’s own detailed account, penned years later, was published only in the early 1900s. From his perch in the royal museum Piaggio became a critical observer of its daily life, the interpersonal relationships and rivalries between its staff, and the comings and goings of a parade of visitors seeking gratification for any number of scholarly and personal interests. One object from this period generated almost as much curiosity and controversy as the scrolls, both within the museum’s microcosm and on the international stage. This was the humble sundial in the shape of a prosciutto recovered in the Villa dei Papiri at almost the same time as the scrolls. It quickly became the subject of discussion and debate on the clandestine network of international scholars seeking to evade the Bourbon court’s prohibition against publishing the finds. The Accademia Ercolanese, in an effort to counter its unauthorized publication, featured the prosciutto in the preface to the third volume of Le Antichità di Ercolano and used the occasion to vilify those authors who had based their accounts on erroneous information. A patchwork of published sources helps reconstruct its reception in the public sphere, but the backstory of the initial interpretation of this earliest known portable sundial has remained largely in the dark. In his unpublished manuscript “The Sundial of the Herculaneum Museum” (L’Orologio Solare del Museo Ercolanese) Piaggio reveals previously unknown details about the initial attempts to decipher the sundial in the days after its discovery, the controversies it ignited, and his own role in shedding light on this unique scientific instrument. His version raises interesting questions about who knew what and how misinformation about the prosciutto spread. This paper examines the history of the prosciutto sundial’s reception in light of Piaggio’s contributions.

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Vesuvius: Texts Objects and Images

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