Autograph letter, signed, to Charles Stuart, 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay, discussing the unrolling of papyri from Herculaneum.

‘23 Grosvenor Street London’, 26 May 1821.

4to bifolium (230 x 188mm), pp. [3]; paper watermarked ‘C WILMOTT 1820’; sometime folded, piece torn away from lower half of second leaf.

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Autograph letter, signed, to Charles Stuart, 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay, discussing the unrolling of papyri from Herculaneum.

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An unpublished letter in which Davy discusses his examination of papyri entrusted to him in Paris by Sir Charles Stuart, then British Ambassador to France.

‘Dear Sir,

Lady Davy who is going to make an excursion in France (I am sorry to say in consequence of an obstinate cough & by the advice of her physician) will deliver to you the papyri which you intrusted to my care at Paris. I have unrolled a part of that fragment which in appearance was the worst. It turns out to be a greek MS & not as Mr Hayter expected punic – but from the fragments which have been examined of no value & a pseudo-metaphysical work probably of Philodemus. The large MS which I return to you almost in the state in which I received it, contains no characters in the interior & I therefore did not operate upon it chemically. I have little doubt that the bad faith of the Neapolitan Svolgatori (who I dare say from profession as well as principle is of the Carbonari School) led them to select the worst specimens as presents, lest discoveries should be made out of the national museum.

I am printing a memoir on the results of my labours at Naples of which in a few weeks I shall do myself the honour to transmit to you a copy. Lady Davy will I hope make my compts acceptable to Lady Elizabeth’.

On 26 May 1818 Davy and his wife had departed England for a tour of the continent, the principal object of which was to visit Naples and try new chemical methods of unrolling the papyri found in the ruins of Herculaneum. ‘The rolls had been the objects of interest for nearly seventy years. The best of the collection had long before been operated on, and those remaining had not only undergone injuries from time but also from other causes, such as transport, rude examination, and mutilation for the purpose of determining if they contained characters.

The process which Davy proposed, and which he tried on certain rolls in the museum at Naples, was based on the principle of softening the matter by which the leaves were agglutinated by means of chemical solutions. He was resourceful in experiment and was at first hopeful of success. He wished that Faraday might join him in Naples to assist in the unrolling. But although Davy was provided with government funds to pay an assistant, it was uncertain whether Faraday could return to his work at the Royal Institution if he lightly left it’ (Anne Treneer, The mercurial chemist. A life of Sir Humphry Davy, 1963, p. 179).

By the time the present letter was written, Davy had come into collision with the custodians of the museum at Naples. The ‘memoir’ he mentions here, ‘Some observations and experiments on the papyri found in the ruins of Herculaneum’, ‘relates the circumstances of the investigation and the progress made. The paper is remarkable for the emphasis laid on the evils befalling ancient recovered treasures from the damp of the atmosphere. Both in writing of the treasures massed in the Louvre, and of the relics preserved in Herculaneum, Davy speaks of the necessity for air-conditioning as a factor in their preservation as though he were a modern curator’ (idem., p. 183).

Not in T. Fulford and S. Ruston, eds., The collected letters of Sir Humphry Davy (Oxford, 2020).

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