Istituto Vitelli

Visit to the Istituto papirologico Girolamo Vitelli in Florence

Friday, 19th of May 2017, 10.00-13.00

(Text by Isabela Stoian – Pictures by Isabela Stoian and Samuele Ferrara)

            The visit to the Istituto papirologico Girolamo Vitelli was one of the most interesting and useful experiences of the IIPS, and you will soon understand why. Our host was Prof. Guido Bastianini. I really appreciated both his great knowledge of papyrology, and his very lively and charming way of presenting his field of study. Prof. Bastianini held his lecture in French, and he presented the information in a very clear, well structured, and attractive way.

We were first presented a short history of papyrology in Italy. Prof. Bastianini introduced us the life and activity of Girolamo Vitelli (1849-1935), the Italian father of Greek papyrology (as I would call him), and other important aspects that one should know about the history of papyrology in Italy: thus, in 1903 took place the first Italian excavations in Egypt; in 1908 Vitelli founded the Società Italiana per la ricerca dei papiri Greci e Latini in Egitto, thanks to which, in 1912 the first important papyri arrive in Florence; in 1928 the Società Italiana passes into Istituto Papirologico dell’Università di Firenze, whose first director was Vitelli himself. During his life, Vitelli published papyri of extremely great importance, such as the ones which contained works of Euripides, Menander, Gaius, and, probably the most important, the De exilioof Favorinus and the Diegeseis of Callimachus (which Vitelli published in the last years of his life). The most famous publications of the great Italian papyrologist are the three volumes of Papiri Fiorentini (1906-1915), published in collaboration with Dominico Comparetti, and the first eleven volumes of Papiri greci e latini. (I was very impressed about a detail that Prof. Bastianini told us regarding Vitelli’s opinion about ‘authorship’ in philological studies: in his view, the philologists should not put their name on the works they edit, because that is not something to boast about, it’s just a mission that they have to accomplish!). After just four years from Vitelli’s death (1935), the Istituto Papirologico was called after his name. Another important personality in the field was Medea Norsa (called by Giorgio Pasquali ‘the very wise virgin’), student and very close collaborator of Vitelli until his death.

After this short excursus, Prof. Bastianini presented us the main excavation sites in Egypt and some interesting stories about them:

Some of the most important Florentine excavations took place in Oxyrhynchus, Tebtunis and Antinopolis.

Some of the most important Florentine excavations took place in Oxyrhynchus, Tebtunis and Antinopolis.

  • The story about Oxyrhynchus is particularly interesting. The site became important after 1896, when two British archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, began excavating the The excavating site was, in fact, a big rubbish mound (called kôm) that soon turned out to be a papyrological gold mine (imagine that: papyri containing precious literary texts and documents were sometimes just… thrown in the garbage! And what is more, the garbage preserved the papyri along the centuries!). However, the British had to stop their excavations when they reached the tomb of Ali el-Gammân, a sort of local saint. After a couple of years, the Italians came to Oxyrhynchus and they immediately found a solution for the ‘saint mound’: they gave money to the Egyptians to move the tomb and thus continued the excavations untroubled!
  • Tebtunis site has other intriguing stories. Excavations in Tebtunis were made by archaeologist Carlo Anti with the permission of Vitelli, who gave his consent with the condition that all the papyri (that were to be found there) should be brought to Florence. However, Vitelli died in 1935, and Anti broke the deal, by bringing the papyri to Padua (where he was professor back then). The same Carlo Anti gave the permission (without asking the consent of Vitelli) to Achille Vogliano to excavate at Tebtunis. Vogliano discovered in 1934 the famous Cantina dei papiri, where the Diegeseisof Callimachus was found. I have to mention that Vogliano was, in that period, professor at University of Milano, and he had also been a student of Vitelli; what is interesting is that Medea Norsa really hated him!
  • Antinopolis was a Greek town founded by Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD, on an older Egyptian village, in the memory of his deified beloved, Antinous, who drowned in the Nile. A great temple of Ramesses II was discovered in the city (there is a stone with the name of Ramesses II clearly written on it… Well, clearly for those who can understand hieroglyphs).

Like in other sites too, most of the papyri from Antinopolis were found in garbage dumps, under layers of sebbakh (dung) and afsh (dried plants). The layer of dried plants was the one which conserved the papyri.

The excavations still continue nowadays in Antinopolis, now called El Sheikh ‘Abadah, a little Arab village, which corresponds, more or less, to the ancient town. There is also the ‘Mission House’, where many papyri, coins, ceramics and other heritage objects are nowadays preserved.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Egypt one could buy papyri from the boutiques; after the ’50, the papyri excavated in Egypt were no longer allowed to be brought to Europe or to any other part of the world. The papyri trade is now possible only outside Egypt.


Prof. Bastianini continued his exposition by presenting the techniques of conserving the papyri, after they are excavated, and after the different pieces are put together. In other words, he showed us how one could make a papyrus get from this

to this

Firstly, one uses the pincers and takes each piece of papyrus. Due to the fact that, when found, the papyri are very dry (in the happiest case) and they are all crumpled, one has to moisturize them in order to get them straight without ruining them. In order to do that, one has to use a mixture of ¼ water and ¾ pure alcohol (which is very important, because it moisturize but also evaporates very fast, leaving the material dry again). In this process one has to use also blotting paper. Once the papyrus is put in the right position, it has to be sealed in between two panes of glass.

Next, we were shown how difficult is the work of a papyrologist – not only to find and conserve the papyri, but also to figure out what’s all about in the texts, and to be able to put the pieces together! One papyrus that Prof. Bastianini showed us is the PSI inv 4249. Here we have the recto

and the verso :

This papyrus is just mind blowing. On the recto one can find some astronomical calculations of Saturn’s movements (anyway, a very complicated thing that I am not able to explain here). Prof. Bastianini told us that, in front of these kind of texts, the papyrologist should be very humble and recognize that one cannot know everything. These is why the collaboration with specialists in other fields of study is absolutely compulsory (for instance, for this papyrus, Prof. Bastianini collaborated with Prof. Alexander Jones, from New York University, who is a specialist in the transmission of mathematical sciences, especially astronomy). With this occasion, Prof. Bastianini presented us the Greek numeric system and proved that Greeks also had a sign for zero (see this guy inside the yellow square over here)

, but only when it meant ‘null’ (and not in numbers, as we use 0, for instance, in number 103). On the verso of this papyrus, one can read scholia minora, that is to say, two columns of words – one column for the words that were found difficult to understand, the other column with explanations, synonyms or paraphrases. This kind of scholia seem to exist only for the works of Homer and Callimachus (as is the case of our papyrus).

Another papyrus presented by Prof. Bastianini is the PSI XVI 1576, which we saw in reality later in the afternoon, when we visited the exhibition “S. Catherine of Egypt – S. Catherine’s Egypt”. It contains a fragment of the Festal Letters of Cyril of Alexandria (421 AD).

The most important collection of Festal Letters (these are letters issued each year, on Epiphany, by the Bishops of Alexandria, who announced the date on which Easter and all the movable feasts were to be celebrated) are those issued by Athanasius and Cyril, and they are very important for the dating of papyri: when one is sure about the date of a text, one can date other texts too, by comparing the type of writing.

Prof. Bastianini brought with him some other papyri too that we could see, and he also showed us reproductions of some rolls. He just wanted to demonstrate that rolls could be really… long!

All these were extraordinary useful and interesting pieces of information! But there was something lacking… We learnt about who, how, where, when the papyri were excavated, identified, conserved. We had the extraordinary chance to see real papyri, both conserved in between panes of glass, and ‘freshly’ excavated about one century ago, kept in metal boxes (see the photos above). But how does a papyrus feel like? I was dying of curiosity to touch one, to see how it actually feels like. And that box full of pieces of papyrus that was standing in front of us was just too attractive! Prof. Ronconi understood my desire (which wasn’t just mine!) and asked Prof. Bastianini to let us gently handle the pieces of papyrus that he had brought us to see.

We were all extremely nervous (you can imagine!) when touching the precious written heritage. It was indeed a unique experience that I do not know if I will every have the chance to live again. The papyri felt, more or less, as I imagined (very light, dry and fragile – but not too fragile –, with that plant fiber consistency that one could feel only with one’s finger tips), but the feeling that I had when keeping in my palm an about 2000 years old piece of writing cannot be expressed in words!

For all these wonderful experiences and lessons I am really thankful to all those who made IIPS possible! (Isabela Stoian, PhD student, University of Bucharest)


The following pictures are by Samuele Ferrara



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