For more than 1,600 years, the remains of Herculaneum—a lavish Roman resort town 10 miles north of Pompeii—lay buried beneath a deluge of Vesuvian ash. It wasn’t until 1738, under the rule of King Charles III, that the ancient settlement was re-discovered a few miles from the royal hunting palace at Portici.
The ensuing excavation, masterminded by Swiss army engineer Karl Weber, eventually unearthed one of the greatest treasure troves in archeological history: la Villa dei Papiri, home to over 1,800 carbonized scrolls and the only extant library from Roman antiquity.
Then, in 1752, Weber stumbled across something else—a marble statue of what appeared to be two figures locked in eternal embrace. Some 300 feet below ground, soot and darkness obscured the finer features of the specimen. Wasting no time, Weber swiftly ordered the statue to the surface for further inspection.
By the time the artifact was disgorged, borne on the backs of several straining prison laborers, the entire court of King Charles III was on hand to witness this latest unveiling. The air was thick with suspense. Rushing ahead of the royal procession, servants had arranged an assembly of folding chairs, a picnic, and a makeshift canopy over the entrance to Weber’s tunnel. A court artist had been marshalled to capture a preliminary rendering. As the statue came into view, the seated courtiers strained for a glimpse.