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The Papyrus Museum

A virtual Museum of the Baroque
February 19, 2021
Baroque Blossoming
February 28, 2021
All photos © museo del papiro

The Corrado Basile Papyrus Museum - an international excellence

The biggest colony of papyrus plants in Europe grows along the banks of the River Ciane near Siracusa.
At the heart of the island of Ortigia, there’s a magical place of myth and history that looks out over the Great Harbour; this is the Fountain of Arethusa, where papyrus flourishes and delights travellers to Siracusa.
There's a museum in Siracusa that is one of a kind, entirely dedicated to papyrus; it’s one of the most important in the world, presenting historical testimonies and illustrating the cultural importance of the plant in the history of mankind. It’s a living museum in continual evolution, where visitors can see papyrus paper being produced and take part in lab work where they learn about the traditions of the territory and the cultures of the past.
Corrado Basile e Anna Di Natale nel “Laboratorio di restauro dei papiri”, Museo Egizio del Cairo (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).
Corrado Basile e alcune allieve nel “Laboratorio di restauro dei papiri”, Museo Egizio del Cairo (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).

"a young man with fire in his eyes … who asked me what was known about the papyrus pages in ancient Egypt … I was happy to give Corrado Basile ‘licences’, as one might have said in the 19th century, to get access to the other Egyptian Institutes for his studies

The Museum houses an extraordinary collection of papyrus produced in Siracusa from the 18th century onwards, and the biggest collection of ancient papyrus in southern Italy (from the XV century BCE to the VIII century CE), the only one in Sicily. There are also beautiful objects and papyrus boats from Ethiopia and Lake Chad (the only examples outside their countries of origin), and a herbarium with samples collected in Africa, Israel and Sicily.
At the heart of the museum’s aims are two main elements; the incessant pursuit of scientific advances and research, and the handing down of knowledge to future generations through educational activities. It’s named after the man who created it, Corrado Basile, who has dedicated his life to papyrus and who runs the museum together with Anna Di Natale.
The papyrus plant was used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs for a variety of purposes: its fibres were used for cloth and ropes; it was food for the poor and was used for medicinal purposes; it was even used as material for building boats.
Fiume Ciane, anni Settanta (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).
Museo del Papiro, stanza della lavorazione della carta (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).

Perhaps papyrus is most famous as a support for writing that has lasted for millennia, allowing the science and literature of the ancient world to be passed down to future generations. The Egyptians didn’t leave any sources which describe the techniques for making the papyrus scrolls, and as their places of production stopped their activity in the 11th century, the secrets of their techniques were lost.
Siracusa had and has an important role in the production of papyrus paper. Some writers believe that it was already being produced here in 250 BCE, but of a poor quality because the Egyption techniques weren’t known. Production began again in the middle of the 18th century when the plant that grows along the River Ciane was identified as Cyperus papyrus L., one of the most famous species in Ancient Egypt.
Inaugurazione del Museo del Papiro, 1989 (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).

The Papyrus Museum opened in 1989 but the story began in 1962 when Corrado Basile, son of a family of home decorators, developed a passion for Egyptian art. He started to experiment with making papyrus paper, self-taught, almost as a bet. As he wasn't happy with the results, he continued to study and he travelled in Italy and abroad despite his limited means, to find out more, even just to look for a particular book. In 1964 he went to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, the Temple of Egyptology, looking for publications and samples of ancient papyrus to analyse. There he had one of the most important encounters of his life, with Silvio Curto, who later remembered him as “a young man with fire in his eyes … who asked what was known about the papyrus pages in ancient Egypt … I was happy to give Corrado Basile ‘licences’, as one might have said in the 19th century, to get access to the other Egyptian Institutes for his studies”, studies which have never stopped and which have led him to build relationships with other Egyptian museums in Berlin, London, Paris, to travel to many European cities, down the Nile, even to Chad, a very dangerous place from which even the religious missions had fled, to go and get the last existing boat built with papyrus. Today this boat is on display in the museum which bears his name, the walls of which are covered in photographs which document his extraordinary story.

Corrado Basile nel Lago Ciad, anni Ottanta (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).
Corrado Basile e Silvio Curto, Soprintendente del Museo Egizio di Torino, 1991 (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).

The Museum was first inaugurated on the 30th September 1989 with the usual line-up of local authorities and scholars from all over Europe; the collection of ancient papyrus and artefacts was already quite large, but the various places in which it was temporarily housed were unsuitable, so the international community got together to support the request for a new, more appropriate setting. It still took many years.
In 1994, as part of the European project ‘Urban’, the ex-convent of Sant’Agostino in Ortigia was identified as a site and restored, so finally in 2013 the Museum could move in after years of struggling with bureaucratic red tape, but with the activities continuously on the go.
The Papyrus Museum is an ideal model of a private cultural institution; it carries out its activities in the community with passion, it’s a reference point in the world for its scientific research, and it’s home to the prestigious Istituto Italiano per le Civiltà Egizie. Over the last twenty years the museum has hosted international conferences where scholars take part even when they have to pay the expenses themselves. Anna and Corrado take the ‘not always supportive’ behaviour of the public administration in their stride, but there is one thing which they - rightly - will fight for to the very end: thanks to one of those awkward cases where because of those momentary personal - inconfessable - interests that flare up and die out in the dead ends of bureaucratic labyrinths, part of the space at Sant’Agostino (all of it officially destined for the museum) was never consigned. A section of the building was assigned to a different management for other activities, but these never actually began. These areas were originally intended to be conservation labs and rooms for educational activities, but they are at present closed and abandoned for no good reason.
Gennaio 2021

Corrado Basile e Anna Di Natale durante la consegna di un riconoscimento per le loro attività di restauro in Egitto, Museo Egizio del Cairo, 2017 (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).
Museo del Papiro, stanza dei papiri (Archivio del Museo del Papiro “C. Basile”).

Una vita passata a raccontare storie con le parole, la penna, la macchina per scrivere, il computer, l’obiettivo. L’ultima in ordine di tempo, nel libro Il patrimonio degli equivoci. Allarme beni culturali in Sicilia. Non ho resistito all’idea di guidare SiracusaCulture, di cui sono Direttore responsabile.