Italy – A Day In Pompeii

ON the second morning after our arrival in Naples, we took the seven o’clock train, which leaves the Nineteenth Century for the first cycle of the Christian Era, and, skirting the waters of the Neapolitan bay almost the whole length of our journey, reached the railway station of Pompeii in an hour. As we rode along by that bluest sea, we saw the fishing-boats go out, and the foamy waves (which it would be an insolent violence to call breakers) come in ; we saw the mountains slope their tawny and golden manes caressingly downward to the waters. where the islands were dozing yet ; and landward, on the left, we saw Vesuvius, with his brown mantle of ashes drawn close about his throat, reclining on the plain, and smoking a bland and thoughtful morning pipe, of which the silver fumes curled lightly, lightly upward in the sunrise.

We dismounted at the station, walked a few rods eastward through a little cotton-field, and found ourselves at the door of Hotel Diomed, where we took breakfast for a number of sesterces which I am sure it would have made an ancient Pompeian stir in his urn to think of paying. But in Italy one learns the chief Italian virtue, patience, and we paid our account with the utmost good nature. There was compensation in store for us, and the guide whom we found at the gate leading up the little hill to Pompeii inclined the disturbed balance in favor of our happiness. He was a Roman, spoke Italian that Beatrice might have addressed to Dante, and was numbered Twenty-six. I suppose it is known that the present Italian Government forbids people to be pillaged in any way on its premises, and that the property of the State is no longer the traffic of custodians and their pitiless race. At Pompeii each person pays two francs for admission, and is rigorously forbidden by recurrent sign-boards to offer money to the guides. Ventisei (as we shall call him) himself pointed out one of these notices in English, and did his duty faithfully without asking or receiving fees in money. He was a soldier, like all the other guides, and was a most intelligent, obliging fellow, with a self-respect and dignity worthy of one of our own volunteer soldiers.

Ventisei took us up the winding slope, and led us out of this living world through the Sea-gate of Pompeii back into the dead past — the past which, with all its sensuous beauty and grace, and all its intellectual power, I am not sorry to have dead, and. for the most part, buried. Our feet had hardly trodden the lava flagging of the narrow streets when we came in sight of the laborers who were exhuming the inanimate city. They were few in number, not perhaps a score, and they worked tediously, with baskets to carry away the earth from the excavation, boys and girls carrying the baskets, and several athletic old women plying picks, while an overseer sat in a chair near by, and smoked, and directed their exertions.

They dig down about eight or ten feet, uncovering the walls and pillars of the houses, and the mason, who is at hand, places little iron rivets in the stucco to prevent its fall where it is weak, while an artist attends to wash and clean the frescos as fast as they are exposed. The soil through which the excavation first passes is not of great depth ; the ashes which fell damp with scalding rain, in the second eruption, are perhaps five feet thick ; the rest is of that porous stone which descended in small fragments during the first eruption. A depth of at least two feet in this stone is always left untouched by the laborers till the day when the chief superintendent of the work comes out from Naples to see the last layers removed ; and it is then that the beautiful mosaic pavements of the houses are uncovered, and the interesting and valuable objects are nearly always found.

The wonder was, seeing how slowly the work proceeded, not that two thirds of Pompeii were yet buried, but that one third had been exhumed. We left these hopeless toilers, and went down-town into the Forum, stepping aside on the way to look into one of the Pompeian Courts of Common Pleas.

Now Pompeii is, in truth, so full of marvel and surprise, that it would be unreasonable to express disappointment with Pompeii in fiction. And yet 1 cannot help it. An exuberant carelessness of phrase in most writers and talkers who describe it had led me to expect much more than it was possible to find there. In my Pompeii I confess that the houses had no roofs — in fact, the rafters which sustained the tiles being burnt, how could the roofs help falling in ? But otherwise my Pompeii was a very complete affair : the walls all rose to their full height; door-ways and arches were perfect ; the columns were all unbroken and upright ; putting roofs on my Pompeii, you might have lived in it very comfortably. The real Pompeii is different. It is seldom that any wall is unbroken ; most columns are fragmentary ; and though the ground-plans are always distinct, very few rooms in the city are perfect in form, and the whole is much more ruinous than I thought.

But this ruin once granted, and the idle disappointment at its greatness overcome, there is endless material for study, instruction, and delight. It is the evelation of another life, and the utterance of the past is here more perfect than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, I think that the true friend of Pompeii should make it a matter of conscience, on enter ing the enchanted city, to cast out of his knowledge all the rubbish that lias fallen into it from novels and travels, and to keep merely the facts of the town’s luxurious life and agonizing death, with such incidents of the eruption as he can remember from the description of Pliny. These are the spells to which the sorcery yields, and with these in your thought you can rehabilitate the city until Ventisei seems to be a valet de place of the first century, and your-selves a set of blond barbarians to whom he is showing off the splendors of one of the most brilliant towns of the empire of Titus. Those sad furrows in the pavement become vocal with the joyous rattle of chariot-wheels on a sudden, and you prudently step up on the narrow sidewalks and rub along by the little shops of wine, and grain, and oil, with which the thrifty voluptuaries of Pompeii flanked their street-doors. The counters of these shops run across their fronts, and are pierced with round holes on the top, through which you see dark depths of oil in the jars below, and not sullen lumps of ashes ; those stately amphorae behind are full of wine, and in the corners are bags of wheat.

” This house, with a shop on either side, whose is it, XXVI. ? ”

” It is the house of the great Sallust, my masters. Would you like his autograph ? I know one of his slaves who would sell it.”

You are a good deal stared at, naturally, as you pass by, for people in Pompeii have not much to do, and, besides, a Briton is not an everyday sight there, as he will be one of these centuries. The skins of wild beasts are little worn in Pompeii ; and those bold-eyed Roman women think it rather odd that we should like to powder our shaggy heads with brick-dust. However, these are matters of taste. We, for our part, cannot repress a feeling of disgust at the loungers in the street, who, XXVI. tells us, are all going to soak themselves half the day in the baths yonder ; for, if there is in Pompeii one thing more offensive than another to our savage sense of propriety, it is the personal cleanliness of the inhabitants. We little know what a change for the better will be wrought in these people with the lapse of time, and that they will yet come to wash themselves but once a year, as we do.

(The reader may go on doing this sort of thing at some length for himself; and may imagine, if he pleases, a boastful conversation among the Pompeians at the baths, in which the barbarians hear how Agricola has broken the backbone of a rebellion in Britain ; and in which all the speakers begin their observations with “Ho! my Lepidus ! ” and “Ha! my Diomed ! ” In the mean time we return to the present day, and step down the Street of Plenty along with Ventisei.)

IT is proper, after seeing the sites of some of the principal temples in Pompeii (such as those of Jupiter and Venus), to cross the fields that cover a great breadth of the buried city, and look into the amphi theatre, where, as every body knows, the lions had no stomach for Glaucus on the morning of the fatal eruption. The fields are now planted with cotton, and of course we thought those commonplaces about the wonder the Pompeians would feel could they come back to see that New-World plant growing above their buried homes. We might have told them, the day of our visit, that this cruel plant, so long watered with the tears of slaves, and fed with the blood of men, was now an exile from its native fields, where war was plowing with sword and shot the guilty land, and rooting up the subtlest fibres of the oppression in which cotton had grown king. And the ghosts of wicked old Pompeii, remembering the manifold sins that called the fires of hell to devour her, and thinking on this exiled plant, the latest witness of God’s unforgetting justice, might well have shuddered, through all their shadow, to feel how terribly He destroys the enemies of Nature and man.

But the only Pompeian presences which haunted our passage of the cotton-field were certain small

” Phantoms of delight,”

with soft black eyes and graceful ways, who ran before us and plucked the bolls of the cotton and sold them to us. Embassies bearing red and white grapes were also sent out of the cottages to our excellencies ; and there was some doubt of the currency of the coin which we gave these poor children in return.

There are n )w but few peasants living on the land over the head of Pompeii, and the Government allows no sales of real estate to be made except to itself. The people who still dwell here can hardly be said to own their possessions, for they are merely allowed to cultivate the soil. A guard stationed night and day prevents them from making excavations, and they are severely restricted from entering the excavated quarters of the city alone.

The cotton whitens over two thirds of Pompeii yet interred: happy the generation that lives to learn the wondrous secrets of that sepulchre ! For, when you have once been at Pompeii, this phantasm of the past takes deeper hold on your imagination than any living city, and becomes and is the metropolis of your dreamland forever. O marvelous city ! who shall reveal the cunning of your spell? Something not death, something not life — something that is the one when you turn to determine its essence as the other ! What is it comes to me at this distance of that which I saw in Pompeii? The narrow and curving, but not crooked streets, with the blazing sun of that Neapolitan November falling into them, or clouding their wheel-worn lava with the black, black shadows of the many-tinted walls ; the houses, and the gay columns of white, yellow, and red ; the delicate pavements of mosaic ; the skeletons of dusty cisterns and dead fountains ; inanimate garden spaces with pygmy statues suited to their littleness ; suites of fairy bed-chambers, painted with exquisite frescos; dining – halls with joyous scenes of hunt and banquet on their walls ; the ruinous sites of temples ; the melancholy emptiness of booths and shops and jolly drinking-houses ; the lonesome tragic theatre, with a modern Pompeian drawing water from a well there ; the baths with their roofs perfect yet, and the stucco bass-reliefs all but unharmed ; around the whole, the city wall crowned with slender poplars ; outside the gates, the long avenue of tombs, and the Appian Way stretching on to Stabiae; and, in the distance, Vesuvius, brown and bare, with his fiery breath scarce visible against the cloudless heaven ; — these are the things that float before my fancy as I turn back to look at myself walking those enchanted streets, and to won-der if I could ever have been so blest.

For there is nothing on the earth, or under it, like Pompeii.

The amphitheatre, to which we came now, after our stroll across the cotton-fields, was small, like the vastest things in Pompeii, and had nothing of the stately magnificence of the Arena at Verona, nor any thing of the Roman Coliseum’s melancholy and ruinous grandeur. But its littleness made it all the more comfortable and social, and, seated upon its benches under a cool awning, one could have almost chatted across the arena with one’s friends ; could have witnessed the spectacle on the sands without losing a movement of the quick gladiators, or an agony of the victim given to the beasts — which must have been very delightful to a Pompeian of companionable habits and fine feelings. It is quite impossible, however, that the bouts described by Bulwer as taking place all at the same time on the arena should really have done so : the combatants would have rolled and tumbled and trampled over each other an hundred times in the narrow space.

Of all the voices with which it once rang the poor little amphitheatre has kept only an echo. But this echo is one of the most perfect ever heard : prompt, clear, startling, it blew back the light chaff we threw to it with amazing vehemence, and almost made us doubt if it were not a direct human utterance. Yet how was Ventisei to know our names ? And there was no one else to call them but ourselves. Our ” dolce duca” gathered a nosegay from the crumbling ledges, and sat down in the cool of the once-cruel cells beneath, and put it prettily together for the ladies. When we had wearied ourselves with the echo he arose and led us back into Pompeii.

THE plans of nearly all the houses in the city are alike : the entrance-room next the door ; the parlor or drawing -room next that ; then the impluvium, or unroofed space in the middle of the house, where the rains were caught and drained into the cistern, and where the household used to come to wash itself, primitively, as at a pump; the little garden, with its painted columns, behind the impluvium, and, at last, the dining-room. There are minute bed-chambers on either side, and, as I said, a shop at one side in front, for the sale of the master’s grain, wine, and ail. The pavements of all the houses are of mosaic. which, in the better sort, is very delicate and beautiful, and is found sometimes perfectly uninjured. An exquisite pattern, often repeated, is a ground of tiny cubes of white marble with dots of black dropped regularly into it. Of course there were many picturesque and fanciful designs, of which the best have been removed to the Museum in Naples ; but several good ones are still left, and (like that of the Wild Boar) give names to the houses in which they are found.

But, after all, the great wonder, the glory, of these Pompeian houses is in their frescos. If I tried to give an idea of the luxury of color in Pompeii, the most gorgeous adjectives would be as poorly able to reproduce a vivid and glowing sense of those hues as the photography which now copies the drawing of the decorations ; so I do not try.

I know it is a cheap and feeble thought, and yet, let the reader please to consider : A workman nearly two thousand years laying upon the walls those soft lines that went to make up fauns and satyrs, nymphs and naiads, heroes and gods and goddesses ; and getting weary and lying down to sleep, and dreaming of an eruption of the mountain ; of the city buried under a fiery hail, and slumbering in its bed of ashes seventeen centuries ; then of its being slowly exhumed, and, after another lapse of years, of some one coming to gather the shadow of that dreamer’s work upon a plate of glass, that he might infinitely repro-duce it and sell it to tourists at from five francs to fifty centimes a copy — I say, consider such a dream dreamed in the hot heart of the day, after certain cups of Vesuvian wine ! What a piece of Katzmm jammer (I can use no milder term) would that work-man think it when he woke again ! Alas ! what is history and the progress of the arts and sciences but one long Katzenjimmer!

Photography cannot give, any more than I, the colors of the frescos, but it can do the drawing better, and, I suspect, the spirit also. I used the word work-man, and not artist, in speaking of the decoration of the walls, for in most cases the painter was only an artisan, and did his work probably by the yard, as the artisan who paints walls and ceilings in Italy does at this day. But the old workman did his work much more skillfully and tastefully than the modern — threw on expanses of mellow color, delicately paneled off the places for the scenes, and penciled in the figures and draperies (there are usually more of the one than the other) with a deft hand. Of course, the houses of the rich were adorned by men of talent ; but it is surprising to see the community of thought and feeling in all this work, whether it be from cunninger or clumsier hands. The subjects are nearly always chosen from the fables of the gods, and they are in illustration of the poets, Homer and the rest. To suit that soft, luxurious life which people led in Pompeii, the themes are commonly amorous, and sometimes not too chaste ; there is much of Bacchus and Ariadne, much of Venus and Adonis, and Diana bathes a good deal with lier nymphs, – not to mention frequent representations of the toilet of that beautiful monster which the lascivious art of the time loved to depict. One of the most pleasing of all the scenes is that in one of the houses, of the Judgment of Paris, in which the shepherd sits upon a bank in an attitude of ineffable and flattered importance, with one leg carelessly crossing the other, and both hands resting lightly on his shepherd’s crook, while the goddesses before him await his sentence. Naturally the painter has done his best for the victress in this rivalry, and you see

” Idalian Aphrodite beautiful,”

as she should be, but with a warm and piquant spice of girlish resentment in her attitude, that Paris should pause for an instant, which is altogether delicious.

“And I beheld great Here’s angry eyes.”

Awful eyes ! How did the painter make them ? The wonder of all these pagan frescos is the mystery of the eyes — still, beautiful, unhuman. You cannot believe that it is wrong for those tranquil-eyed men and women to do evil, they look so calm and so unconscious in it all ; and in the presence of the celestials, as they bend upon you those eternal orbs, in whose regard’ you are but a part of space, you feel that here art has achieved the unearthly. I know of no words n literature which give a-sense (nothing gives the idea) of the stare of these gods, except that magnificent line of Kingsley’s, describing the advance over the sea toward Andromeda of the oblivious and unsympathizing Nereids. They floated slowly up, and their eyes.

The colors of this fresco of the Judgment of Paris are still so fresh and bright, that it photographs very well, but there are other frescos wherein there is more visible perfection of line, but in which the colors are so dim that they can only be reproduced by drawings. One of these is the Wounded Adonis cared for by Venus and the Loves ; in which the story is treated with a playful pathos wonderfully charming. The fair boy leans in the languor of his hurt toward Venus, who sits utterly disconsolate beside him, while the Cupids busy themselves with such slight surgical offices as Cupids may render : one prepares a linen bandage for the wound, another wraps it round the leg of Adonis, another supports one of his heavy arms, another finds his own emotions too much for him and pauses to weep. It is a pity that the colors of this beautiful fresco are grown so dim, and a greater pity that most of the other frescos in Pompeii must share its fate, and fade away. The hues are vivid when the walls are first uncovered, and the ashes washed from the pictures, but then the malice of the elements begins anew, and rain and sun draw the life out of tints which the volcano failed to obliterate. In nearly all eases they could be pre-served by throwing a roof above the walls, and it is a wonder that the Government does not take this slight trouble to save them.

Among the frescos which told no story but their own, we were most pleased with one in a delicately painted little bed – chamber. This represented are, alarmed and furtive man, whom we at once pronounced The Belated Husband, opening a door with a night-latch. Nothing could have been better than this miserable wretch’s cowardly haste and cautious noiselessness in applying his key ; apprehension sat upon his brow, confusion dwelt in his guilty eye. He had been out till two o’clock in the morning, electioneering for Pansa, the friend of the people (” Pansa, and Roman gladiators,” ” Pansa, and Christians to the Beasts,” was the platform), and ha had left his placens uxor at home alone with the children, and now within this door that placens uxor awaited him !

You have read, no doubt, of their discovering, a year or two since, in making an excavation in a Pompeian street, the molds of four human bodies, three women and a man, who fell down, blind and writhing, in the storm of fire eighteen hundred years ago ; whose shape the settling and hardening ashes took ; whose flesh wasted away, and whose bones lay there in the hollow of the matrix till the cunning of this time found them, and, pouring liquid plaster round the skeletons, clothed them with human form %gain, and drew them forth into the world once more. There are many things in Pompeii which bring back the gay life of the city, but nothing which so vividly reports the terrible manner of her death as these effiaies of the creatures that actually shared it. The an in the last struggle has thrown himself upon his back, and taken his doom sturdily — there is a sublime calm in his rigid figure. The women lie upon their faces, their limbs tossed and distorted, their drapery tangled and heaped about them, and in every fibre you see how hard they died. One presses her face into her handkerchief to draw one last breath unmixed with scalding steam ; another’s arms are wildly thrown abroad to clutch at help ; another’s hand is appealingly raised, and on her slight fingers you see the silver hoops with which her poor dead vanity adorned them.

The guide takes you aside from the street into the house where they lie, and a dreadful shadow drops upon your heart as you enter their presence. With-out, the hell-storm seems to fall again, and the whole sunny plain to be darkened with its ruin, and the city to send up the tumult of her despair.

What is there left in Pompeii to speak of after this ? The long street of tombs outside the walls ? Those that died before the city’s burial seem to have scarcely a claim to the solemnity of death.

Shall we go see Diomed’s Villa, and walk through he freedman’s long underground vaults, where his friends thought to be safe, and were smothered in heaps? The garden-ground grows wild among its broken columns with weeds and poplar saplings ; in une of the corridors they sell photographs, on which, tf you please, Ventisei has his bottle, or drink-money. So we escape from the doom of the calamity, and so, at last, the severely forbidden buonarnano is paid. A dog may die many deaths beside, choking with butter.

We return slowly through the city, where we have spent the whole day, from nine till four o’clock. We linger on the way, imploring Ventisei if there is not something to be seen in this or that house ; we make our weariness an excuse for sitting down, and cannot rend ourselves from the bliss of being in Pompeii.

At last we leave its gates, and swear each other to come again many times while in Naples, and never go again.

Perhaps it was as well. You cannot repeat groat happiness.