Italy – A Half-hour At Herculaneum

THE road from Naples to Herculaneum is, in fact, one long street ; it hardly ceases to be city in Naples till it is town at Portici, and in the interval it is suburb, running between palatial lines of villas, which all have their names ambitiously painted over their doors. Great part of the distance this street is bordered by the bay, and, as far as this is the case, it is picturesque, as every thing is belonging to marine life in Italy. Sea-faring people go lounging up and down among the fishermen’s boats drawn up on the shore, and among the fishermen’s wives making nets, while the fishermen’s children play and clamber everywhere, and over all flap and flutter the clothes hung on poles to dry. In this part of the street there are, of course, oysters, and grapes, and oranges, and cactus-pulps, and cutlery, and iced drinks to sell at various booths ; and Commerce is exceedingly dramatic and boisterous over the bargains she offers ; and equally, of course, murderous drinking shops lurk at intervals along the pavement, and lure into their recesses mariners of foreign birth, briefly ashore from their ships. The New York Coffee House is there to attract my maritime fellow-countrymen, and I know that if I look into that place of refreshment I shall see their honest, foolish faces flushed with drink, and with the excitement of buying the least they can for the most money. Poor souls I they shall drink that pleasant morning away in the society of Antonino the best of Neapolitans, and at midnight, emptied of every soldo, shall arise, wrung with a fearful suspicion of treachery, and wan-der away under Antonino’s guidance to seek the protection of the Consul; or, taking the law into their own hands, shall proceed to clean out, more American, the New York Coffee House, when Antonino shall develop into one of the landlords, and deal them the most artistic stab in Naples : handsome, worthy Antonino ; tender-eyed, subtle, pitiless I

WHERE the road to Herculaneum leaves the bay and its seafaring life, it enters, between the walls of lofty, fly-blown houses, a world of maccaroni haunted by foul odors, beggars, poultry, and insects. There were few people to be seen on the street, but through the open doors of the lofty fly-blown houses we saw floury legions at work making maccaroni ; grinding maccaroni, rolling it, cutting it, hanging it in mighty skeins to dry, and gathering it when dried, and putting it away. By the frequency of the wine-shops we judged that the legions were a thirsty host, and by the number of the barber-surgeons’ shops, that they were a plethoric and too full-blooded host. The latter shops were in the proportion of one to five of the former ; and the artist who had painted their signs had indulged his fancy in wild excesses of phlebotomy. We had found that, as we came south from Venice, science grew more and more sanguinary in Italy, and more and more disposed to let blood. At Ferrara, even, the propensity began to be manifest on the barbers’ signs, which displayed the device of an arm lanced at the elbow, and jetting the blood by a neatly described curve into a tumbler. Further south the same arm was seen to bleed at the wrist also ; and at Naples an exhaustive treatment of the subject appeared, the favorite study of the artist being to represent a nude figure reclining in a genteel attitude on a bank of pleasant green-sward, and bleeding from the elbows, wrists, hands, ankles, and feet.

IN Naples everywhere one is surprised by the great number of English names which appear on business houses, but it was entirely bewildering to read a bill affixed to the gate of one of the villas on this road : ” This Desirable Property for Sale.” I should scarcely have cared to buy that desirable property, though the neighborhood seemed to be a favorite summer resort, and there were villas, as I said, nearly the whole way to Portici. Those which stood with their gardens toward the bay would have been ‘tolerable, no doubt, if they could have kept their windows shut to the vile street before their doors but the houses opposite could have had no escape from its stench and noisomeness. It was absolutely the filthiest street I have seen anywhere outside of New York, excepting only that little street which, in Herculaneum, leads from the theatre to the House of Argo.

This pleasant avenue has a stream of turbid water in its centre, bordered by begging children, and is either fouler or cleaner for the water, but I shall never know which. It is at a depth of some fifty or sixty feet below the elevation on which the present city of Portici is built, and is part of the excavation made long ago to reach the plain on which Herculaneum stands, buried under its half-score of successive layers of lava, and ashes, and Portici. We had the aid of all the virtuous poverty and leisure of the modern town — there was a vast deal of both, we found — in our search for the staircase by which you descend to the classic plain, and it proved a discovery involving the outlay of all the copper coin about us, while the sight of the famous theatre of Herculaneum was much more expensive than it would have been had we come there in the old tinte to see a play of Plautus or Terence.

As for the theatre, ” the large and highly ornamented theatre ‘ of which I read, only a little while ago, in an encyclopedia, we found it, by the light of our candles, a series of gloomy hollows, of the general complexion of coal-bins and potato-cellars. It was never perfectly dug out of the lava, and, as in known, it was filled up in the last century, together with other excavations, when they endangered the foundations of worthless Portici overhead. (I am amused to find myself so hot upon the poor property-holders of Portici. I suppose I should not my-self, even for the cause of antiquity and the knowledge of classic civilization, like to have my house tumbled about my ears.) But though it was impossible in the theatre of Herculaneum to gain any idea of its size or richness, I remembered there the magnificent bronzes which had been found in it, and did a hasty reverence -to the place. Indeed, it is amazing, when one sees how small a part of Herculaneum has been uncovered, to consider *the number of fine works of art in the Museo Borbonico which were taken thence, and which argue a much richer and more refined community than that of Pompeii. A third of the latter city has now been restored to the light of day ; but though it has yielded abundance of all the things that illustrate the domestic and public life, and the luxury and depravity of those old times, and has given the once secret rooms of the museum their worst attraction, it still falls far below Herculaneum in the value of its contributions to the treasures of classic art, except only in the variety and beauty of its exquisite frescos.

The effect of this fact is to stimulate the imagination of the visitor to that degree that nothing short )f the instant destruction of Portici and the excavation of all Herculaneum will satisfy him. If the opening of one theatre, and the uncovering of a basilica and two or three houses, have given such richness to us, what delight and knowledge would not the removal of these obdurate hills of ashes and lava bestow !

Emerging from the coal-bins and potato-cellars, the visitor extinguishes his candle with a pathetic sigh, profusely rewards the custodian (whom he connects in some mysterious way with the ancient population of the injured city about him), and, thought-fully removing the tallow from his fingers, follows the course of the vile stream already sung, and soon arrives at the gate opening into the exhumed quarter of Herculaneum. And there he finds a custodian who enters perfectly into his feelings ; a custodian who has once been a guide in Pompeii, but now despises that wretched town, and would not be guide there for any money since he has known the superior life of Herculaneum ; who, in fine, feels toward Pompeii as a Bostonian feels toward New York. Yet the reader would be wrong to form the idea that there is bitterness in the disdain of this custodian. On the contrary, he is one of the best-natured men in the world. He is a mighty mass of pinguid bronze, with a fat lisp, and a broad, sunflower smile, and he lectures us with a vast and genial breadth of manner on the ruins, contradicting all our guesses at things with a sweet ” Perdoni, signori ! ma—.” At the end, we find that he has some medallions of lava to sell : there is Victor Emanuel, or, if we are of the partito d’azione, there is Garibaldi ; both warm yet from the crater of Vesuvius, and of the same material which destroyed Herculaneum. We decline to buy, and the custodian makes the national shrug and grimace (signifying that we are masters of the situation, and that he washes his hands of the consequence of our folly) on the largest scale that we have ever seen : his mighty hands are rigidly thrust forth, his great lip protruded, his enormous head thrown back to bring his face on a level with his chin. The effect is tremendous, but we nevertheless feel that he loves us the same.

THE afternoon on which we visited Herculaneum was in melancholy contrast to the day we spent in Pompeii. The lingering summer had at last saddened into something like autumnal gloom, and that blue, blue sky of Naples was overcast. So, this second draught of the spirit of the past had not only some-thing of the insipidity of custom, but brought rather a depression than a lightness to our hearts. There was so little of Herculaneum : only a few hundred yards square are exhumed, and we counted the houses easily on the fingers of one hand, leaving the thumb to stand for the few rods of street that, with its flagging of lava and narrow border of foot-walks, lay between and though the custodian, apparently moved at our dejection, said that the excavation was to be resumed the very next week, the assurance did little to restore our cheerfulness. Indeed, I fancy that these old cities must needs be seen in the sunshine by those who would feel what gay lives they once led ; by dimmer light they are very sullen spectres, and their doom still seems to brood upon them. I know that even Pompeii could not have been joyous that sunless afternoon, for what there was to see of mournful Herculaneum was as brilliant with colors as any thing in the former city. Nay, I believe that the tints of the frescos and painted columns were even brighter, and that the walls of the houses were far less ruinous than those of Pompeii.. But no house was wholly freed from lava, and the little street ran at the rear of the buildings which were ‘ supposed to front on some grander avenue not yet exhumed. It led down, as’ the custodian pretended, to a wharf, and he showed an iron ring in the all of the House of Argo, standing at the end of the street, to which, he said, his former fellow-citizens used to fasten their boats, though it was a dry enough there now.

There is evidence in Herculaneum of much more ambitious domestic architecture than seems to have been known in Pompeii. The ground-plan of the houses in the two cities is alike ; but in the former there was often a second story, as was proven by the charred ends of beams still protruding from the walls, while in the latter there is only one house which is thought to have aspired to a second floor. The House of Argo is also much larger than any in Pompeii, and its appointments were more magnificent. Indeed, we imagined that in this more purely Greek town we felt an atmosphere of better taste in everything than prevailed in the fashionable Roman watering-place, though this, too, was a summer resort of the ” best society ” of the empire. The mosaic pavements were exquisite, and the little bed-chambers dainty and delicious in their decorations. The lavish delight in color found expression in the vividest hues upon the walls, and not only were the columns of the garden painted, but the foliage of the capitals was variously tinted. The garden of the House of Argo was vaster than any of the classic world which we had yet seen, and was superb with a long colonnade of unbroken columns. Between these and the walls of the houses was a pretty pathway of mosaic, and in the midst once stood marble tables, under which the workmen exhuming the city found certain crouching skeletons. At one end was the dining-room, of course, and painted on the wall was a lady with a parasol.

I thought all Herculaneum sad enough, but the profusion of flowers growing wild in this garden gave it a yet more tender and pathetic charm. Here — where so long ago the flowers had bloomed, and perished in the terrible blossoming of the mountain that sent up its fires in the awful similitude of Nature’s harmless and lovely forms, and showered its destroying petals all abroad — was it not tragic to find again the soft tints, the graceful shapes, the sweet perfumes of the earth’s immortal life ? Of them that planted and tended and plucked and bore in their bosoms and twined in their hair these fragile children of the summer, what witness in the world? Only the crouching skeletons under the tables. alas and alas !

THE skeletons went with us throughout Hercula neum, and descended into the cell, all green with damp, under the basilica, and lay down, fettered and manacled in the place of those found there beside the big bronze kettle in which the prisoners used to cook their dinners. How ghastly the thought of it was ! If we had really seen this kettle and the skeletons there — as we did not — we could not have suffered more than we did. They took all the life out of the House of Perseus, and the beauty from his pretty little domestic temple to the Penates, and this was all there was left in Herculaneum to see.

” Is there nothing else ? ” we demand of the custodian.

” Signori, this is all.”

It is mighty little.”

” Perdoni, signori ! ma.”

” Well,” we say sourly to each other, glancing round at the walls of the pit, on the bottom of which the bit of city stands, ” it is a good thing to know that Herculaneum amounts to nothing.”