Naples And Pompeii
( Originally Published 1936 )
The beauty and historic charm of Italy are concentrated largely on its west coast, and a voyage down these shores is never lacking in interest. Our journey from Monaco to Naples was broken by glimpses of several historic islands, associated mainly with the life of the great Napoleon. Of Corsica we saw only the tip. A great sentinel rock was the nearest point from the birthplace of the emperor, but beyond it the mountains of the interior rose dimly. Not many visitors go there nowadays and most of these are lured by stories of the sheep shooting to be had in the h ills. I am afraid they are a fiction. In Monaco I met a man who had spent a fortnight there the previous season, and for all his trouble and hard work he got but a single grouse. On his way out his guide told him confidentially that he had not seen a sheep in twenty years.
Further to the southeast is Elba, whence Napoleon escaped from his first exile to fight Waterloo and to die in distant Saint Helena. Of this lofty and barren island we had an extensive view. It appeared first as a high point on which we could discern white buildings and two flagstaffs. We pleasantly assumed that we were gazing on the place of the Emperor's domicile and it was a little disappointing when the Captain told us that Napoleon's residence was not only at the other end of the island, but on the opposite side. The interior was always buried in the clouds, but the nearer hillsides were dotted with white cottages and churches.
The tiny island of Monte Cristo was the last land we saw that day and in the early morning we entered the Bay of Naples. For the second time the morning fog disappointed me, for all I could see was the shores of Ischia and Procida and some dark-faced fishermen off for a long day's work.
I was soon to be rewarded. We were opposite the hidden city when the upper mists suddenly parted and high above, hanging like a celestial vision in the sky, I saw the vast bulk of San Martino. The old monastic walls glowed in the sunlight, while all be-side was bathed in gloom.
The harbor of Naples was crowded and it was not necessary to go ashore to see how great is her tourist traffic. When we anchored I saw around us the 'Isturias, Lapland, Empress of France, Stella dltalia, 'Conte Biancamano, Lapland and Otranto, in addition to two British battleships of the very latest type. I fancy that I should have a looked at the big Otranto with more curiosity had [ foreseen what she had in store. Just a few days later she crumpled up her nose against a rock on the coast of Greece, lost two of her crew and gave her large party of British travelers the greatest scare of their lives.
Of the famous cities of the world old Naples is perhaps; the most down at heel. The stucco had fallen in great patches from the tenements and these blemishes vied with the clothes-lines in my king the harbor district look like a crazy quilt.
If a first view of the town gives an impression of disorder and neglect it was not b( me out by the aspect of the harbor. Here was abundant evidence of the new order of things in Italy. Everyone knows that Naples was reputed to have t] a most insolent beggars and extortionate boatmen in the world. Around us now we saw the most orderly and subdued ex-pirates that ever plied between ship and shore. The reason was not hard to see. Among them were two boats, each manned by two youths of the Fascisti militia, with automatic pistols hanging from their belts. Their slightest signal was instantly obeyed, and the men never put oar to water without a glance back over their shoulder to see what the autocrats of the harbor had to say about it. It was my first glimpse of this extraordinary organization that holds all Italy in the hollow of its hand.
Their uniforms are green-gray, in color much like those worn in the German army. Black leather leggings and Sam Brown belts are the accessories and the hats are gray wide-awakes, trimmed with black. The. wide brims are turned up in front and down behind and a tall feather is set in the band. I saw them everywhere in Italy, and in appearance and physique they are not an impressive body. In fact they look like exactly what they are raw recruits drawn from the youth of the Fascist legions. But their authority is supreme and I suspect that on occasion they may be very handy with their automatics, always so menacingly displayed.
Italy is today the most thoroughly policed country of the world. In addition to the hordes of militiamen who infest the whole land, there is the national gendarmerie, whose members in Napoleonic hats, 'red-striped trousers and long swords, always travel in pairs. The third body includes the local and village police whose main work is traffic regulation and such minor business as the militiamen and gendarmes leave for them to do. Of the great secret service we of course saw nothing. The curious statement was made to me in Rome that the custom of patrolling in pairs is not for the greater safety of the men, but to lessen the chance of treachery or graft. The pairing is frequently changed and no man can feel sure that his comrade is not really a spy set to catch him in misconduct.
In all I spent only a few weeks in Italy, and I know how unsafe it is to comment on institutions one sees but casually. Still I have no doubt that the dictatorship of Signor Mussolini rests entirely on terrorism. The swarms of policemen at every petty station indicated this, but it was brought home to me more clearly one evening a few months later when I was dining with a most respect ible family in Milan. During the course of a pleasant evening I felt sufficiently intimate to inquire of n y host to what extent the people of Italy were in Sympathy with Fascismo.
" I am sorry," he said, " but we make it a rule never to talk politics nor to discuss n any way the name of Signor Mussolini. You may not be aware of the fact, but in Italy even the walls have ears, and from the Government there is no secret. I have known too many who spoke a thoughtless word. That night there was a call from the police and they were seen no more. In the circumstances I an sure you will excuse me from advancing any opinon."
This is characteristic of the whole country. On the surface every Italian appears to be a member of the ruling organization. The fascio littcrio, emblem of ancient Rome, is worn on countless labels, and every-where the right hand is thrown torward in the Roman salute. But what is in the hearts of the people in the street no man knows.
There was with me in Naples and Rome a young man whose father is the president-of the Fascisti organization in one of our greatest cities. He had been living in Italy for some years and was Fascist to the core. Yet even he did not approve all that is being done, and being an American citizen he was a little more free to talk than an Italian would have been. " There was a time right after the revolution," he said, " when it was necessary to make a great show of force. But in my opinion that time is now long past and I think Mussolini is making a mistake in keeping up his vast organization of police and spies. They are a heavy burden on the country and I don't think they are needed. I believe that many of them are appointed to give occupation to the unemployed and for other political reasons. This of course is economically unsound."
It would be quite possible to make up a long list of ordinary things that are prohibited by this iron rule. The press is completely chained by a censor-ship more rigorous than any civilized country has known in time of peace. Work is the law of life and to strike is a felony. Beggary, once the curse of Italy, is wiped out. In all the time I was in the country I was asked for alms but once, and then by an old woman in the remote outskirts of Stresa. Foreign travel is interdicted and no passport can be secured except for reasons of economic importance. Foreign goods are subjected to prohibitive tariffs, amounting in many instances to an embargo. The roads of every other country of Europe swarm with American motor cars, but in Italy Fiat and Isotlt have the field to themselves. To put one's feet on the seat of a railway train is a misdemeanor, because you may damage the upholstery and thus reduce the national wealth. I made this mistake in train on the Pompeii-Vesuvius-line and was sharply rebuked by the guard. In this I was more fortunate than two acquaintances who were put under an rest and forced to spend the night in a police cell. Next morning they were fined forty lire, but they h A missed their boat and were out of pocket a substential sum. All bread must contain fifteen per cent. I ran, and while I was in the country an edict was issued forbidding the further importation of bananas, the force the consumption of domestic fruit. The cabarets were stopped altogether, not for moral reasons, but because they were wasteful.
This is one side of the picture, but he other began to unfold itself before our eyes the minute we stepped ashore. Order and efficiency ruled where before was chaos. There were plenty of carriages and taxicabs but they stood in rank and came forward only at the signal of a policeman. The whole nation is under discipline. I do not want to live under a Dictatorship. We are too near that at home. But I am bound to say that Italy, with her teeming population and limited resources, is developing economic strength and political influence out of all proportion to her natural advantages. To what depths she might have fallen if no strong hand had seized the helm I hesitate to reflect.
We clattered through the cobbled streets of old Naples in a horse-drawn fiacre. The streets were crowded and picturesque in the vicinity of the mediaeval gate that is still lowered at eight o'clock in the evening. The whole region seemed untidy and the shops mean and poor, but to our driver who knew them of old they were a source of pride. His small store of English he drew upon freely to call our attention to the cleanliness and order of the district.
At the Pompeii railway station an interpreter told us that we had missed the train by five minutes and as there was no other until afternoon we took a trolley car for the museum. The route lay along the broad Toledo, the main artery of the city. Most great museums have some feature of special distinction, and the National Museum of Naples is undoubtedly set apart from all others by its matchless collections from Pompeii. It is true that even without this feature it would still have one of the finest exhibits of ancient sculpture that has ever been assembled. But other museums have old statuary and none has any-thing comparable to the relics of Pompeii.
The enormous extent of these exhibits would of itself make them impressive, but the r peculiar interest lies in the intimate light they throw on the daily life of a community that suddenly ceased to exist nearly nineteen centuries ago. Praactically every article used in the household is represented by many specimens. There are the cooking and heating stoves, the pots and pans and kettles and he silver that adorned their tables. Even the bread hat was in the ovens and the joints that were simmering in the kettles when the final moment came, have been pre-served, and I have known of an antiquarian dinner at which some of the jam found in the ruins was served and consumed. The mysteries )f the Roman boudoir are fully revealed and the pa aphernalia of an ancient beauty shop was hardly less elaborate than that in use to-day. There are the instruments of the surgeon and the, dentist and coins, ornaments and jewelry in endless profusion. Taken : s a whole the Pompeian displays give such a vivid insight into ancient life that I could not escape the a feeling that I was an intruder in the home of an ancient family, satisfying my curiosity by prying in :o the family larder and peering into the bed chamber of the daughter of the house.
I believe it is fair to assume that the excavations of Pompeii have given us our most complete and exact knowledge of ancient life. This tore of information is destined to be greatly increased, for the Italian Government has at last undertaken the further task of excavating Herculaneum. It is a titanic job, for while Pompeii lay under some twenty feet of ash and cinders the greater part of Herculaneum is buried eighty feet.
Of the many mosaics that have been removed to the museum the largest and most notable is that portraying the Battle of Issus. It was found in the House of the Faun in 1831 and includes in all twenty-six human figures and sixteen horses. The youthful Alexander is represented, as usual, in a posture of victory. He stands bare-headed in his chariot in the act of driving his spear into the breast of a Persian noble. The unhappy Darius is shown in ignoble flight.
The Greek sculpture exhibited here, either in original or in the only existing Roman copies, is of the first order. The group called the Farnese Bull is probably the best known, but I wished especially to see the Harmodius and Aristogeiton, which alone preserves to us the figures of the two Athenian tyrannicides. No statue has a more romantic history. Set up in Athens after the assassination of Hipparchus and the flight of Hippias it was seized by Xerxes in the sack of Athens and carried away to Susa. Here it was recovered by Alexander the Great and presumably brought back to Greece. There is some question whether the copy now existing was taken from the original statue, or from a second one erected to replace the one carried away by the Persians. In any case it reproduces the figures of he mad young patriots as they once stood in the market-place of Athens.
We had engaged in the foyer a most intelligent guide and I was keenly disappointed when he told me that the room in which the statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton was kept was temporarily closed for repairs. I should have missed it altogether but for the resourcefulness of this man. He s, cured from the curator special permission to open the room. By climbing through scaffolding and over piles of timbers we were able to look upon the famous figures.
The small bronzes are especially fine. Two figures representing young wrestlers, tense f for the struggle, are among the very best and the ancient custom of inserting glass eyes gives them a striking appearance. The drunken Satyr is widely known and is clearly the work of a master. The pose and expression are a lasting tribute to the potency of ancient wine. In this room we saw one figure of a yo uth (ephebus), which was found in Pompeii only a year before. For this statue the guide made the astonishing claim that it is an original work of Pheidias. There is no doubt that the style is Pheidian and the guide contended that there is much internal evidence tending to show that it was a work of the supreme master. He particularly emphasized the character if the bronze, which appeared to be flecked with gold maintaining that this was typical of the work of Pheidias alone.
I doubt if this contention will be generally recognized. In Greece I asked several archaeologists if they knew of this work, and none had heard of it. The guide, however, was a man of intelligence and I have no doubt that his view is the accepted one among the archaeologists of the museum.
At the station we found the same interpreter we had met in the morning still on duty and he tendered his services for the afternoon. For a modest fee we secured tickets that were inclusive of the whole excursion to Pompeii and the attendance of the guide, as well. That Naples is still the largest city of Italy is admitted even in Milan, and the electric railway on which we embarked apparently traverses every truck garden that feeds the town. Then came a succession of suburban villages, most of which have a pleasant outlook over the bay. The villas were often handsome and the orchards of orange, lemon, fig and apricot were interspersed with clumps of pine and poplar. At one station our guide left the car and returned a moment later with a cluster of five luscious oranges pilfered from a wayside tree.
About half-way out we came to the station for Mount Vesuvius. There is a funicular to the crater's edge, but the summit that afternoon was immersed in clouds and very few were going up. To ascend a mountain on a cloudy day insures exactly the same view that a Londoner gets from his door-step in a black November fog. Vesuvius is the most famous volcano in the world, due no doubt to the fact that it is situated in a district that has been populous from the earliest times. Her outbreaks have in consequence caused heavy loss of life and are histotric. In her long intervals of quiescence she is,not a very impressive mountain. To be sure it is the most con spicuous land-mark from the Bay of Naples, but as this is only about four thousand feet high it does not overshadow entirely the surrounding heights. The cater is terrifying enough, but from below on the days of our visit scarcely a wisp of smoke was to be seen. Still it is very much alive and the periods of activity are always sufficiently numerous to keep the citi zens of Naples a trifle jumpy.
The masses of lava that have come down in past eruptions lie like frozen rivers acres the country-side, and they had to be cut through to open the railway line. A section at least a mil , in length was wiped out at the last serious overflow. These lava beds supply limitless stone for the residents of the vicinity, and as it is light and easily worked it has been made into miles and miles of walls. Our g guide lived in a village on the mountain side and I asked him what induced people to remain in a situation so full of hazard.
" I don't know," he said, " unless in is our natural attachment to the soil and the hard economic conditions that make it impossible for many to reestablish themselves in a new location. I was born on the spot where I still live and in the eruption of 1906. my house was utterly destroyed. But when things quieted down I did exactly what all' my neighbors did—I came back and rebuilt as best I could. There was nothing else to do."
The journey to the gates of Pompeii occupied an hour and a quarter and was both faster and far less expensive than the trip by motor car. Several friends went out that way and had a back-breaking experience on one of the worst roads in Italy, and they paid five times what it cost us to go in speed and comfort.
Most intelligent people have some conception of the ruins of Pompeii, but all American visitors who go there are unfortunately not intelligent. There was a famous cruise to the Holy Land a couple of years ago, under the auspices of the Christian Herald, and a stop was made here. A woman from' Iowa looked about for a time and inquired how long it would take to finish these buildings.
From the moment we stepped through the gate we were among the ruins. Digging was going on in an area near-by and many were watching with that fascination that no city dweller can resist when he sees a man shoveling earth. The force at work was small, and as it still had ten feet to remove before it reached the old levels we resisted the temptation and passed on,
The houses of Pompeii were built of stone and the small brick which the Romans knew so well how to make. In all but a few cases the ground floor only re-mains, and it is probable that in the old city there were few houses that rose to a higher level. The general impression left,by the ruins is that of a town that has been destroyed by fire, though the absence of high walls is also suggestive of the havoc of bombardment. I have seen in Belgium and North Fro ice the wreck-age of many towns, that presented the same general appearance. Indeed the ruins of Smyrra, though only five years old, are reminiscent of this ancient holocaust.
It is an extraordinary fact that the name of Pompeii is associated almost entirely with the manner of its destruction. Of the history of the town little is known. Theme is no doubt that it was a Greek colony, dating back to very early times, and the -e are remains of a Doric temple that has been identified with the sixth or seventh century before the Chrstian era. The first serious misfortune that befell the community, which is thought never to have exceeded thirty thousand in numbers, was an earthquake in the year 63 B. C. On that occasion Vesuvius, which for centuries had been thought extinct, awoke to violent and unprecedented activity.
The final tragedy took place on the 23d November in the year 79 A. D. The details would probably never have come down to us except for the f act that at the time the Younger Pliny happened to be stopping at Misenum, less than twenty miles away. In two letters that were happily preserved, he told substantially all that we know of the details of this epochal tragedy.
For two or three days the mountain had been alive. From the depths of its crater came ominous rumblings and at intervals showers of ashes fell. Most of the population of Pompeii gave heed to these warnings and fled, carrying with them such of their goods as they could transport. Two thousand of the bolder spirits remained, or had returned temporarily to recover more of their abandoned property. Of these not one escaped the cataclysm, and we can see today the forms of some of them in the attitude of death. The ash encased them and formed a mould, and plaster poured into these cavities has reproduced their lineaments and posture in the hour of extremity. We have such remains of men and dogs.
Lord Lytton's novel has given us the most familiar picture of the scene, but no art can realize the terrors of that day. The mountain groaned and labored and spewed forth death. Clouds of flame and smoke over-spread the sky and finally as from the heavens there descended thousands of tons of small pumice stones. The ground rocked in earthquake and a deadly gas overspread the land. Rivers of mud and lava poured down the slopes. Then to the accompaniment of torrential rains the ashes fell and laid on the dead city a blanket ten feet thick.
The Pompeii we now visit is all that remained after this bitter day; but the mantle of death preserved what it had killed, and the excavators have revealed the record of the lives of these doomed people to the very moment of their death. The burial of the city was so complete that its very site was forgotten, and but for the accident of a ditch digger coming upon some ruins in the year 1748, the secret of this vast tomb. might have remained inviolate, even en to this day.
Many evidences of early digging have been found. There is little doubt that this work was done by survivors, who had fled and later returned to recover what remained of their possessions,by relatives and friends of those who perished.
The street by which we entered was fairly typical of the whole, though it did not contain any of the famous houses. The stark walls line t the narrow pavement of cobblestones, and from many houses protruded the remains of ancient water pipes. High stepping stones marked the intersection! , and between them were the deep ruts of myriad chariot wheels. The stone ovens of the baker are intact and we paused at a wine shop. The bar was of fine ma ble and set in it were two large jars in which the store of wine was kept for serving. What scenes it must have witnessed and how many young men about tow must have touched goblets there and discussed heir evening dates more than twenty centuries ago.
There is one aspect of Pompeii that is seldom mentioned, for what reason I do not know - unless it be delicacy. The pornographic remains an a very extesive and the numerous brothels are boldly marked by obscene tokens carved into the stone. The interiors of these houses were decorated with licentious paintings, some of which are well preserved. One of these was on an outer wall. It is now covered with a shutter which the caretaker is always willing to remove for a lira or two, taking care to first note whether any women are in the vicinity. Obviously old Pompeii was not a city of precisians, and anti-vice societies were not a part of the Roman scheme of things.
The great houses were always built around an atrium, or court, and the more notable ones, such as the house of the Vetti and the house of the Faun, were truly palatial, with peristyles, statuary and extensive mural paintings. The names of the owners are frequently established, and since the house of A. Vettius is one of the most remarkable, both in character and preservation, a few words about it may be of interest. Its fine condition is due to the nature of the disaster by which it was overwhelmed. The material that enveloped Pompeii was not incandescent. The pumice stones were no larger than peanuts and the ash that followed in such amazing quantity was as impalpable as flour. The deluge that accompanied it precluded fire and converted the ash into a mass of cement that encased and preserved all that remained.
The moment I entered the house of Vettius the distinction between these ruins and all other monuments of the world of antiquity was evident. The old palaces and temples have fallen into s ow decay; but here we: have a private establishmet cut off in the full tide of life and activity. There was bread in the ovens, wine in the jars and bones in the kettle. The pantry was stocked with preserves : nd eggs which the unfortunate master never lived to consume. The court, with its fountains, mart '.es and flowers is probably little changed, and if A. Vettius were to return after all these centuries he wo ild find the old homestead about as he last saw it.
The walls are covered with paintings, and it is interesting to know the type of art that appealed to a Roman gentleman of Greek tradition so I give the titles of the pictures: The Desertion of Ariadne, Hero and Leander, Ciparissus and 'et Stag, Fight of Eros and Pan, Hercules Stranglit g the Serpents, The Punishment' of Dirce, The Sacrilege of Agamemnon, Iphigenia in Tauris, The Slaughter of the Python, Hercules and Auge, D Dedalus and Pasiphae, Ariadne Found by Bacchus in Naxos and the Torture of Ixion. There is also a dado in eleven groups, showing incidents of daily life, and but five of the whole series of paintings have been destroyed.
The three inscriptions showing that the house was the residence of A. Vettius are still clearly legible.
The large private houses are perh ps the most interesting of all the wonders of this re markable place and they are not too numerous for even the most hurried visitor to inspect. The public bath house, near the Forum, is in its way more wonderful. The large vaulted hot room for men, with its double walls for heating and its marble tub, is finely preserved, and the luxury of its appointments far exceeds even the more pretentious establishments of our day. There are in all four large apartments and an enclosed green on which the patrons were accustomed to exercise.
The two theaters have withstood the ravages of time. Workmen were engaged at the time of my visit in covering the seats and stage of the larger one with boards in anticipation of an address that Signor Mussolini was to deliver there a few days later. I shall not pause to describe the Forum except to say that I looked from it in the late afternoon to the purpling mountains of Sorrento and I saw in Italy no fairer view.
As we waited for our train two minstrels played for us, alternating between the lovely arias of the operas of the country and the latest Yankee dance tunes.
We spent the evening in San Carlo, largest and most oddly arranged of the opera houses of Italy, and heard a performance not quite up to the standards of La Scala.
We left Naples after midnight and in the morning saw the island volcano of Stromboli, home of Aeolus, with smoke and glints of flame around its summit. Passing the rock called Scylla and the treacherous waters of Charybdis we escaped the Homeric monsters and were immediately in view of Messina, which has risen from the ruins of one of the greatest earthquakes of modern times.
Etna rose before us a snow-white cone, one of the most glorious of mountains. " If I would seen nothing else this would have repaid me for the journey," said an enraptured Englishman.
Thus we passed into the Ionian Sea.