« PreviousContinue »
EXCURSION TO POMPEII.
A DAY was busily occupied in examining the remains of Pompeii, seated on the south-western slope of Vesuvius, midway between the top of the mountain and the bay, twelve or fourteen miles from Naples. The road leading to it, through Torre del Greco and Annunziata, traverses several beds of lava, by one of which the former village was entirely destroyed in the great eruption of 1794. Some of the buildings are yet seen buried to the chamber windows by the deluge of fire, which descended in billows high as those of the ocean, sweeping away every thing in its path. It is impossible to imagine any phenomenon more awfully sublime than these burning torrents, kindling into a flame all the combustible matter over which they roll, and producing tremendous explosions of rocks, with which they come in contact. The foliage bordering the tract in a moment becomes sere, and the next instant is in a blaze. One would almost be willing to meet Pliny's fate-certainly to encounter the risk he did-for the sake of witnessing a spectacle of so much grandeur. The beds formed by the eruption of 1794 are yet perfectly bleak and sterile, though the borders are exuberantly rich and productive. Fields all green, flowery, and gay, extend far up the acclivities of the mountain, between these broad desolate tracts of lava. Lachryma-christi, a wine well known for its excellence, is peculiar to this district, in which great quantities of it are made.
The situation of Pompeii is delightful, in the midst of a fertile region, sufficiently elevated to command a view of the sea and mountains. Immense mounds of sand and ashes, thrown out in making the excavations, admonish the traveller of his approach. We arrived at an early hour in the forenoon, and lingered till sunset among the ruins. The town was four miles in circumference, of an irregular shape, and surrounded with double walls. Only one eighth of its area has yet been excavated. The rest is buried to the depth of fifteen or twenty feet. Excavations are still in progress. The surface is planted with poplars, vines, and maize. But the soil appears arid, and vegetation parched and stunted, though irrigated by the waters of the Sarno, carried through the town in aqueducts.
We commenced our examination with the Amphitheatre near the
southern gate. It is nearly in a perfect state, similar in form and construction to the Coliseum at Rome, with two principal entrances on opposite sides, and a small door for carrying out the dead, killed in combats on the arena. The podium or lower circle of benches seems to have been guarded by an iron railing. Two fragments of bas-relief, one representing a charioteer in the attitude of driving, and the other a mask, are still visible. The exterior was surrounded with a course for chariot races, elevated by a concentric wall and terrace above the entrances of the amphitheatre, and secured on the outside by balustrades. These aerial races at the height of fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, must have formed a curious spectacle. In the corridors and passages of the circus, the pavements are composed of blocks of lava, showing that this region has been volcanic from time immemorial.
A little to the north of the amphitheatre is a building called the Triclinium, exhibiting traces of couches and tables, where the frequenters of public amusements used to recline at the feast. In the same quarter, excavations have been made, which exhibit perfectly the several strata which overwhelmed Pompeii, in the memorable eruption of the year 79. It is supposed, that each stratum was the work of a day, and that the number corresponds with the intermissions and renewals of the showers of fire, water, lava, pumice-stones, cinders, ashes, and sand, which deluged the ill-fated city. The first or bottom layer is five or six feet thick, composed of small whitish stones, loose and round, mingled with globules of lava, of the size of shot. Above this are spread several beds of ashes and cinders, of a darker complexion, and perfectly distinct in formation. It will be seen from these facts, that the ruins of the mountain which overwhelined Pompeii differ entirely in character from the solid masses of lava under which Herculaneum was buried, though both cities were destroyed during the same eruption.
Crossing a plain about half a mile in width, enamelled with a variety of wild flowers, which bloom above the unopened sepulchre of the town, we arrived at one of the principal streets, which has been excavated to the pavement, and is in as perfect a state as it was seventeen centuries ago. It is lined on both sides with public buildings, dwelling-houses and shops, the fronts and walls of which remain entire, their roofs alone having been pressed in by the showers of volcanic matter. Nothing was wanting but inhabitants to complete the picture of a modern Italian village. We strolled along the street just as we would through the Toledo, peeping into the shops, and pausing to examine whatever fell in our way. It is sufficiently broad for two modern car
riages to pass abreast; paved with large flags accurately adjusted; furnished with side-walks, and with stepping-stones, at convenient intervals, elevated a foot or more, to enable pedestrians to cross comfortably in wet weather. Much more cleanliness prevails, than in the most fashionable parts of Naples and Rome. The pavement is deeply worn with the tracks of ancient carriage wheels, proving that the town was old at the time of its destruction. I had the curiosity to measure the distance between the ruts, and found it to be five feet, about the width of a modern coach.
Many of the dwelling-houses and shops were examined with minute attention. They look so like inhabited tenements, that it almost seemed proper to knock or ring at the door, lest the stranger should intrude on a family of old Pompeiians. The preservation of the buildings, composed of ordinary materials, is perfectly astonishing. Not only the walls, but the painted stucco and frescos, even to the most delicate lines, are as entire, and almost as fresh, as if they had been done six months or a year ago. There seems to have been nothing damp or corrosive in the substances, which have protected them from the influence of the elements for so many ages. The apartments are uniformly small, badly lighted, without fire-places, and in all respects inconvenient, affording strong evidence that the ancient inhabitants knew as little of the comforts of home, in our sense of the word, as do the modern Italians, and that most of their time, except in the hours of sleeping. was passed in the streets, and at places of public amusement. The decorations of the rooms are quite as handsome as the same descriptions of ornaments at the present day. Some of the mosaic floors are of exquisite workmanship, and the designs exhibit a good deal of taste. The walls are painted of different colours-generally green, but sometimes red or yellow. In a sculptor's shop, spots of the liquid plaster which bespattered the side of the room while he was at work, remain as fresh as ever. We could at first hardly believe our own eyes, and suspected some deception, till other streets had been traversed, and the same vivid impressions found in all parts of the city that have yet been opened.
The two theatres, one for tragedy and the other for comedy, are nearly entire, and show perfectly the construction and arrangement of such edifices among the Greeks and Romans. They are of a semicircular form, rising with tiers of stone steps to the height of twenty or thirty feet, terminating in a galleryuarded by iron balustrades, and appropriated to the female part of the audience. The stage did not differ materially from that of a modern theatre, except that it was broader and had much less depth. Behind was the postscenium or
green-room; in front, the proscenium corresponding with our orchestra; and the ancient orchestra seems to have answered to the modern parterre or pit, though used for a different purpose. Two play-tickets have been found near the theatres, and are now deposited in the Museum at Naples. They are of ivory, circular in shape, bearing the name of Eschylus, the Shakspeare of Greece, with the number of the place in Greek and Latin on one side, and an image of the theatre on the reverse. The practice of assigning and numbering seats, to prevent confusion, appears to have been introduced by Augustus. In the pillars and ornaments of the buildings at Pompeii, Parian marble is found in great profusion, evincing the wealth and luxury of the inhabitants. Few cities now existing in Italy could furnish so many works of art, and such strong indications of taste and splendour, as have here already been discovered in a Provincial town, justifying fully my remarks on the articles in the Museum at Naples.
From the theatres we strolled through the Forum Nundinarium, or Market-place, which is a large square, surrounded by colonnades of Doric pillars, with a copious fountain in the centre, and at present shaded with weeping-willows. The columns are covered with stucco, and exhibit traces of etchings and initials cut by ancient idlers, while lounging in the Forum thinking of nothing, or using the penknife during a conversation with an acquaintance. Ranges of boutiques extend round the Market, in which sundry domestic utensils were found, and also skeletons in the stocks, in what was supposed to be the guardhouse. As this place furnished all the conveniences for dining, except the trifling article of food, and the exercise of the morning had created an appetite for any fare however coarse, we directed the cicerone to bring out the best, which his humble habitation afforded. His wife, the only female resident within the walls of the ancient city, made her appearance, and spread an antique table of Parian marble dug from the ruins, beneath the shade of one of the weeping-willows, rendered cooler by the playing of the fountain. Our round Grecian slab, supported by a beautiful fluted pedestal, was crowned with more than attic simplicity. The black-eyed Calabrian hostess produced two sorts of bread-one made of Indian corn, but very far inferior to that which Yankee housewives know how to knead from the same material. Neither milk nor butter-fish, flesh, nor fowl was to be had. A boiled egg, to be eaten as it might without a spoon, and a glass of red wine, made from the grape which springs from the ashes of Pompeii, concluded the slender bill of fare. But the frugal repast was more highly relished, than probably are in most cases the banquets of! Imagination reverted to the period, when perhaps a circle of
wit and beauty surrounded the same table, quaffing Falernian cups, and warbling in Lydian measures the love-songs of Sappho and Anacreon.
After dinner, which did not require a long sitting, we visited the temple of Hercules, standing upon an eminence that overlooks the Forum. The ruins are massive and highly interesting. Triangular colonnades surrounded the edifice, and a magnificent porch rose in front, The platform, ninety feet in length and sixty in breadth, elevated three steps from the ground, is still entire. Fragments of gigantic columns strew the area. They are of the old Doric order, without bases, and resembling those of Pæstum. This temple is believed to belong to a period long anterior to the rest of Pompeii. There were three altars, for the sacrifice of victims, one of which was small, designed merely to hold the sacred fire. Near by stood the receptacle for the consecrated ashes. At one end of the shrine, is a semicircular bench in the form of a sofa, and in the vicinity, a burying-ground, supposed to be the cemetery of the priests, who officiated at the altars.
Entering the Appian Way, which ran through the whole length of the town and formed the principal street, we found the buildings if possible in a more perfect state of preservation, than those that have already been described. If a stranger could be set down blindfold, and the bandage removed, he would scarcely know but he was in a modern Italian town, which had just been deserted, or whose inhabitants were taking a siesta after dinner. The names of persons, written in red paint, are seen over the shop doors, and the designations of cross streets, on the corners, as at the present day. In a word, if the furniture which is now in the museum at Naples, had been left in situ as it was here found, a new set of inhabitants might have gone to housekeeping, with very few repairs, and at very little expense. The silence and solitude which reign along the streets are almost terrific, reminding the visitant that he is traversing the city of the dead, whose spirits start up to meet him at every step.
Among the public edifices which we visited, are the temples of Esculapius and of Isis. The former is a mere cell, and the most useful of all the gods, if he was not a quack in his profession, was honoured with a very humble shrine. A low altar rises in the centre of the fane, on which the convalescent patient probably used to burn incense to the healing divinity. His statue and that of his attendant goddess Hygeia, were found among the rubbish. The temple of Isis is upon a much larger scale. It was about sixty feet square, of the Doric order, built of brick, and covered with stucco. The pavement is splendid mosaic, and the sanctum sanctorum, whence oracles issued, rises on half a dozen lofty steps ornamented with Parian marble.