Monday, July 6, 2020

First impressions of Pompeii

In my research of the early excavations in Pompeii, I found a book by ingrid D. Rowland entitled "From Pompeii" published in 2014.  In it Rowland describes 19th century visits of several famous people to Naples and the newly rediscovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum including Mozart, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and others.  I was particularly struck by her discussion of author and revolutionary  Madame de Staël and how she incorporated her impressions of Pompeii into one of her novels.

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a woman of letters and political theorist of Genevan origin who in her lifetime witnessed at first-hand the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration.  Madame de Staël visited Pompeii on a "Grand Tour" in 1803.  While there, she witnessed a very active Vesuvius as well.  In 1807, she penned a novel entitled "Corinne" where she provides what amounts to an eye-witness account of a lesser eruption of Vesuvius:

"The torrent is a funereal color; when it burns the vines or the trees, however, you can see a clear bright flame coming from it. It flows slowly like black sand by day and red by night. When it comes near you can hear a little noise of sparks, all the more frightening because it is slight, and cunning seems to combine with strength. Thus the royal tiger arrives secretly with measured tread. . . . Its glare is so fiery that for the first time the earth is reflected in the sky, giving it the appearance of continual lightning; in turn the sky is repeated in the sea and nature is set ablaze by this triple image of fire."

Madame de Staël also describes a poignant impression of seeing the remains of the ancient city through the eyes of her protagonist:

"When you stand at the centre of the crossroads, on every side you can see almost in its entirety the still surviving part of the town; it is as if you were waiting for someone, as if the master is about to arrive, and the very semblance of life in this place makes you even more sad at feeling its eternal silence. It is with pieces of petrified lava that most of these houses have been built, and they have been buried beneath other pieces of lava. So there are ruins upon ruins and tombs upon tombs. This history of the world where periods are counted from ruin to ruin, this human life whose trail is followed by the gleam of the volcanic eruptions that have consumed it, fills the heart with profound melancholy. What a long time men have existed! What a long time they have lived, suffered, and perished! Where can their feelings and thoughts be found again? Is the air you breathe amongst these ruins still marked with their traces or are they forever deposited in heaven where immortality reigns? A few burnt manuscripts found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, which people at Portici are trying to unroll, are all that is left to enable us to learn about the unfortunate victims consumed by earth’s thunderbolt, the volcano. But as you pass by those ashes which art manages to bring back to life, you are afraid to breathe, in case a breath carries away the dust perhaps still imprinted with noble ideas."

I experienced the same bitter-sweetness when I visited Pompeii for the first time.

Image: A portrait of Madame de Staël by Marie Éléonore Godefroid after François Pascal Simon Gérard, sometime between 1818-1849, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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