Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) online

. (page 41 of 43)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 41 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

us. Whether we turn towards the Miseno shore of the
splendid watery amphitheatre, and go by the Grotto of
Posilipo to the Grotto del Cane and away to Baiae : or take
the other way, towards Vesuvius and Sorrento, it is one
succession of delights. In the last-named direction, where,
over doors and archways, there are countless little images of
San Gennaro, with his Canute's hand stretched out, to check
the fury of the Burning Mountain, we are carried pleasantly,
by a railroad on the beautiful Sea Beach, past the town of
Torre del Greco, built upon the ashes of the former town
destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius, within a hundred
years ; and past the flat-roofed houses, granaries, and
maccaroni manufactories ; to Castel-a-Mare, with its ruined
castle, now inhabited by fishermen, standing in the sea upon
a heap of rocks. Here, the railroad terminates ; but, hence
we may ride on, by an unbroken succession of enchanting
bays, and beautiful scenery, sloping from the highest summit
of Saint Angelo, the highest neighbouring mountain, down
to the water's edge among vineyards, olive-trees, gardens of
oranges and lemons, orchards, heaped-up rocks, green gorges
in the hills and by the bases of snow-covered heights, and
through small towns with handsome, dark-haired women at
the doors and pass delicious summer villas to Sorrento,
where the Poet Tasso drew his inspiration from the beauty
surrounding him. Returning, we may climb the heights
above Castel-a-Mare, and looking down among the boughs
and leaves, see the crisp water glistening in the sun ; and
clusters of white houses in distant Naples, dwindling, in the
great extent of prospect, down to dice. The coming back to
the city, by the beach again, at sunset : with the glowing
sea on one side, and the darkening mountain, with its smoke


and flame, upon the other: is a sublime conclusion to the
glorv of the day.

That church by the Porta Captiana near the old fisher-
market in the dirtiest quarter of dirty Naples, where the
revolt of Masaniello began is memorable for having been
the scene of one of his earliest proclamations to the people,
and is particularly remarkable for nothing else, unless it be
its waxen and bejewelled Saint in a glass case, with two odd
hands ; or the enormous number of beggars who are constantly
rapping their chins there, like a battery of castanets. The
cathedral with the beautiful door, and the columns of African
and Egyptian granite that once ornamented the temple of
Apollo, contains the famous sacred blood of San Gennaro
or Januarius : which is preserved in two phials in a silver
tabernacle, and miraculously liquefies three times a-year, to
the great admiration of the people. At the same moment,
the stone (distant some miles) where the Saint suffered
martyrdom, becomes faintly red. It is said that the
officiating priests turn faintly red also, sometimes, when
these miracles occur.

The old, old men who live in hovels at the entrance of
these ancient catacombs, and who, in their age and infirmity,
seem waiting here, to be buried themselves, are members
of a curious body, called the Royal Hospital, who are the
official attendants at funerals. Two of these old spectres
totter away, with lighted tapers, to show the caverns of
death as unconcerned as if they were immortal. They were
used as burying-places for three hundred years ; and, in one
part, is a large pit full of skulls and bones, said to be the
sad remains of a great mortality occasioned by a plague. In
the rest there is nothing but dust. They consist, chiefly, of
great wide corridors and labyrinths, hewn out of the rock.
At the end of some of these long passages, are unexpected
glimpses of the daylight, shining down from above. It looks
as ghastly and as strange : among the torches, and the dust,
and the dark vaults : as if it, too, were dead and buried.


The present burial-place lies out yonder, on a hill between
the city and Vesuvius. The old Campo Santo with its three
hundred and sixty-five pits, is only used for those who die in
hospitals, and prisons, and are unclaimed by their friends.
The graceful new cemetery, at no great distance from it,
though yet unfinished, has already many graves among its
shrubs and flowers, and airy colonnades. It might be
reasonably objected elsewhere, that some of the tombs are
meretricious and too fanciful ; but the general brightness
seems to justify it here ; and Mount Vesuvius, separated from
them by a lovely slope of ground, exalts and saddens the

If it be solemn to behold from this new City of the Dead,
with its dark smoke hanging in the clear sky, how much
more awful and impressive is it, viewed from the ghostly
ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii !

Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii,
and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of
Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost
sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright
and snowy in the peaceful distance ; and lose all count of time,
and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy
sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making
this quiet picture in the sun. Then, ramble on, and see, at
every turn, the little familar tokens of human habitation and"
every-day pursuits ; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the
stone rim of the exhausted well ; the track of carriage-wheels
in the pavement of the street ; the marks of drinking-vessels
on the stone counter of the wine-shop ; the amphorae in
private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and
undisturbed to this hour all rendering the solitude and
deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more
solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city
from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea.

After it was shaken by the earthquake which preceded the
eruption, workmen were employed in shaping out, in stone,


new ornaments for temples and other buildings that had
suffered. Here lies their work, outside the city gate, as if
they would return to-morrow.

In the cellar of Diomede^s house, where certain skeletons
were found huddled together, close to the door, the impression
of their bodies on the ashes, hardened with the ashes, and
became stamped and fixed there, after they had shrunk,
inside, to scanty bones. So, in the theatre of Herculaneum,
a comic mask, floating on the stream when it was hot and
liquid, stamped its mimic features in it as it hardened into
stone; and now, it turns upon the stranger the fantastic
look it turned upon the audiences in that same theatre two
thousand years ago.

Next to the wonder of going up and down the streets, and
in and out of the houses, and traversing the secret chambers
of the temples of a religion that has vanished from the earth,
and finding so many fresh traces of remote antiquity : as if
the course of Time had been stopped after this desolation,
and there had been no nights and days, months, years, and
centuries, since : nothing is more impressive and terrible than
the many evidences of the searching nature of the ashes, as
bespeaking their irresistible power, and the impossibility of
escaping them. In the wine-cellars, they forced their way
into the earthen vessels: displacing the wine and choking
them, to the brim, with dust. In the tombs, they forced the
ashes of the dead from the funeral urns, and rained new
ruin even into them. The mouths, and eyes, and skulls of
all the skeletons, were stuffed with this terrible hail. In
Herculaneum, where the flood was of a different and a
heavier kind, it rolled in, like a sea. Imagine a deluge of
water turned to marble, at its height and that is what is
called "the lava 1 ' here.

Some workmen were digging the gloomy well on the brink
of which we now stand, looking down, when they came on
some of the stone benches of the theatre those steps (for
such they seem) at the bottom of the excavation and found


the buried city of Herculaneum. Presently going down, with
lighted torches, we are perplexed by great walls of monstrous
thickness, rising up between the benches, shutting out the
stage, obtruding their shapeless forms in absurd places,
confusing the whole plan, and making it a disordered dream.
We cannot, at first, believe, or picture to ourselves, that THIS
came rolling in, and drowned the city; and that all that is
not here, has been cut away, by the axe, like solid stone.
But this perceived and understood, the horror and oppression
of its presence are indescribable.

Many of the paintings on the walls in the roofless chambers
of both cities, or carefully removed to the museum at Naples,
are as fresh and plain, as if they had been executed yesterday.
Here are subjects of still life, as provisions, dead game, bottles,
glasses, and the like ; familiar classical stories, or mytho-
logical fables, always forcibly and plainly told ; conceits of
cupids, quarrelling, sporting, working at trades ; theatrical
rehearsals ; poets reading their productions to their friends ;
inscriptions chalked upon the walls ; political squibs, advertise-
ments, rough drawings by schoolboys ; everything to people
and restore the ancient cities, in the fancy of their wondering
visitor. Furniture, too, you see, of every kind lamps, tables,
couches ; vessels for eating, drinking, and cooking ; workmen's
tools, surgical instruments, tickets for the theatre, pieces of
money, personal ornaments, bunches of keys found clenched
in the grasp of skeletons, helmets of guards and warriors ;
little household bells, yet musical with their old domestic

The least among these objects, lends its aid to swell the
interest of Vesuvius, and invest it with a perfect fascination.
The looking, from either ruined city, into the neighbouring-
grounds overgrown with beautiful vines and luxuriant trees ;
and remembering that house upon house, temple on temple,
building after building, and street after street, are still lying
underneath the roots of all the quiet cultivation, waiting to
be turned up to the light of day ; is something so wonderful,


so full of mystery, so captivating to the imagination, that one
would think it would be paramount, and yield to nothing
else. To nothing but Vesuvius; but the mountain is the
genius of the scene. From every indication of the ruin it has
worked, we look, again, with an absorbing interest to where
its smoke is rising up into the sky. It is beyond us, as we
thread the ruined streets : above us, as we stand upon the
ruined walls ; we follow it through every vista of broken
columns, as we wander through the empty court-yards of the
houses ; and through the garlandings and interlacings of every
wanton vine. Turning away to Paestum yonder, to see the
awful structures built, the least aged of them, hundreds of
years before the birth of Christ, and standing yet, erect in
lonely majesty, upon the wild, malaria-blighted plain we
watch Vesuvius as it disappears from the prospect, and watch
for it again, on our return, with the same thrill of interest :
as the doom and destiny of all this beautiful country, biding
its terrible time.

It is very warm in the sun, on this early spring-day, when
we return from Paestum, but very cold in the shade : inso-
much, that although we may lunch, pleasantly, at noon, in
the open air, by the gate of Pompeii, the neighbouring
rivulet supplies thick ice for our wine. But, the sun is
shining brightly ; there is not a cloud or speck of vapour in
the whole blue sky, looking down upon the bay of Naples;
and the moon will be at the full to-night. No matter that
the snow and ice lie thick upon the summit of Vesuvius, or
that we have been on foot all day at Pompeii, or that croakers
maintain that strangers should not be on the mountain by
night, in such an unusual season. Let us take advantage of
the fine weather ; make the best of our way to Resina, the
little village at the foot of the mountain ; prepare ourselves,
as well as we can, on so short a notice, at the guide's house ;
ascend at once, and have sunset half-way up, moon-light at
the top, and midnight to come down in !

At four o'clock in the afternoon, there is a terrible uproar


in the little stable-yard of Signior Salvatore, the recognised
head-guide, with the gold band round his cap; and thirty
under-guides who are all scuffling and screaming at once, are
preparing half-a-dozen saddled ponies, three litters, and some
stout staves, for the journey. Every one of the thirty,
quarrels with the other twenty-nine, and frightens the six
ponies ; and as much of the village as can possibly squeeze
itself into the little stable-yard, participates in the tumult,
and gets trodden on by the cattle.

After much violent skirmishing, and more noise than
would suffice for the storming of Naples, the procession starts.
The head-guide, who is liberally paid for all the attendants,
rides a little in advance of the party ; the other thirty guides
proceed on foot. Eight go forward with the litters that are
to be used by-and-by ; and the remaining two-and-tvventy beg.

We ascend, gradually, by stony lanes like rough broad
nights of stairs, for some time. At length, we leave these,
and the vineyards on either side of them, and emerge upon a
bleak bare region where the lava lies confusedly, in enormous
rusty masses : as if the earth had been ploughed up by burn-
ing thunderbolts. And now, we halt to see the sun set.
The change that falls upon the dreary region, and on the
whole mountain, as its red light fades, and the night comes
on and the unutterable solemnity and dreariness that reign
around, who that has witnessed it, can ever forget !

It is dark, when after winding, for some time, over the
broken ground, we arrive at the foot of the cone : which is
extremely steep, and seems to rise, almost perpendicularly,
from the spot where we dismount. The only light is reflected
from the snow, deep, hard, and white, with which the cone is
covered. It is now intensely cold, and the air is piercing.
The thirty-one have brought no torches, knowing that the
moon will rise before we reach the top. Two of the litters
are devoted to the two ladies; the third, to a rather heavy
gentleman from Naples, whose hospitality and good-nature
have attached him to the expedition, and determined him to


assist in doing the honours of the mountain. The rather
heavy gentleman is earned by fifteen men ; each of the ladies
by half-a-dozen. We who walk, make the best use of our
staves ; and so the whole party begin to labour upward over
the snow, as if they were toiling to the summit of an ante-
diluvian Twelfth-cake.

We are a long time toiling up ; and the head-guide looks
oddly about him when one of the company not an Italian,
though an habitue' of the mountain for many years : whom
we will call, for our present purpose, Mr. Pickle of Portici
suggests that, as it is freezing hard, and the usual footing of
ashes is covered by the snow and ice, it will surely be difficult
to descend. But the sight of the litters above, tilting up and
down, and jerking from this side to that, as the bearers con-
tinually slip and tumble, diverts our attention ; more especially
as the whole length of the rather heavy gentleman is, at that
moment, presented to us alarmingly foreshortened, with his
head downwards.

The rising of the moon soon afterwards, revives the flagging
spirits of the bearers. Stimulating each other with their
usual watchword, " Courage, friend ! It is to eat maccaroni ! "
they press on, gallantly, for the summit.

From tingeing the top of the snow above us, with a band
of light, and pouring it in a stream through the valley below,
while we have been ascending in the dark, the moon soon
lights the whole white mountain-side, and the broad sea down
below, and tiny Naples in the distance, and every village in
the country round. The whole prospect is in this lovely state,
when we come upon the platform on the mountain-top the
region of Fire an exhausted crater formed of great masses of
gigantic cinders, like blocks of stone from some tremendous
waterfall, burnt up ; from every chink and crevice of which,
hot, sulphurous smoke is pouring out : while, from another
conical-shaped hill, the present crater, rising abruptly from
this platform at the end, great sheets of fire are streaming
forth: reddening the night with flame, blackening it with


smoke, and spotting it with red-hot stones and cinders, that
fly up into the air like feathers, and fall down like lead.
What words can paint the gloom and grandeur of this
scene !

The broken ground ; the smoke ; the sense of suffocation
from the sulphur; the fear of falling down through the
crevices in the yawning ground ; the stopping, every now and
then, for somebody who is missing in the dark (for the dense
smoke now obscures the moon) ; the intolerable noise of the
thirty ; and the hoarse roaring of the mountain ; make it a
scene of such confusion, at the same time, that we reel again.
But, dragging the ladies through it, and across another
exhausted crater to the foot of the present Volcano, we
approach close to it on the windy side, and then sit down
among the hot ashes at its foot, and look up in silence;
faintly estimating the action that is going on within, from
its being full a hundred feet higher, at this minute, than it
was six weeks ago.

There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an
irresistible desire to get nearer to it. We cannot rest long,
without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees,
accompanied by the head-guide, to climb to the brim of the
flaming crater, and try to look in. Meanwhile, the thirty
yell, as with one voice, that it is a dangerous proceeding, and
call to us to come back ; frightening the rest of the party
out of their wits.

What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the
thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath
our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is
the real danger, if there be any) ; and what with the flashing
of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that
is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulphur; we
may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But,
we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a
moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all
three come rolling down ; blackened, and singed, and scorched,


and hot, and giddy : and each with his dress alight in half-
a-dozen places.

You have read, a thousand times, that the usual way of
descending, is, by sliding down the ashes : which, forming a
gradually-increasing ledge below the feet, prevent too rapid
a descent. But, when we have crossed the two exhausted
craters on our way back, and are come to this precipitous
place, there is (as Mr. Pickle has foretold) no vestige of ashes
to be seen ; the whole being a smooth sheet of ice.

In this dilemma, ten or a dozen of the guides cautiously
join hands, and make a chain of men ; of whom the foremost
beat, as well as they can, a rough track with their sticks,
down which we prepare to follow. The way being fearfully
steep, and none of the party : even of the thirty : being able
to keep their feet for six paces together, the ladies are taken
out of their litters, and placed, each between two careful
persons ; while others of the thirty hold by their skirts, to
prevent their falling forward a necessary precaution, tending
to the immediate and hopeless dilapidation of their apparel.
The rather heavy gentleman is abjured to leave his litter
too, and be escorted in a similar manner ; but he resolves to
be brought down as he was brought up, on the principle
that his fifteen bearers are not likely to tumble all at once,
and that he is safer so, than trusting to his own legs.

In this order, we begin the descent: sometimes on foot,
sometimes shuffling on the ice : always proceeding much more
quietly and slowly, than on our upward way : and constantly
alarmed by the falling among us of somebody from behind,
who endangers the footing of the whole party, and clings
pertinaciously to anybody's ankles. It is impossible for the
litter to be in advance, too, as the track has to be made;
and its appearance behind us, overhead with some one or
other of the bearers always down, and the rather heavy
gentleman with his legs always in the air is very threatening
and frightful. We have gone on thus, a very little way,
painfully and anxiously, but quite merrily, and regarding it


as a great success and have all fallen several times, and
have all been stopped, somehow or other, as we were sliding
away when Mr. Pickle of Portici, in the act of remarking on
these uncommon circumstances as quite beyond his experience,
stumbles, falls, disengages himself, with quick presence of
mind, from those about him, plunges away head foremost,
and rolls, over and over, down the whole surface of the cone !

Sickening as it is to look, and be so powerless to help him,
I see him there, in the moonlight I have had such a dream
often skimming over the white ice, like a cannon-ball.
Almost at the same moment, there is a cry from behind ;
and a man who has carried a light basket of spare cloaks
on his head, comes rolling past, at the same frightful speed,
closely followed by a boy. At this climax of the chapter of
accidents, the remaining eight-and-twenty vociferate to that
degree, that a pack of wolves would be music to them !

Giddy, and bloody, and a mere bundle of rags, is Pickle
of Portici when we reach the place where we dismounted,
and where the horses are waiting; but, thank God, sound
in limb ! And never are we likely to be more glad to see a
man alive and on his feet, than to see him now making light
of it too, though sorely bruised and in great pain. The boy
is brought into the Hermitage on the Mountain, while we
are at supper, with his head tied up ; and the man is heard
of, some hours afterwards. He too is bruised and stunned,
but has broken no bones ; the snow having, fortunately,
covered all the larger blocks of rock and stone, and rendered
them harmless.

After a cheerful meal, and a good rest before a blazing
fire, we again take horse, and continue our descent to Salva-
ge's house very slowly, by reason of our bruised friend
being hardly able to keep the saddle, or endure the pain of
motion. Though it is so late at night, or early in the morn-
ing, all the people of the village are waiting about the little
stable-yard when we arrive, and looking up the road by which
we are expected. Our appearance is hailed with a great


clamour of tongues, and a general sensation for which in our
modesty we are somewhat at a loss to account, until, turning
into the yard, we find that one of a party of French gentle-
men who were on the mountain at the same time is lying
on some straw in the stable, with a broken limb: looking
like Death, and suffering great torture; and that we were
confidently supposed to have encountered some worse accident.

So " well returned, and Heaven be praised ! " as the cheerful
Vetturino, who has borne us company all the way from Pisa,
says, with all his heart ! And away with his ready horses,
into sleeping Naples !

It wakes again to Policinelli and pickpockets, buffo singers
and beggars, rags, puppets, flowers, brightness, dirt, and
universal degradation ; airing its Harlequin suit in the sun-
shine, next day and every day ; singing, starving, dancing,
gaming, on the sea-shore ; and leaving all labour to the burn-
ing mountain, which is ever at its work.

Our English dilettanti would be very pathetic on the
subject of the national taste, if they could hear an Italian
opera half as badly sung in England as we may hear the
Foscari performed, to-night, in the splendid theatre of San
Carlo. But, for astonishing truth and spirit in seizing and
embodying the real life about it, the shabby little San Carlino
Theatre the rickety house one story high, with a staring
picture outside : down among the drums and trumpets, and
the tumblers, and the lady conjurer is without a rival any-

There is one extraordinary feature in the real life of Naples,
at which we may take a glance before we go the Lotteries.

They prevail in most parts of Italy, but are particularly
obvious, in their effects and influences, hero. They are drawn
every Saturday. They bring an immense revenue to the

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 41 of 43)