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   Chapter 4 No.4

Italian Journeys By William Dean Howells Characters: 7408

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The plans of nearly all the houses in the city are alike: the entrance-room next the door; the parlor or drawing-room next that; then the impluvium, or unroofed space in the middle of the house, where the rains were caught and drained into the cistern, and where the household used to come to wash itself, primitively, as at a pump; the little garden, with its painted columns, behind the impluvium, and, at last, the dining-room. There are minute bed-chambers on either side, and, as I said, a shop at one side in front, for the sale of the master's grain, wine, and oil. The pavements of all the houses are of mosaic, which, in the better sort, is very delicate and beautiful, and is found sometimes perfectly uninjured. An exquisite pattern, often repeated, is a ground of tiny cubes of white marble with dots of black dropped regularly into it. Of course there were many picturesque and fanciful designs, of which the best have been removed to the Museum in Naples; but several good ones are still left, and (like that of the Wild Boar) give names to the houses in which they are found.

But, after all, the great wonder, the glory, of these Pompeian houses is in their frescos. If I tried to give an idea of the luxury of color in Pompeii, the most gorgeous adjectives would be as poorly able to reproduce a vivid and glowing sense of those hues as the photography which now copies the drawing of the decorations; so I do not try.

I know it is a cheap and feeble thought, and yet, let the reader please to consider: A workman nearly two thousand years laying upon the walls those soft lines that went to make up fauns and satyrs, nymphs and naiads, heroes and gods and goddesses; and getting weary and lying down to sleep, and dreaming of an eruption of the mountain; of the city buried under a fiery hail, and slumbering in its bed of ashes seventeen centuries; then of its being slowly exhumed, and, after another lapse of years, of some one coming to gather the shadow of that dreamer's work upon a plate of glass, that he might infinitely reproduce it and sell it to tourists at from five francs to fifty centimes a copy-I say, consider such a dream, dreamed in the hot heart of the day, after certain cups of Vesuvian wine! What a piece of Katzenj?mmer (I can use no milder term) would that workman think it when he woke again! Alas! what is history and the progress of the arts and sciences but one long Katzenj?mmer!

Photography cannot give, any more than I, the colors of the frescos, but it can do the drawing better, and, I suspect, the spirit also. I used the word workman, and not artist, in speaking of the decoration of the walls, for in most cases the painter was only an artisan, and did his work probably by the yard, as the artisan who paints walls and ceilings in Italy does at this day. But the old workman did his work much more skillfully and tastefully than the modern-threw on expanses of mellow color, delicately paneled off the places for the scenes, and penciled in the figures and draperies (there are usually more of the one than the other) with a deft hand. Of course, the houses of the rich were adorned by men of talent; but it is surprising to see the community of thought and feeling in all this work, whether it be from cunninger or clumsier hands. The subjects are nearly always chosen from the fables of the gods, and they are in illustration of the poets, Homer and the rest. To suit that soft, luxurious life which people led in Pompeii, the themes are commonly amorous, and sometimes not too chaste; there is much of Bacchus and Ariadne, much of Venus and Adonis, and Diana bathes a good deal with her nymphs,-not to mention frequent representations o

f the toilet of that beautiful monster which the lascivious art of the time loved to depict. One of the most pleasing of all the scenes is that in one of the houses, of the Judgment of Paris, in which the shepherd sits upon a bank in an attitude of ineffable and flattered importance, with one leg carelessly crossing the other, and both hands resting lightly on his shepherd's crook, while the goddesses before him await his sentence. Naturally the painter has done his best for the victress in this rivalry, and you see

"Idalian Aphrodite beautiful,"

as she should be, but with a warm and piquant spice of girlish resentment in her attitude, that Paris should pause for an instant, which is altogether delicious.

"And I beheld great Here's angry eyes."

Awful eyes! How did the painter make them? The wonder of all these pagan frescos is the mystery of the eyes-still, beautiful, unhuman. You cannot believe that it is wrong for those tranquil-eyed men and women to do evil, they look so calm and so unconscious in it all; and in the presence of the celestials, as they bend upon you those eternal orbs, in whose regard you are but a part of space, you feel that here art has achieved the unearthly. I know of no words in literature which give a sense (nothing gives the idea) of the stare of these gods, except that magnificent line of Kingsley's, describing the advance over the sea toward Andromeda of the oblivious and unsympathizing Nereids. They floated slowly up, and their eyes

"Stared on her, silent and still, like the eyes in the house of the idols."

The colors of this fresco of the Judgment of Paris are still so fresh and bright, that it photographs very well, but there are other frescos wherein there is more visible perfection of line, but in which the colors are so dim that they can only be reproduced by drawings. One of these is the Wounded Adonis cared for by Venus and the Loves; in which the story is treated with a playful pathos wonderfully charming. The fair boy leans in the languor of his hurt toward Venus, who sits utterly disconsolate beside him, while the Cupids busy themselves with such slight surgical offices as Cupids may render: one prepares a linen bandage for the wound, another wraps it round the leg of Adonis, another supports one of his heavy arms, another finds his own emotions too much for him and pauses to weep. It is a pity that the colors of this beautiful fresco are grown so dim, and a greater pity that most of the other frescos in Pompeii must share its fate, and fade away. The hues are vivid when the walls are first uncovered, and the ashes washed from the pictures, but then the malice of the elements begins anew, and rain and sun draw the life out of tints which the volcano failed to obliterate. In nearly all cases they could be preserved by throwing a roof above the walls, and it is a wonder that the Government does not take this slight trouble to save them.

Among the frescos which told no story but their own, we were most pleased with one in a delicately painted little bed-chamber. This represented an alarmed and furtive man, whom we at once pronounced The Belated Husband, opening a door with a night-latch. Nothing could have been better than this miserable wretch's cowardly haste and cautious noiselessness in applying his key; apprehension sat upon his brow, confusion dwelt in his guilty eye. He had been out till two o'clock in the morning, electioneering for Pansa, the friend of the people ("Pansa, and Roman gladiators," "Pansa, and Christians to the Beasts," was the platform), and he had left his placens uxor at home alone with the children, and now within this door that placens uxor awaited him!

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