Naples:life,death & Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews


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"Through the eyes of..."

(This is an excerpt from an unsigned article in Harper's, New Monthly Magazine, vol. XI. Jun-Nov 1855. The article is entitled "A Day at Pompeii" and is much longer than this excerpt. I have included the author's general description and impressions on Naples to the point in the text where he decides to leave for Pompeii. I have added the photo.)


A Day at Pompeii

What traveler fails to associate with Naples a laughing sky, a bounteous soil, a smiling sea—in short, that happy combination of elements which, making up our idea of a terrestrial paradise, ever beckons us to approach and pluck its fruits of enjoyment? The ancients sought to secure this coveted happiness by the discovery of the "Fortunate Islands." Their descendants, still more eager and worldly, not contented with the prodigality of Nature in a climate more favored than Plato ever imagined, have worried science and research in the futile effort to detect the elixir of life, or discover the fountain of youth, that they might drink of the one or bathe in the other and live forever on the earth. But there are certain secrets that Nature seems determined to keep), although constantly flattering us that she is upon the point of disclosing the coveted mysteries. Among them is the common delusion of a " good climate"—an atmospherical Eden, which is neither too hot nor too cold, too damp nor too dry, and, opening every pore to sensuous delight, we would be content to pronounce it "just right." Having tried a greater variety of climates than is the usual lot of man, I am satisfied that while all have their good points, there is none perfect. The only sure rule of enjoyment is "to make hay while the sun shines," and not to believe that because Dame Nature smiles today she will tomorrow. She is a coquette from principle, and often fascinates but the more speedily to disappoint.

She smiles so sweetly, however, upon Naples, when she does smile, that one is, as it were, subdued into enjoyment, in spite of human nature and its thousand ills and wayward humors. Her fine days are absolutely borrowed from Paradise. The atmosphere absolutely becomes an elixir of health and fountain of happiness. The soul is not beguiled into that dreamy languor, so fatal to exertion in the tropics, but it nerves the body to active pleasure and grateful emotions. Like the lark, one longs to soar and sing in the sparkling sunlight, receiving health and bliss in each expansion of wing. The ripe fruit, however, does not drop into the lap, but it must be plucked. Hence, in a temperature like that of Naples arises that superior happiness which results from the equal stimulus and employment of both mind and body under circumstances the most favorable, so far as God's works are concerned, for the perfect development of life—life in the sense of blissful existence, where every breath is pleasure, and every pulsation joy.

Yet Naples is sadly capricious, notwithstanding her largess of delights. She gives, but she exacts also. The scorching sirocco shrinks pores and strangles the mind. It is a fiery furnace, in which every previous atmospherical sense of enjoyment is consumed by slow torture. The reaction in the nervous system is terrible. Africa, by one blast of her breath, revenges a thousand wrongs. I know nothing in the whole range of winds more soul-subduing, body-famishing, than the sirocco. It wilts, it shrinks, it parches, it enfeebles; it irritates, it pinches, it pricks, it tickles; it is an amalgam of melancholy and imbecility, the subtlest medium for low spirits ever let loose upon egotistical man, and yields to no exorcism save that of a shift of the weather-cock.


The eccentricities of weather tend, I believe, to make Naples what it really is, a city of paradoxes. Its subtle influences affect the national character, and give it a composite element of seeming eccentricities. One is equally eager to arrive and to leave; both emotions have their pleasurable associations.  Naples, after Rome, is like a resurrection from the grave to the world. Here we find life in its active sense. London life is a dull, plodding, staid, wearisome life; forms and shams—much eating and loud speaking are its elements. New York life is a commercial whirlpool; "to get" is written on every man's brow; the weak are swallowed up, while the strong splash, and toss, and foam upon the broad current of Mammon. Paris life is a refined, sensuous emotion, selfish but courteous —a graceful flowing of the stream of pleasure toward the precipice of death. Naples life is deviltry itself. It is at once the busiest and idlest city of them all, overflowing with merriment while steeped in misery; with the most glitter it exhibits the most rags; and from beauty to ugliness there is but one step, which forms the bridge of contrast; and these external contrasts, joined to virtues and vices of equally opposite degrees, are in general concentrated in every individual inhabitant.

Electrify these extremes by the active affinities of life, quickened into intensity by a climate which gives, as it were, an additional sense of pleasure or pain to every passion or emotion, and we have the veritable Neapolitan, the real child of the Sun—at once the most indolent and most active, the most vivacious and the most taciturn, the best humored and most revengeful, the most cunning and the most frank, the greatest vagabond and the best fellow—all things to all men; quick-witted, sagacious, begging, specious, hypocritical, superstitious, lying, droll, amiable, talking with double-tongue power, and gesticulating specimen of humanity extant. To complete the paradox, because Nature has been to them overbountiful, they want but little besides her sun-shine.

Naples is frightfully busy; the stir in the streets is most extraordinary. Even the fleas must be endowed with extra hopping powers to get a bite, so quick and restless is this population, unless they see fit to slumber, when they partake themselves to the apathy of death. A stranger is tempted to ask, What the deuce is all this noise and shouting about? The very dust seems endued with a portion of this mercurial activity. There are no commerce, war, elections, or protracted meetings—in fact, it seems as if there were nothing to do, and yet a more vigorous doing-nothing no population can display. One would suppose that the city was each day either upon the point of being taken by storm, or had laid siege to itself. The clang of the trumpet, the rub-a-dub of the drum, and the tramp of uniformed men, regiment after regiment, are heard at every corner, while batteries of grim guns point through the squares, and rake the principal streets. Above them, below them, and around them, the Neapolitans are girt with volcanic fires, and a cordon of gunpowder and steel.


Daily, in their midst, do they see the tender mercies of their government displayed by troops of their fellow-citizens, clad in galley costume, and heavily chained together in couples by their arms and legs, followed by hireling soldiers, as they are driven like cattle to their repulsive labors. These are simply criminals in law—criminals in politics are withdrawn from even the semblance of human sympathy, and in irons, starvation, and solitude, banished to unwholesome dungeons, to expiate, in protracted torture of mind and body, the crime of patriotism. From prisons blackened with the misery of ages and battered by time, through strong and thick-set iron bars, despite the terrors of a tyrant-drilled soldiery, famishing, hardened wretches stretch their gaunt arms, and, with mingled ribaldry and blasphemy, demand charity, or mock the freedom of their former associates, who, with strange fascination, sun themselves beside the walls of these sepulchers of human virtue and liberty.

Elsewhere the apparatus of tyranny is masked, but in Naples it stands forth as prominent as Vesuvius, bristling with horrors like an infernal machine. Yet the Neapolitans laugh and sing, work or doze, as the impulse seizes them, as reckless of these evidences of their degradation as if they were intended solely for the inhabitants of another sphere, and not for themselves, their wives, and their little ones. Their climate is to them meat and drink, raiment and liberty. At once the results and supports of a political tyranny and religions despotism that recalls the darkest ages, they will continue to bask contentedly in the mire of ignorance and slavery until some new Massaniello fires their passions, or education awakens in them the loftier hopes and desires of humanity.

To enjoy Naples, one should not think. Its mocking joys and stores of fun come really home only in the perfect abandon of its life. To float on its current, and not to dive, is the rule for enjoyment. Yet the hour of satiety, even of pleasure, is not slow to come. A perpetual grin is fatiguing, dust is choking, and noise is stunning. Disgust is apt to poke its sardonic face through the mask of novelty, so that what one not to the manor bred and born at first found amusing, begins at last to be wearisome. Now, as in the days of the Pharaohs, the skeleton will appear unbidden at the feast.


Besides, there are some ingredients in a Neapolitan crowd rather unprofitable than otherwise both to purse and morals. Pimps importune with a pertinacity peculiarly Neapolitan, reciting a tariff for every feminine charm and masculine vice; beggars whine, extort, and turn the public walks into pathological museums for the exhibition of sores and deformity. But the most amusing and successful of the street leeches are the pickpockets. A thief in Naples is a hero. The public make way for him to escape, and close up against his pursuer. I had my pocket picked almost as soon as I entered the street—an event which, in fifteen years' travel, had happened but once before. A friend of mine rarely was able to keep a handkerchief through a promenade. In self-defense, he took to the cheapest cotton. As he was stepping into his carriage, he missed, as usual, the article. At the same moment, he saw it thrown contemptuously toward him by one of the street gentry, who, amidst the jeers of the crowd, vented his disappointment by crying out, "Who would have thought a gentleman like him would have carried a pocket-handkerchief like that!!"

Then, too, one tires of seeing surfeited urchins swallow macaroni by the unbroken fathom at the rate of a copper a dish, for the amusement of the "forestierri"  who marvel at such gastronomic dexterity. Turning their heads they can see lazzaroni family groups amicably engaged in furnishing each member with food from their superfluous craniological stock—a process unfortunately common, and by no means a whet to a fastidious appetite. But the cruelest sight of all is the amount of work exacted from one little horse. An Italian no-where is by any means sensitive in his treatment of these animals. The whip is made to supply the deficiency of spirit even among gentlemen's studs. But Naples is the true purgatory of horseflesh. The horses here must possess some vital tenacity unknown elsewhere.

The Neapolitans, too, contrive to infuse some of their own devil-may-care hilarity even into their beasts, dressing them up with flowers, feathers, bells, and gay trappings, so that what with the shouting, laughter, jokes, and flogging of the party he draws, the poor brute seems really to be enjoying his holiday instead of doing the labor of four horses. A Neapolitan cabriolet is a "sight" of itself. Look, dear reader! This is no rare show. A medley of priest and woman, thief and peasant, beggar and bride, characteristic Neapolitans every soul of them, with a baby screaming for joy in the basket under the axle, twenty-one in all, over head and ears in frolic, with but one half-starved horse to shake them to their journey's end. They manage, too, to get a speed out of these quadruped victims that is really astonishing to pedestrians, and often puts them in no little danger of their limbs. I can compare one of these parties in full chorus only to a jovial war-whoop—one's hair stands on end as they dash by, and one laughs as if it were his last chance.

On an unimpeachable morning toward the end of April, when the weather was literally faultless, the air the breath of heaven itself, not a cloud to dim the lustre of a sky whose lucidity seemed to realize infinity, while the "Bay" slept tranquil under the balmiest of zephyrs, and the distant islands and headlands lay robed in translucency as if defying criticism—on such a day I awoke in Naples, satisfied, nay, disgusted with its chaos of sights and sounds, and cast about me for some quiet retreat where I might, if but for a few short hours, become oblivious to its soulless turmoil.

"Eureka." The dead city flashed on my mind. I have it! To Pompeii, then, I would go...


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