Dickens at Pompeii

Pompeii: one of the ruins that Vesuvius knocked about a bit.

On display at the exhibition Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum are some of the artefacts found beneath the ash of the ruined Roman city. Praised for its content – from jewellery to cookware, from frescoes to gladiatorial armour – and generally informative, it has been criticised for its presentation – variously described as bland, antiseptic, bereft of atmosphere, and pedestrian.

That’s as may be. But from excavations past and ongoing, the curators have selected some 200 beautifully preserved items to present a revealing and at times moving picture of life in what was a relatively minor Roman city made remarkable only by the circumstances of its destruction.

In fact, the inhabitants of Pompeii had long been used to living on the brink of disaster. Minor earthquakes were commonplace and Vesuvius had given warning of its instability on 5 February 62 when temples, houses, bridges, and roads were destroyed. However, it was only in AD 79 – probably on 23 November rather than in August (which used to be thought the date) – that the famous eruption took place, eventually burying the city in over four metres of ash.

The site was lost for about 1,500 years until it was rediscovered in 1599 when diggings for an underground channel to divert the river Sarno ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. Almost 150 years later partial excavations began under Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre.

Pompeii was a tourist destination for more than two centuries, and the exhibition noted that Charles Dickens visited it in 1844. He writes about it in Pictures from Italy (1846), which he calls “a series of faint reflections – mere shadows in the water – of places to which the imaginations of most people are attracted in a greater or lesser degree, on which mine had dwelt for years, and which have some interest for all.”

Palmer-PompeiiA few years before Dickens got there, the British painter Samuel Palmer (1805-81) spent two years in Italy on his honeymoon, when he made several watercolours of Pompeii. Dickens paints his own picture in three breathless pages, which include the following evocative passage:

“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 familiar 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 amphoræ 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.”

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