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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Naples and Vesuvius

By Edgar Quinet (1803–1875)

From ‘Italy’: Translation of Jane Grosvenor Cooke

WHEN I reached Naples, Vesuvius was in full eruption. During the day the lava rolled its black streams on the side of the Annunziata and Pompeii. Toward evening the torrents changed into a burning belt tying and untying itself in the darkness. I impatiently awaited the morrow, in order to climb to the edge of the crater in the middle of the night.

At eight in the evening I started from the little town of Torre del Greco. After an hour’s walk I arrived at the hermitage. The night was very black. I lighted my torch; the hermit wished me a pleasant journey; I went on my way with my guide, and soon reached the foot of the cone.

At that distance I was too near the volcano to see it; but I heard over my head explosions which the echoes magnified formidably, and a rain of stones rolling in the darkness. From this tempest issued a great sigh, like that of a giant who is stoned. The wind put out my torch. I finished my ascent in total darkness. But just as I reached the summit, an infernal light illumined the sky. Behold the spectacle which I had then before me.

The earth trembled; it was warm to the touch. Through its fissures shone the fiery veins of a hidden furnace. In the midst of the great crater to which I had come, a new cone was forming which seemed all in flames. From the mouth of this gulf was exhaled a vast and long-sustained breath. This sigh, and a profound and regular respiration like that of a forge, rose from the bosom of the oppressed mountain. A terrible detonation followed them. Flaming stones were cast in groups beyond our vision, and rattled down noisily on the edges of the cone. For an instant the steep sides and the interior of the abyss were lighted as in broad day.

Lava was issuing from the ground by openings distant from the crater. It rolled crackling from four mouths. Soon afterward the mountain uttered another giant sigh. Glancing toward the sea at the moment of the explosion, I saw distinctly little boats at anchor.

The mountain trembled still more; but the waves were not affected, and nothing seemed to me more beautiful than the sleep of the sea, smiling under the unchained volcano. The Bay of Naples resembled thus Ariosto’s Angelica under the jaws and outstretched wings of the Chimera.

I sat down upon the trembling ground; nature was seized with a vertigo to which I abandoned myself with delight. The intervals in quick succession of noise and silence, of light and darkness, the calm of the night, the calm not less great of the sea, this mountain shaken by starts,—all these contrary effects were strengthened the one by the other. Without seeking why, I found in this spectacle a host of images applicable to the moral state in which I then was, and which had strongly prevailed since my departure from Rome. I passed the night on the summit. When day appeared, I was able to enjoy at my leisure the view of the famous gulf which lay at my feet. In the distance, the island of Capri, which is shaped like an ancient galley, closed the entrance to the sea. The sun rose from the other side of Pompeii; it hovered some time over the tombs like a funeral torch. This was the signal for a multitude of little barks to leave shore and hoist sail. I heard at that moment the noise of the awakening towns and villages. The vines interlaced in the poplars, like gigantic thyrsi, began to shiver under the sea breeze; an instant later the light sparkled on the ruffled waves; a golden vapor like the dust of stars rose from the horizon; the air became charged with perfumes. All nature seemed intoxicated as in a pagan festival; and as long as the volcano continued agitated, this Christian Campania resembled the Sibyl hesitating on her stand.

In Naples, the city of passions, I observe that the most considerable monuments of art are the tombs. Moreover, these tombs nearly all belong to the epoch of Spanish domination. The dead, upright on their mausoleums, torch or dagger in hand, are sustained by a singular pride: they seem still to rule over the living, who pass lightly with furtive step over the soil below them. The towers of Anjou, bathed by the sea, hold also this captive earth. The palace of Jeanne la Folle, abandoned to the waves which are every day seizing upon it, the beautiful arch of Aragon, are other witnesses of the conquest. All the nations have left the traces of their rule here in a particular architecture. Only the Neapolitans are absent from the monuments of Naples.

This mimic people warms itself in the sun. It alone of all Italy has never belonged to itself. Without a past, it has no regrets; without a near future, it has no desire. It cries, it gesticulates, it spreads its nets, it runs, it declaims, it muses, it menaces,—and all that at once. Polichinel is its hero.

Yet when a soul chances to awaken from the bosom of this mendicant sybarism, it is exalted in spiritualism or armed with boundless energy. Pythagoras and his school, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vico, Spagnoletto, Salvator Rosa, were strange lazzaroni.

Toward the middle of the day, sailors from Chia, from Sicily, from Malta, seat themselves in a circle on the pier; a sail shades the audience, which impatiently awaits the improvisator. At last he appears; he is dressed in sailor’s fustian; in his hand he carries a switch instead of the laurel branch of his ancestors. The eyes of the lazzaroni devour his lips in anticipation of the story he is going to narrate. Sometimes he sings in a hoarse voice a recitative with a plaintive modulation, which mingles with the sighing of the vessels in port; sometimes he descends to spoken prose, according to the nature and the more or less lyric circumstances of his narration. He recounts the deeds of the knight Rinaldo, or those of an unfortunate brigand of Calabria. The noble public doubles its attention; the climax is at hand: but behold, the bells sound the Ave: the singer stops short; he makes the sign of the cross with a prayer in the name of the virtuous assembly. Beside him the same Olympian sun which grazes Virgil’s tomb, gilds with a last ray the brow of Polichinel sleeping at the corner of his theatre. The sail goes down, the crowd disperses on all sides; one day more has passed over the empire of Masaniello.

Meanwhile the young monk of Camaldules, on the mountain, hears at his feet the murmurs rising from the shore. A thousand images of pagan voluptuousness surround him with a circle of damnation. He goes into his cell and prays; and the breeze bears to him the sighs of Chia and Villa-Reale. He opens his holy breviary, and the demon resuscitated from Greece writes upon it playfully, with the end of his claw, litanies of love. Over him bend magic skies; enchantments fasten to his scapulary; from his chalice he quaffs long draughts of the philtre of inexorable regrets. He is fortunate if old age chills his heart prematurely. Only death can deliver him from these cruel delights.

Ah! above all, let him incase himself in triple haircloth when his eyes meet Posilipo, Capri, and white Nisida: for it is there that memories are forgotten, and vows falsified; heroic projects, fruitful sorrows, are forgotten under those skies which rain love. A voluptuousness more dangerous than befits human lips escapes continually from the mountains, the lakes, the quivering stars. Impalpable sirens languish under the sleeping waves; he only who has escaped their embraces can count on his thick armor.

When the Romans grew corrupt, they became disgusted with the grandeur and severity of Rome. They sought a nature intoxicated as they were, monstrous as they were. If they had been able to tear Rome from its sad and serious foundations they would have done so. The mixture of voluptuousness and terror they were seeking in the time of Tiberius, of Nero, of Caligula, was found on the promontories of Capri and Miseno. There they came to establish their feasts, and to enjoy in peace, in that pagan nature, the last days of paganism.

The villas of Cæsar on the Gulf of Baiæ were close beside Lake Avernus and Lake Acherus, the Elysian Fields, the entrance to the infernal regions,—as though they wished to redouble the insolence of their festivity by this opposition. This great revel of Roman society a few steps from Acheron was the banquet of the ancient Don Juan at the commander’s. Little lakes, adjoining the infernal regions, shone in the depths of extinct craters as in cups of lava; on their margins climbed faded garlands of eglantine, poor blossoms which survived the orgy of the empire.

Christianity, which everywhere in Italy has seized upon pagan ruins to replace them with its chapels or hermitages, has abandoned these, as though despairing of stifling the reviving voluptuousness. I ascended Cape Miseno; the infernal trumpets which from this direction troubled Nero’s sleep, no longer sounded; the beach was silent; the empty gulf stretched its gaunt arms out in the shadows. It was late. The sea was phosphorescent, the stars were shining. I swam part of the way from Miseno to Pozzuoli in the midst of ringing bells. The pale light of the moon mingled with the electric light of the waves; they alone still guarded the souvenir of imperial pleasures.