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Arria Marcella by Théophile Gautier

December 28, 2011 18 comments

Arria Marcella. Souvenir de Pompéi by Théophile Gautier. 1852

Cela produit un singulier effet d’entrer ainsi dans la vie antique et de fouler avec des bottes vernies des marbres usés par les sandales et les cothurnes des contemporains d’Auguste et de Tibère. It produces a strange impression to penetrate thus into the life of antiquity, and to walk in patent-leather boots upon the marble pavement worn by the sandals and cothurns of the contemporaries of Augutus and Tiberius.

I’ve been to the exhibition Pompeii, an art of living in Paris. It shows frescoes, mosaics, vases, statues and objects from everyday life in a Roman city of the 1st Century. Before visiting the exhibition, I had listened to an interview with an archeologist on France Inter; she explained that we’d rather live in a Roman house than in an 18thC mansion. Why? Because in Pompeii rich houses (that can be compared to mansions) had tap water, bathrooms and sewers. The Roman idea of hygiene was closer to ours than in Voltaire’s times—at least in France. I’ve always marveled at the Roman way of life, even if it was also brutal and cruel. Their civilization crumbled and disappeared within a few centuries and lots of their techniques were lost. I understand that the Christian societies fought against the ancient beliefs. What I don’t understand is why they needed to discard engineering, medicine and other useful knowledge as well. It makes me think about our civilization. Could it fall apart that easily? I guess it could.

Apart from the beautiful and so modern objects, the public could also see moldings of humans and dogs. In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli managed to pour plaster into the cavities left in the lava ashes by disintegrated bodies. We see the shapes of these men and dogs during their last moment, writhing with agony. It’s really moving. I’m often more touched by statues than by paintings. But this is totally different. It looks like a statue but it’s not, the model didn’t walk away. They died. It’s the three dimensional picture of agonies. Chilling. I stared for a while, unable to move, knowing I was gazing at the negative of people who had died in a catastrophe in 79.

Then I stumbled upon a sign explaining that Théophile Gautier had been so upset by the same kind of moldings that he wrote a short-story, Arria Marcella, Souvenir de Pompeii. I had to read it.

Three friends, Fabio, Max and Octavien visit a museum in Napoli. Among the vestiges from Pompeii, Octavien comes across a molding of a beautiful woman. He feels a connection with her and stays there, bewitched and upset. The three friends go to Pompeii, visit the site with a guide and come back to their lodgings. Sleepless, Octavien decides to pay a nightly visit to Pompeii. When he arrives in the ancient city, it seems intact and he’s taken back into 79. He goes to the theatre, hears Latin spoken as a living language, watches a play by Plautus, walks in the street and finds the woman from the museum. Alive.

Octavien has a Roman name, which reinforces the feeling he can only be connected to this ancient civilization. The usual French name is more Octave than Octavien. Théophile Gautier describes this time-travel experience with many details. It’s a pretext to resurrect Pompeii to our eyes and he manages extremely well. I was there. Perhaps my imagination was fueled by other readings and documentaries; perhaps it’s just his literary gift. Of course, in Gautier’s time, educated people knew a lot about Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. They learnt Latin, knew the writers and the history. But still, he captures the feeling we have when we visit old places, the conscience that men long times gone used to live there.

I tried to read Gautier once; it was Le Capitaine Fracasse and I abandoned it. Too pompous. This one isn’t pompous at all and makes me want to try something else by him. And now also I want to get to De Vita Caesarum (Twelve Caesars) by Suetonius which has been sitting on the shelves for a while. If anyone is interested in Ancient Rome, I’ve reviewed Ars Amatoria by Ovid and I highly recommend the crime fiction series Roma Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor.

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