Home > 19th Century, French Literature, Gautier Théophile, Short Stories > Arria Marcella by Théophile Gautier

Arria Marcella by Théophile Gautier

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. December 28, 2011 at 4:13 am

    So here we have a man captivated by mouldings as the man in Gabrielle de Bergerac is captivated by a painting. Some paintings seem to bring people to life while others don’t. I’ve seen some of those Pompeii relics, and yes I agree–very moving. I have several Gauthier items on my kindle, but I’ve yet to read him.

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    • December 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

      Yes, that’s it. It’s short, it’s worth reading.
      The dog was even more moving than the humans. Perhaps because I’ve –unfortunately– seen pictures of corpses from concentration camps or various massacres. (And the 20thC had been rife with massacres of all sorts) But the dog, caught in pain during his last breath, that was difficult.

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  2. December 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Gautier has written one of my favourite French books, Le roman de la momie. I loved it.
    I was in Pompei and it’s an eerie sight, these people frozen in their last moment. Of course, the dog got to me more than anything else.
    I also liked his La Vénus d’Ille. Maybe le Capitaine Fracasse isn’t his best, although one of his most famous ones.

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    • December 28, 2011 at 10:25 am

      I thought I’d read Le roman de la momie after this one. You’d probably like this one too.
      I’d love to visit Pompei and I totally understand the feeling Gautier describes in this short-story.
      I think La Vénus d’Ille is by Prosper Mérimée. I haven’t read it although lots of people read it in school.

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      • December 28, 2011 at 10:31 am

        Yes, you are right, of course. I often mix them up. Maybe some of the good books by Gautier were Merimée’s. 🙂

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        • December 28, 2011 at 10:34 am

          Mérimée is more read than Gautier, don’t you think? There’s been a lot about Gautier in the papers in 2011 as it was the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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  3. December 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I’ve never really read anything set in ancient Rome – it doesn’t seem a very common setting…

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    • December 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      From my experience:
      – try this short-story by Gautier, it’s incredible.
      – avoid Quo Vadis.
      – as mentioned in the review, read Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome by the American historian Steven Saylor. It’s excellent, well-written and full of descriptions of social rules, religions and political rules without being a lecture. The character is fictional but it’s based on real events.
      – try the French translation I’ve read of Ars Amatoria by Ovid. Some feelings and flirting techniques are timeless.

      I don’t know how it is for Great-Britain but for France, Ancient Rome still has an impact on our lives. Obviously, there’s the language. And classic theatre. (Molière’s play L’Avare is based on a play by Plautus). Here in Lyon or in Vienne, you can attend to shows in the ancient amphitheatre. (Very moving. Excellent acoustic. Patti Smith there, in a warm summer night is one of the best concerts I’ve seen) Napoleon was inspired by Roman laws for the Code Civil, which is still valid.

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  4. December 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I read Spirite by Gautier and really loved it. Actually now I think about it, I’ve read several of his tales of the fantastic, one about a vampire who leads a priest astray by coming back to life at night and taking him off with her to another, more thrilling world. I wish I could recall the title! I must look it up. But I’ve enjoyed what I read of him. The exhibit of the dead bodies is absolutely heartbreaking.

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    • December 28, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      The vampire story would be La Mort amoureuse. I’m curious now.
      Oh no, my TBR is growing again!

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  5. January 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Steven Saylor is excellent. I absolutely second that recommendation.

    I covered Gautier’s The Jinx over at mine and was very impressed by it. He’s an interesting writer. The first time I visited Herculaneum I remember the strangeness of it (my first visit to Pompeii was a disappointment as the guides back then wanted bribes to let you see stuff). We all know that what we know will be lost in dust, but to see it so literally.

    If you know them, the band Souxie and the Banshees have a song called Cities in Dust which is about Pompeii. The lead singer visited, and was struck by that strangeness that we felt. Being a singer she put it into song.

    I wonder if this is available in English. I’ll have a check. Thanks for the review.

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    • January 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm

      I remember your review and you convinced me to try him again. I had in mind to read one of his books but I didn’t know this one.
      I don’t know that band but I’ll look for the song. Thanks.

      The only online version of Arria Marcella I found is here
      I guess it’s available in paperback, probably in an omnibus edition.

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  6. leroyhunter
    January 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    This is included in a Gautier collection from NYRB (My Fantoms) I read a couple of years ago, all good stuff. His evocation of Pompeii is eerie – a lot of the stories have that trick, people slipping between times and states.

    I’d have The Jinx on my wishlist based on Max’s review.

    Funny how there’s been such an upsurge in “modern” versions of Rome recently – all those shows about gladiators and orgies. Possibly not the most holistic representations of the Roman contribution to human history.

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    • January 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks, I should help Max finding it.
      Eerie, that’s a good definition. It stayed with you, didn’t it?
      About Rome. That’s why Steven Saylor is so good, it shows the real everyday life and the way the society works. Nothing too spectacular but he brings you back in time.

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      • leroyhunter
        January 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm

        Saylor’s a new name for me, I’ll look him up Emma – thanks.

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        • January 14, 2012 at 10:25 am

          Saylor is fascinating, he manages to ally depth of characters and accurate historical fiction. Plus it’s crime fiction.
          Let me know what you thought about him.

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  7. January 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    It’s extremely handy to know it’s in that NYRB edition, as I hadn’t found a good copy other than the one Emma linked to which I was hoping to avoid so as not to have to read it on a computer screen.

    Saylor is very good on setting. In the first book of his Roma Sub Rosa series there’s an entire chapter which is just about the protagonist’s son’s toga ceremony, which is when he officially becomes an adult and so receives his first toga. The plot stops, the story stops, because this is so important to the protagonist that he puts everything aside for it. I loved that, and in fact that whole chapter.

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    • January 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Great, now I’m waiting for your review 🙂

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