The Guide in the Catacombs
14.5 x 9.4 cm framed
Special frontispiece for Pictures from Italy in A Tale of Two Cities, American Notes, Pictures from Italy, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), vol. 13.
Here, Furniss effectively communicates the enthusiasm of the tour guide as he beckons his charges to follow him through the subterranean darkness, just as Dickens, adopting the pose of travel-writer, welcomes readers to his travel book. [Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Below the church of San Sebastiano, two miles beyond the gate of San Sebastiano, on the Appian Way, is the entrance to the catacombs of Rome — quarries in the old time, but afterwards the hiding-places of the Christians. These ghastly passages have been explored for twenty miles; and form a chain of labyrinths, sixty miles in circumference.
A gaunt Franciscan friar, with a wild bright eye, was our only guide, down into this profound and dreadful place. The narrow ways and openings hither and thither, coupled with the dead and heavy air, soon blotted out, in all of us, any recollection of the track by which we had come: and I could not help thinking "Good Heaven, if, in a sudden fit of madness, he should dash the torches out, or if he should be seized with a fit, what would become of us!" On we wandered, among martyrs' graves: passing great subterranean vaulted roads, diverging in all directions, and choked up with heaps of stones, that thieves and murderers may not take refuge there, and form a population under Rome, even worse than that which lives between it and the sun. [Chapter 10: "Rome," p. 128]
Furniss provides a suitably upbeat figure to match the infectious energy with which Charles Dickens enlivens his description of his journeys through France and Italy in the mid-1840s, when he and his growing family fled the fogs (and high costs) of London for the warmer, far less expensive environs of the Mediterranean, particularly Genoa, in politically enlightened Piedmond.
The various travel essays which eventually appeared together in 1846 as a slight volume with four wood-engravings by William Blake acolyte Samuel Palmer under the Bradbury and Evans imprint ran from January through March 1846 in Dickens's short-lived venture as the editor of a periodical publication, the Daily News. Marcus Stone subsequently provided Chapman and Hall with four wood-engravings for the Illustrated Library Edition. The travelogue also received two different treatments in the Household Edition, both of which Harry Furniss may have seen and studied: under the Chapman and Hall imprint in 1878, the nineteenth volume, covering both American Notes and Pictures from Italy, was illustrated by A. B. Frost and Gordon Thomson; under the Harper and Brothers imprint, American political cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated a parallel volume. Whereas Samuel Palmer, replacing Dickens's original choice of illustrator, Clarkson Stanfield (owing to Stanfield's perception that the book was anti-Catholic), focuses in his wood-engravings dropped into the letterpress on scenes largely architectural — the Villa d'Este, the Colosseum, the Street of the Tombs at Pompeii, and peasants harvesting grapes in a vineyard — Harry Furniss sets the keynote of Dickens's exhilaration at experiencing such utterly non-English locales as the Catacombs outside Rome.
The Poesque atmosphere of the ancient Christian burial site seems to have engaged Dickens more than his eccentric guide, as the narrator indulges his fears of getting lost in the underground maze. Dickens seems less impressed with the fact that early Christians, persecuted by various Roman Emperors, conducted their worship in a clandestine manner in these man-made caverns on the outskirts of the Eternal City. Dickens does not indicate whether he visited the other set of catacombs at St. Callixtus, also on the via Appia Antica. As a frontispiece, the scene in the catacombs of San Sebastiano serves as a suitable introduction to the observations of a middle-class Englishman travelling in Italy prior to the unification movement (Risorgimento) of the 1860s.
- "The first impressions of such a place as Albaro"
- Views of Palazzo Peschiere and Genoa: A Gallery
- The Strada Nuova ("The Street of Palaces")
- Charles Dickens's Tours of Italy
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Last modified 11 January 2014