Melville in Rome—Day 4: Objects, Walls, &c.

MelvilleMelville had spent his first three days in Rome getting used to Rome.

The initial disappointment of his first day had passed. And once his energy had returned after the grueling trip from the more picturesque Naples, he had regained his vigor on his second and third days, tracking down parts of Rome he had already known from his reading. Now, he was ready to see Rome on its own terms and let it make him new.  And in getting used to Rome, he also had to make himself get used to this new self that was getting used to Rome.

On Saturday morning, February 28, 1857, Melville was busy organizing his day. His objective was to visit Rome’s two most important art collections—Villa Borghese and Villa Albani—but to get into both private galleries, he needed passes, issued at the offices of the US Consul.  Melville made note only of the “lost time” wasted by this bureaucratic aggravation and that he got to the Borghese Gallery at noon.

villa-borghese1The Villa Borghese is a vast tract of land occupying most of the Pincian Hill and stretching northward from Piazza di Spagna and eastward from Piazza del Popolo, beyond the Imperial Wall, into what is arguably Western Civilization’s first “suburb.”  Designed in 1590 and completed in 1605 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, the grounds are today one of several public gardens serving the citizens of Rome.  Although it is only a fraction the size of New York’s Central Park and only the third largest such space in the city, its landscaping is varied; the pools, statues, fountains, and caffés are diverting; the zoo, small museums, riding ring, and cinema (outdoor and indoor) are unexpected, and the walkways full of life.  The northern landscaped garden that Melville witnessed had been redesigned in the early nineteenth century in the English romantic tradition, and much of what we see of that landscaping today, especially in the northern sector, is what Melville saw as he made his way through the park to his main objective: the Villa Borghese’s art gallery.


Vasi’s “veduto” of the Villa Borghese.

 Because he was running late and because he had barely five hours of light left to him in the day, he probably decided against walking and took a landau, perhaps from his hotel or the post office in nearby Piazza San Silvestro.  Although Melville’s guidebook describes the entry into the Villa Borghese grounds as being the wonderful belvedere terrace overlooking Piazza del Popolo, that entrance would have taken Melville out of his way.  The most direct route for him Landauwas through the break in the Imperial Wall closest to the Villa Borghese at Porta Pinciana.  If his cab went through this gateway, Melville could have then proceeded on foot to the art gallery at the northern limit of the park.  Remarking in his journal that night on the “Extent of grounds,” he also recalled the “peculiar odors of Italian garden”—perhaps due to blooming wisteria or citrus?—the “Deep groves,” and as he walked northward, the “Cold splendor of villa,” the Galleria Borghese itself.

parco_villa_borgheseMelville’s guide to Rome was probably The Handbook for Travellers to Central Italy published by John Murray III.  Murray—the son of Byron’s publisher and the first to publish Melville’s first books Typee and Omoo in 1846 and 1847, respectively—had begun the venture of publishing travel guides as early as 1836, and the Handbooks for Italy published by his firm are impressive in their detail and updating through successive editions. Melville might have carried with him a copy of the 1843 edition, which he had borrowed from his friend George L. Duyckinck in 1849 when he thought his trip to Europe in that year would take him to Italy. It did not, and he returned the volume to Duyckinck, or said he would in an 1850 letter.  He might have kept the volume, or re-borrowed it for his 1856-57 tour, or he might have purchased an updated 1856 edition for himself.  At any rate, Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s memorandum of holdings after Melville’s death mentions Murray’s Handbook, and the assumption is that Melville knew the volume well.  Both editions contain essentially the same extensive treatment of Rome.  Moreover, the Handbook was organized in an encyclopedic way that suited Melville’s mind.

Vasi Itinerario

An opening of Vasi’s 8-day “Itinerario” (1783)

Then as now, guidebooks were organized on the basis of itineraries, but not Murray’s Handbook. One of the first travel writers to provide an itinerary for touring Rome was artist and engraver Giuseppe Vasi, who had produced precisely detailed vedute, or views, of hundreds of sights in Rome that filled ten massive volumes(1747-1761). [A remarkable digital project—Imago Urbis—links Vasi’s engravings to the 1758 map of Rome, created by Giambattista Nolli; see] In response to the mid-18th-century craze (among Europe’s aristocracy) for taking a Grand Tour of Rome, Vasi also used selected engravings from his opus magnus to embellish his smaller Itinerario istruttivo diviso in otto stazioni (1763), an instructive walk through Rome in eight days.  Dividing the city into eight sectors, Vasi’s guide, illustrated with miniatures of his engravings, takes the grand tourist along main intersecting roadways, commenting upon piazzas, churches, ruins, palazzi, sculpture, and paintings as they appear in a day’s walk.

Murray disputed Vasi’s approach.  While the 8-day plan might show you All Of Rome, the experience is likely to be something of a blur, and, as Murray’s Handbook observes, tourists will need to spend additional days, or weeks, revisiting the many attractive sights that they had not had time for on, let’s say, Day 3 or 7.  At the same time, more specialized itineraries that show you only certain kinds of sights or objects are just as frustrating because, as Murray notes, no one plan “will be equally applicable to all classes of travellers.” Scholars, antiquarians, modern historians, ecclesiasts, and artists will each want to see a different Rome.

Accordingly, John Murray III designed his “handbook” to be not so much a “cicerone” telling you what itineraries to follow but a well-written discussion of the “objects” that the traveler to Rome can see, organized by the type of object.  What you might call Murray’s “object” approach therefore divides Rome, not geographically, but topically, into Antiquities (and various sub-categories such as Forums, Columns, Tombs, Fountains, etc.), Basilicas, Churches, Palaces (including the Vatican), Museums, Private Collections, Academies, Artist Studios, and Villas, along with other sections involving hotels, money, climate, and excursions out of town (to Frascati, Tivoli, the Alban Hills, etc.).  The idea was to allow travelers to arrange their own itineraries depending upon their personal passions by providing them with the objects of their desire, in handy, alphabetized lists.  “We believe,” wrote Murray, “that most travellers form some plan for themselves altogether independently of books; and that no general rule can be laid down to which exceptions may not be taken, because the objects which will engage the attention of one class will have little interest for others” (263).

It must be added that, in a nod to those who must be given itineraries, Murray also included a section titled “Local Arrangement,” which, in a highly truncated Vasi format, provided an 8-day list of sights, each indexed to the page where its description would be found in the Handbook. But if Melville’s past three days of touring indicate anything, it is that Melville paid no attention to such local arrangements.  He was true to Murray’s original conception that the traveler must set his own itinerary and look for the objects he wanted or needed to see. He would experience Rome on his own terms, independently, and differently. So on his fourth day, he opened Murray’s Handbook to “Palaces” and set out to view the artworks within them.


Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit

That said, Melville’s journal offers precious little detail of what he saw at the Borghese Gallery on this day; however, Murray’s Handbook gives us a good idea of what he could have witnessed.  The 16th-century building had been designed to house Cardinal Borghese’s massive collection of ancient sculpture as well as modern paintings and sculpture. In 1808, Napoleon had grabbed two hundred of the collection’s antiquities for the Louvre, but many statues remained along with some 700 paintings.  The Cardinal had mixed works by different artists from different periods thematically in each of his original nine rooms.  (There are now twenty.)  While Murray does not identify themes, his lists of art objects room by room suggests the kind of subjective arrangements Borghese preferred.  For instance, Room VII seems to focus on contrasting sensual and sacred aspects of biblical and secular life: Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Raphael’s portrait of Cesare Borgia, Caravaggio’s “boy with flowers” (or rather Boy with a Basket of Fruit), Bassano’s Adoration of the Magi among them (440).


Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne

Borghese was himself a patron of artists, including the impulsive, short-lived, bad-boy genius Caravaggio and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the master of (over)dramatic poses and folded marble; each fragile, emotional, and slightly over-the-top. Caravaggio’s brilliant pictures secularized and sensualized moments of Christian passion that made him immediately controversial, and his reputation had fallen almost as soon as he was found dead in 1610, at age 39 after fleeing charges of homicide. Bernini’s reputation, based on his long-lived contribution to public art and architecture throughout all of Rome, had also diminished with the passing of the baroque.  Possibly, Melville’s failure to mention in his journal these two out-of-favor artists reflects the reining tastes of his day. Today, art historians and the public have rejuvenated the appreciation for both, making the Villa Borghese gallery a magnet for art-conscious tourists. Today, the collection’s Caravaggios (including Boy with a Basket of Fruit) are no longer spread throughout the museum but are now shown together in a room to the left as you enter.  However, Bernini’s sculptures—among them a grimacing David heaving his stone and Apollo pursuing Daphne turning into a tree—remain in the spaces designed for them, and just as Melville saw then in 1857.

For Murray, the Borghese collection was the “richest” in Rome, and Melville would venus-and-cupid-with-a-honeycombreturn to it repeatedly, but on this day he mentions only one work—Venus & Cupid—noting only the “mischevous look of C.” Indeed, many cupids have mischievous looks, and they abound in the Borghese Gallery; however, the “unattributed sculpture” of a lounging Venus at her bath (image not available) surely has the requisite smirking cupid to her right.  Given the boy’s anatomy, the sculpture was probably a fountain.  Another candidate is the more salacious 1531 painting by Lucas Cranach depicting a standing Venus (nude, with a rakish hat). The cupid at her feet holds up a phallic honeycomb, but pestered by the bees it attracts, the lad seems not so much mischievous as wondering what one does with a honeycomb that stings.

Having scheduled two of Rome’s best collections on the same day, Melville’s brief commentary on the Villa Borghese likely reflects the brief amount of time he had to spend there.  Moreover, the nearby Villa Albani contained an important treasure that he wanted to get to quickly: the famous bas-relief of Antinous.  Melville traversed the grid of small fields and orchards that separated the two villas then walked along Via Salaria to the Albani gate.

Completed in 1763, the Villa Albani was the brain-child of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, who designed the estate to house his excellent and representative collection of ancient statuary.  Beginning in the mid-1750s, as the villa was under construction, the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann served as secretary to the Cardinal and, while curating the collection, was able to broaden his study of  statuary that later resulted in his History of Art in Antiquity (1764).  Winkelmann’s History is a founding document for neoclassical aesthetics, most notably the notion that restraint and repose epitomize beauty, which Gotthold Lessing elucidated in his 1766 book Laocoön.  Winckelmann’s and Lessing’s focus on the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön, both at the Vatican, as well as the bas-relief Antinous at Villa Albani has made those objects familiar to art lovers for 250 years. During the Napoleonic takeover of Rome, the Villa Albani was relieved of almost 300 items from its massive collection of sculptures, and though they were later returned, those items had to be sold off.  Even so, the Albani family held on to one object: their bas-relief Antinous.

imagesThe two-story villa (left) with its bottom row of arches looks across an expansive formal garden of fountains and boxwood mazes framed at the opposite end with a curved loggia of pillars.  Throughout the grounds, halls, stairways, and rooms are hundreds of classical statues, bas-reliefs, fragments, and paintings, none labeled but each numbered in Winckelmann’s catalogue.  In 1866, the Villa Albani was purchased by the Torlonia banking family, which still maintains it as a private residence.  The Torlonia’s earlier and larger estate (also created in the mid-18th-century), is not far from Villa Albani, on Via Nomentana just north of Porta Pia.  Mussolini seized Villa Torlonia (below) for his own family, and all but one of the Torlonia family retreated to Villa Albani.  The original Villa Torlonia is now a public park by that name: it is the scene of Romans strolling, pic-nicking, playing calcio, viewing exhibits, and listening to concerts, something of an undesirable turn of events for the villa’s previous owners,DSC_1150 both prince and dictator.  Today, Villa Albani can be toured, but by appointment only. Prince Torlonia VI remains the owner, and his administrators call the Albani site “Villa Torlonia,” which may account for the remark in the note on Villa Albani in Northwestern-Newberry edition of the Journals identifying Villa Albani as “Villa Torlonia.”  In fact, Melville visited both estates, so I shall retain separate names for the two villas, as do most Romans today.

Melville had already, on his second day, tracked Antinous from the full-length sculpture in the Capitoline Museum to the obelisk dedicated to him in Piazzale Napoleone on the southern end of the Villa Borghese grounds. Now having reached AntinousAlbanithe Villa Albani’s Upper Floor, he found among other bas-reliefs set into the walls of the villa the most famous (if not, for everyone, the most beautiful) Antinous of them all, situated over the mantel of a fireplace.  (Murray considered this kind of setting, repeated throughout the Villa Albani, as a model for modern interior design.  In describing this “gem” of the Albani collection, with its strong-chinned and barrel-chested boy in profile to the viewer’s right, Murray quotes Winckelmann in rapture: the sculpture is “as fresh and as highly finished as if it had just left the studio of the sculptor. This work, after the Apollo and the Laocoon, is perhaps the most beautiful monument of antiquity which time has transmitted to us” (469).

Melville’s description of this object is one of his longer memoranda, written in the typical, telegraphic style of his journal: “head like moss-rose with curls & buds—rest all simplicity—end of fillet on shoulder—drapery, shoulder in the mantle—hand full of flowers & eyeing them—profile, &c.”  Hawthorne was not so affected by the image, finding its “heavy downward look” tiresome and lacking in beauty (as qtd in NN Journals 471).  Melville’s description, however, while it reserves judgment, allows us a unique opportunity to follow the gaze of the writer as he views a work of art.

The abundant curls, which are wreathed with a single strand of rosebuds, immediately attract the attention but also stand in contrast to the simplicity of the face and chest below.  The descending “fillet” or ribbon hanging from the hair—in fact, it is a delicate band of marble arching through air from head to shoulder—draws the eye to the young man’s sensual nape and shoulder.  The drapery of the mantle, exposing and covering the shoulders, then takes Melville across the bare chest to the flowers that Antinous holds (an iconic feature in many representations of this figure).  And from the flowers we return full circuit to Antinous’s brow, or rather his eyes, or to be precise, his “eyeing” of the flowers.  Melville’s viewing comes to an end when he sees the boy seeing the flowers.

Finally, but only finally, does Melville note the object’s overall “profile,” with one of his infuriating “&c”s.  In that impenetrable ampersand-plus-c, and others like it throughout his journal, resides all the potential for meaning that Melville keeps to himself.  Rarely does Melville elaborate his ideas in his journal.  His inscrutable “et ceteras” are all he seemed to need to trigger, later back home, his memory of the ideas and images that occurred to him at the moment of inspiration.  What the inspiration is, we do not know.  All we might retrieve from the wording of his “eyeing” of this art object is confirmation of Melville’s love of masculine beauty. And in that regard, he shared an affinity with Winckelmann.ApolloSauroktonosAlbani

Upstairs in the Albani collection, Melville also enjoyed smaller works, displayed in the Gabinetto, or “closet,” and in particular what Murray called “the celebrated Apollo Sauroctonos of Praxiteles, in bronze, considered by Winckelmann the most exquisite bronze statue in the world” (469). The figure represents a nude teenage Apollo leaning against a tree trunk; he is about to impale a lizard perched upon the trunk.  Other versions of this Lizard Slaying Apollo, in both marble and bronze, can be found in various museums.  In fact, this three-foot high Albani version is also a copy, but this ancient bronze version is thought to be the closest copy to the bronze original by Praxiteles.  Of this “small bronze Apollo,” Melville wrote it is “surprising how such a metal could be melted into such flexible-looking forms.” And by flexible, here, once again, Melville’s gaze is on the curving hips and torso of the young boy leaning in to make his kill.

We know from his 1859 lecture on “Statues in Rome” that other sculptures at Villa Albani impressed themselves upon Melville’s memory, though they are not mentioned in his journal.  In the conclusion to the lecture, he calls up three works meant to show how the Albani collection exemplifies a crucial feature of ancient Roman life: the ability to harmonize death and mirth.  But his examples do  not at first seem fully connected to the main idea.

Slide1 2220px_Aesop_pushkin01AntinousAlbani

First, Melville recalls an as-yet unidentified statue of a helmeted Athena.  The image to the left was selected by the NN Journals editors from an early twentieth-century art textbook to represent what Melville might have seen, though the image seems too stiff to be as “purely and serenely sublime” as Melville reports it to be.  I was not able to find this statue during my visit to Villa Albani.  In fact, several Athenas and Minervas, of various sizes and some more helmeted than others, can be found in the Albani collection.  For instance, one diminutive, helmeted Athena appears in a room adjacent to Antinous.  Unfortunately, I was not permitted to photograph this more lithesome object.  Whatever helmeted Athena Melville saw, the image impressed him greatly, and it would reappear in contrast to the Madonna in one of his last published poems “At the Pleasure Party.”  Melville also calls attention to a bust of a “dwarfed and deformed” Aesop, locate in the same room as the diminutive Athena.  The sculpture, which is actually the full body of Aesop, minus arms and legs, depicts the disabled fabulist’s bulging chest and fin-like spine in almost clinical detail.  It now sits on a pedestal that can be revolved so that the viewer can catch light reflecting from a nearby window on all sides of the sculpture.  For Melville, the bust evokes the ironies of Goldsmith, perhaps because of the smirk in Aesop’s smile.

The two emblematic sculptures—the beautiful powerful woman and the beastly sardonic man—represent different mixtures of ideality and idiosyncrasy, wisdom and humor. Neither seems much about death, until we consider Melville’s middle example from the Villa Albani: Antinous.  “Here also,” Melville wrote in his lecture, “is to be found a medallion of Antinous with his eye reposing on a lotus of admirable design which he holds in his hand” (NN Journals 407).  Thrown in between Athena and Aesop is the flower-gazing boy who sacrificed himself for the honor of his lover Hadrian: the dead beauty nestled between the goddess and the dwarf. Was Melville putting himself somewhere in this mix? Somewhere in these objects are the dimensions of Melville’s aesthetics.

Interestingly, Melville’s lecture revises what he records in his journal. The journal’s “eyeing” of the “flowers” is transformed in the lecture to “his eye reposing on a lotus.”  Eyeing—a curious word giving agency to the organ of sight—suggests a kind of physical basis to the mental act of perception, a distancing of mind from body.  But the lecture version of this distancing is the word “reposing,” which adds a further dimension to Antinous’s vision.  Here, vision is an act of repose; it is a stilling of anxiety that permits a fusing of self and object.  This surrender, so to speak, of one into the other is a release from subjectivity and the reaching for an identity with the objective, external thing.  Beauty is not in the thing, not even in the eye that beholds the thing; rather, beauty lies in the self-conscious externalizing gaze of this dynamics of repose.  Reinforcing this revision of eyeing into reposing is Melville’s conversion of the journal’s unspecified “flowers” (in the plural) into the lecture’s single opiate “lotus” of forgetfulness and release. In this regard, Melville’s aesthetics pushes away from narcissistic self-absorption into an almost zen-like transcendence into an objective reality of beauty.

The lecture’s revised image of Antinous is not about the boy and not about the flower, but about boy-and-flower together as an emblem of a process you might call “self-becoming-thing” or “vision-making-beauty.  And yet this revised dynamic is no less sensual than Melville’s originally noted image. By situating Antinous between the cold ideality of Athena and the sardonic actuality of Aesop in the lecture he would eventually deliver, Melville suggests that the dead male beauty becomes the reposeful viewer that unites the two. If, as well, Melville felt a sensual attraction to Antinous, that sensuality was an energy he could use to get out of himself, to transform himself into a poet with an eye for objects that transcend self and yet define the limits of our mortality.  In the decades to come, he would use such self-extracted objects in poems: swallows flying above battlefields, ironclads at sea, icebergs, shorelines,  pyramids and the desert stones of Palestine, Greek temples, moss-roses, roses, and the handsome sailor Billy Budd hanging from the yardarm, &c.


Porta Pia from inside the wall

But Melville was yet to become this poet of things. With the main meal of the Italian day about to commence, the solemn attendants of Villa Albani were likely to have shooed everyone out of the gallery by 2pm.  Melville had maybe three hours of light left on this Saturday, and he made good use of them.  Walking briskly to Porta Salaria, he could follow the outside of the Imperial wall east to Porta Pia, less than half a mile away.  In 1561, Pope Pius IV had commissioned Michelangelo to design a new gate for this ancient northeastern portal to accommodate and encourage new urban growth and traffic, but still in Melville’s day the area on both sides of the wall at Porta Pia were open fields and vineyards punctuated by the occasional country villa, ancient church, monastery, or farmhouse.

The roadway north, Via Nomentana, was part of a system as old as Via Appia Antica.  Looming before him, but through the “new” Porta Pia gate was Strada Pia, named for the Pope who built the gate as part of his rebuilding of Rome.  Today, Via Nomentana has kept its name, but Strada Pia is now Via Venti Settembre, named for a crucial moment in Italian history to come.  Here, thirteen years after Melville’s visit, on September 20, 1870, soldiers would breach the wall just to the right of the gate, seize Rome as Italy’s new capital, and thereby ensure the unification of all regions in the Italian boot, creating a new nation under King Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont and Sardinia. The king kept the “due” in his name instead of adopting a new name or number for the new nation, which was only the first and least of many political disappointments to come.

But in 1857, the wished-for “Risorgimento” for Italian unification had stagnated.  Independence and the first republic of Italy had been dramatically achieved in 1849 and swiftly undone by French intervention on behalf of Pope Pius IX. Despite an assassination attempt against him in 1856, Ferdinand II (the despised King Bomba referenced in Melville’s great poem “Naples in the Time of Bomba”) still controlled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, including Naples, Italy’s largest city at the time.  And Pio Nono (as the pope was called) still controlled his papal states, including Rome.  In 1857, Italy was as divided—north, central, south—as ever before.

The ups and downs of Italy’s struggle to unify these regions had enthused and troubled Melville and many Americans greatly, and they figure in many of what Dennis Berthold calls Melville’s “Italy-inspired poems.” But the wall at Porta Pia in 1857 seemed nothing more than a minor impediment to an oddly urban, oddly bucolic, always somnolent life on either side. What continued to amaze Melville as he walked through Porta Pia and toward the city center was not Italian politics but the rural nature of the descending slope southward of the high plain of Quirinale Hill and the ancient city below. Back at the Hotel de Minerve that night, he would make special note of the “Extent of ground not built upon within the walls of Rome” (NN Journals 107).


The “mostra” or terminal fountain of the Acqua Felice acqueduct

Today, Via Venti Settembre is still the broad street Pius IV designed, but it is now lined with muscular government buildings of the late-19th century, the modernistic British embassy, even one or two glass and steel structures, and Italy’s imposing Ministry of Finance.  The most impressive object Melville saw, however, was the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, the “mostra” or celebratory fountain marking the terminus of Pope Sixtus V’s Acqua Felice acqueduct completed in 1587.

Since the sack of Rome in the sixth century, Rome’s only water supply gushed forth at the center of town, near the present-day Trevi Fountain.  Northern parts of town languished for lack of water until Sixtus built his proud acqueduct, digging new underground tunnels and connecting some already standing above-ground archways.  The infamous “mostra,” sculpted in 1588, was an immediate object of ridicule that continues to deserve derision.  The ill-proportioned central figure of aMoses heavily robed, abundantly bearded, and horned Moses—the horns represent beams of light indicating the prophet’s link to God—points downward to strike water out of stone.  For me, every time my bus passes by it, the sculpture evokes an image of the gigantic comedic actor John Goodman rearing back in high dudgeon over some preposterous absurdity before him.  According to Murray, Tasso praised the monument, but the sculptor Prospero da Brescia is said to have “died of grief at the ridicule excited by his performance” (332).

Despite it all, the biblical moment recounted in Numbers 20.8-26 is darkly suited for the job of irrigation that the fountain (if not statue) performed.  God commanded Moses to “speak” to the stone to make water flow from it, but the impulsive Moses, himself a stutterer, instead “strikes” the stone to achieve the same end, and for his violence and disobedience, Moses is kept from entering Canaan and from seeing the water’s fruitful effects. The bible’s fatal pairing of speaking and striking, as modes of masculine expression or fulfillment would have appealed to Melville whose final prose work, Billy Budd, is about a young man, also a stutterer, who strikes out when he cannot speak.  But for the Renaissance fountain sculptor Prospero da Brescia, the fate of Moses is meant to guard Pope Sixtus against the hubris of his spirited public works. For whatever reason, Melville appreciated the irony of the stuttering prophet’s fate and might even have sympathized with the ridiculed artist as well.  His comment on the “fountain of Moses” contradicts  popular wisdom:  it was to him “Not bad” (NN Journals 107).  Melville also marveled at the oxen drinking from the fountain and the women with their pitchers fetching water or washing clothes. Today, the occasional Italian touring the city can be seen watering his family at one of the basins, despite the fact that one can hardly reach the fountain for fear of being hit by traffic heading toward nearby Piazza della Repubblica and Termini train station.

Next to the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice are the massive Baths of Diocletian.  In 1564, at the end of his life, Michelangelo converted the ruins of the grand entrance hall of the baths into the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, with its Greek square cross design.  He retained the eight massive columns, 45 feet high and sixteen feet around, adding to them eight more of equal dimensions. Called by Murray “one of the most imposing churches in Rome” (371), tourists often miss this remarkable Renaissance accommodation of a fourth century structure, even though it faces onto the bustling Piazza della Repubblica. Indeed, the  church’s unassuming facade appears to be little more than a doorway in a curved brick wall, part of the original baths structure; it gives no hint of the jaw-dropping height and splendor of the interior.  Much smaller than St. Peter’s, its artistry evokes a more authentic feel of the sublime: first an unexpected belittlement of self, and then eye-lifting awe.

Melville had little light left in the day to explore the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, but he took time to enter the Michelangelo church and pay his respects to Neapolitan artist, Salvator Rosa, buried inside the basilica.  Rosa’s tomb is to the left just as you enterSalvatorRosa.  This seventeenth-century painter and satirist was best known for his rugged landscapes that gave a darker dimension to the new style of chiaroscuro picturesque that he and his contemporary Claude Lorrain made fashionable.  Alongside his growing fascination with classicism and beauty in the Roman sculptures he had earlier witnessed that day, Melville remained greatly affected by Rosa’s picturesque aesthetic.  In earlier works like Moby-Dick, Pierre, and his short stories, he had attempted to give his prose similar combinations of darkness and light not only for landscape and seascape description but also to approximate human complexities by creating a kind of psychological chiaroscuro in prose. In 1853, he had published The Encantadas, his picturesque sketches of savage scenes, abandonment, misrule, and banditry, under the pseudonym “Salvator R. Tarnmoor.”  And even later toward the close of his life, he would include Rosa in his poetic dialogue on the picturesque, titled “At the Hostelry.” The Latin epitaph on Rosa’s tomb says something to the effect that he was a painter second to none in his day and a poet for all time. Oddly enough, Murray dismisses this precursor of the Romantic movement of Byron, Keats, and Shelley that had made his publishing company so wealthy.  Nor does Melville offer an encomium.  His journal simply notes: “church—monument of 8 columns—S. Rosa’s tomb.” Nevertheless, and tellingly, Melville’s visit to Rosa’s tomb in Santa Maria degli Angeli had taken Melville away from his most direct route home, and that gesture, in the dimming daylight, speaks to enduring appreciation of the great Neapolitan artist.

Melville was detouring to see what interested him most, taking no prescribed itinerary, referring to Murray’s lists of sights to see but eyeing them in his own time and order. He retraced his step to his former pathway down Strada Pia to its intersection with Via della Quattro Fontane, and its four fountains, one on each corner.

He continued through the intersection where the roadway becomes Via Quirinale.  It is the relatively wide, slowly sloping roadway to Piazza del Quirinale. Down this roadway, you feel one of Rome’s many striking contrasts.  On one side are walled gardens with roses fenced off so that only the tops of trees provide a tantalizing gesture of a viewpoint into the garden not allowed you.  Then across the street is the long, long, implacable wall of Palazzo del Quirinale, which for centuries has DSC_0451been the residence for popes, then kings, now presidents of the Republic of Italy.  Whatever the governance, the building presents itself to the pedestrian public as a wall pierced with uncountable windows that stare you down and give no view at all of the government inside.  Walled gardens; walled power. The walk down Via Quirinale is tedious and dispiriting.  But as the road widens into the piazza—with its monumental obelisk and its equally monumental Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) with their horses on either side—the scene opens up, and you are suddenly at the highest point in Rome.  With the city stretching before you, the once-belittled pedestrian you stands on the shoulders of power, surveying the world, thinking it must be yours.

In the dimming light of Melville’s late February afternoon, as the setting sun cast a rose-orange glow on the monuments around him, Melville was struck by the expansiveness of Rome.  Off to the right, just as the hill begins to slope precipitously down to Trevi Fountain and the center of town, Melville could see, yet again, the dome of St. Peter’s. He knew his route home was directly before him, but instead he turned and rejoined Via Quirinale and scooted down to Trajan’s Forum, where he could gaze at Trajan’s column, which like the Aurelian column in Piazza Colonna, spirals its history of man upward, where no one can possibly read it, an odd emblem of the futility of writing.

It was 6pm and past twilight when Melville returned to his hotel in Piazza della Minerva. He signed off on his journal for the day with his usual “Dinner & to bed.”  But a second thought brought him back to add a final reflection:  “Silence & loneliness of long streets and blank garden walls.”  In four days he had crisscrossed Rome, and he had seen and touched places and things none of his family had experienced. Rome was all around him, and he was lonely.  He had ventured beyond Rome’s wall: exited through it and re-entered.

Rome’s streets seem walled by interminable palazzi, its gardens unenterable.  Melville, too, felt walled out and walled in, out of touch with his talent, voice, and readers.  In 1851, his protagonists Ahab and Ishmael had been angry self-projections: great speakers speaking out in their different ways, each striking inward to strike back at the world, an effective dramatic meditative pair.  But only two years later, Melville had written “Bartleby, A Story of Wall Street,” which follows the baffling self-destruction of a scrivener, walled in by brick and offices, who, entirely alone, prefers not to work, takes to silence, and dies facing a wall.  Now Melville was feeling less like an Ahab or Ishmael and more like a Bartleby transplanted in Rome, not only lonely but at a loss for words. Now he could sympathize with the vexed Moses more than ever before, the god-challenged prophet who cannot speak, strikes futilely at stone, and then is left behind by his god and people.  Searching for objects of beauty and ideality, Melville found at day’s end the silence and loneliness of walls.  He could marvel at the colossal size of Rome’s statues all around him, with colossal St. Peter’s in the distance, but he could not dismiss this giant of loneliness within him.








Embracing Ruin

DSC_0258Rome takes some getting used to.  It is not the city you expect it to be; though it is never less.  Although Rome is the mother of all metropoli—both madonna and hag—it bears little resemblance to other modern cities like New York, with its street grid, skyscrapers, and Central Park.  Or to other European cities—Paris and London—that selectively showcase the remnants of their ancient pasts, with reverence and elegance, perhaps more elegantly than reverently, but always it is a past framed by a self-conscious modernity. Consider London’s Tower: a medieval jewel box. Literally: its main attraction are the crown jewels.  Of London, John Murray (who published Melville’s guide to Rome) wrote:  “If Rome had undergone as many alterations as London has witnessed within the lapse of a few centuries, we should not find one stone standing upon another which we could identify with her historic times” (271). Murray’s complaint is that in such  cities the sweep of modernism is to clean up the messy ruins of their past. They do not build on top of their ruins, or let them sit; they level them to the ground, cart away the refuse, build anew, and forget.  Rome not so much.

Rome is different.  Rome lets its ruins sit and, in many cases become more ruinous.  Such is the case with a fountain I found on the Pincian hill.  It is so encrusted with lime deposits from the centuries drip of calcite-rich water that stalactites and stalagmites have made the central pedestal almost invisible.  Vegetation now grows from the upper bowl; birds no doubt nest there.  Initially, you don’t realize it is a fountain.  It has been transformed into something else, something odd, different, new.

Rome has been in ruins since it was sacked in the seventh century and seems singularly unfazed by that fact.  There sits the Roman Forum: framed at one end by triumphal arches, and by the remnant of a towering, curved, now vacant niche fit for a monumental statue at the other end, with a sunken field in between, littered with fallen broken columns, some labeled, most not.  And across Via dei Fori Imperiali (a wide busy modern roadway constructed in the late 19th century) is Trajan’s Forum with its magnificent column and its ribbon of unreadable history spiraling up it.  Buses, taxis, and cars streak up and down this strada that slices through the city’s ancient ground, stopping reluctantly for pedestrians, but stopping nonetheless; they ignore the ruin on either shoulder, wait patiently as tourists cross against the light, and move on.  Rome is inured to its ruin.

Rome is different, but the indifferent traffic is not quite the reason; I’ll try again, from Melville’s angle.  In Melville’s day, Rome had none of these incongruous modern roads we see today: no Via dei Fori Imperiali, and none of the wide avenues like Via Nazionale, Corso del Vittorio Emmanuele II, and Lungotevere along the river.  Nor had any of its more muscular piazzas like the rebuilt Piazza Venezia or the invented Piazza della Repubblica been created.  For Melville in 1857, the city had long outlasted earlier attempts by Renaissance Popes to renovate piazzas, churches, roads, and acqueducts.  Its ruins prevailed, and for all intents and purposes, Melville’s Rome of 1857 was just as ruinous, and vacant, as it had been for twelve centuries before he arrived.     Ruin seemed integrated into the fabric of the city and its life.  And this integration of ruin is what I mean to convey.


Look at the Imperial Wall.  Erected in the third century, it still stands in many parts of the city.  It is wide, tall, impenetrable, thick.  The gates—Porta San Sebastiano, Porta San Paolo, Porta San Giovanni (pictured here), Porta Pia, Porta Flaminio, just to name those that Melville witnessed—magnificently break up the wall’s otherwise oppressive expanse and draw our attention, too, because they are accompanied by imposing bustling piazzas.  The rest of the wall passes through the city, a massive, sullen, reclining, windowDSC_0844less edifice, ignorant of traffic on either side, unless a cut-through has been managed through some civic venture in order to permit this street or that to flow through it. The once bustling Porta Maggiore (left) originally adapted itself to the acqueduct streaming along its shoulders.  Now it is a little archaeological park you can wander through checking out wildflowers.DSC_0851

Often nearby streets, as in the University’s student district called San Lorenzo, seem to dead-end at the wall, though at the last second a side-street takes you along the wall and back to where you were, some blocks away.  Walls are meant to stop you and make you think, or curse.  In other cases, though, sections of Rome’s walls are incorporated into everyday life:  an overlook in the Villa Borghese or part of the buttress of a building, and between San Lorenzo and Termini station, you can see a precarious arch that seems to hang in mid-air as traffic passes around it. No one gives much thought as to whether a ruin is useful or not; maybe it can be, maybe not; it’s just there.DSC_0039

Originally, the wall encircled not only the town but also vast open fields and pastures, with farmhouses, churches, and monuments punctuating the empty grassy hills, so that a farmer might be scything away or picking fruit, or a shepherd might be tending his flock, incongruously, next to the Wall. Most of these open fields were still evident when Melville visited Rome.  The ancient wall encompassed rural and urban lives. As he walked within or just outside the city walls, Melville could see peasants chewing straw while urging cattle to drink from a centuries old fountain in fields and pastures, just as tourists today can see nonchalant ragazzi smoking while leaning against the Colosseum. And, despite all of Rome’s apparent could-not-care-lessness about its ruins, it makes those stolid ruins seem sociable, makes them inseparable from the living. Rome embraces ruination and wears its ruins well.


It takes time before you can lose your tourist self and adopt the Roman embrace of ruin, and once you make the shift, you also achieve a double self.  There is the inurement to one’s ruins, which is a kind of disregard of the ruins that is actually essential for the embrace, for you must come to terms with your aging, see the function of decay, give it a nod, and turn aside.  Ruin, like Rome’s wall, is always in the corner of your eye, like a friend.  And this is one self you come to know.  But there is a second self.  Rome requires of you certain unexpected awakenings—my God, I am in Rome!—that also come when you see a part of the ancient city you had passed by countless times and suddenly now see straight on for the first time: Ah, so that is the Baths of Diocletian standing across from the Ministry of Finance, and across from Termini, which, who knew? takes its name not from “terminus” but from Terme, meaning baths.  And who knew the Baths also conceal the most magnificent of Michelangelo churches in town, Santa Maria degli Angeli?

photo 2(5)Finding something new, layered, buried within the ruin awakens us to a past we thought we knew but never did.  Rome awakens you to selves you thought you had but did not.  You cannot stop seeing old Rome as being something astonishingly new.  These ruins make me new again.

Mangiamo; or how I discovered true Italian cuisine, episode 37

tonnarelli+cacio+e+pepe4Let’s eat.

We have much to thank Rome for.  Acqueducts. Roads. Centuries of Art. Several versions of Democracy. OK; we can also thank them for ancient imperialism and some other not so great things of the last century.  But given some mistakes made in my own nation, I am in no position to dwell on the negative.  Italy has been a joy for us and a constant source of discovery.  And let’s face it, their food is amazing.

Granted Italy got pasta from China, and granted the pomodoro is a Central American fruit.  But look at the many inventive ways that Italians have, since 1500, learned to combine these two far-flung edibles, which never would have met if it were not for Italian explorers bringing them back to Italy. Somewhere there should be a piazza and a monument with Columbus holding a tomato greeting Marco Polo holding some spaghetti.

Every time Ginny and I come to Italy, and every time we think we know a modicum of truth about Italian cooking, we always end up on an unexpected culinary voyage of discovery to learn more.

First you learn that Italy’s contribution of pasta and ragu to world cuisine is not entirely Red.  There is pesto.  On our first trip to Italy in 1977-78, I was a newly minted PhD and Fulbrighter teaching at Genova and Torino.  We were living with our one-year-old Emma on the Ligurian coast, and we single-handedly “discovered” pesto.  Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration.  We had never seen it on menus in the States, and guidebooks mentioned it only as some weird exotic thing most people would not find to their taste. We couldn’t wait to try it, and did so the day we arrived in Genova, pesto capital of the world.  This entirely green pasta sauce is, as is now widely known, made of mortar-and-pestled basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmigiano, and oil.  Our first taste of it lifted our palates and spirits. We couldn’t wait to make it ourselves and bring it back home.  Imagine our dismay when we returned to the US, hoping to wow the nation with our discovery of pesto, when that very year America suddenly went nuts for pesto, and now and long since, you can get a fairly credible version of the sauce in supermarkets in all fifty states.

Nevertheless, I tend my basil plants annually in my garden in New York, and prepare pesto from scratch, making sure to include as many friends and neighbors in the harvesting and eating of it.  Similarly, Ginny has perfected a brilliant northern Italian lasagna, which includes no cheese but is rich, though light and toothsome.

Also, apart from the idea that all sauces need not be red, we learned in our first year in Italy that there is more to pasta than noodles and shells.  And, as Hamlet says, there are more kinds of pasta in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy.  There’s Ligurian trofie, thin little spiralings no longer than half a finger; and the now more familiar gnocchi like little pillows of flavor so airy they defy all expectations of its main ingredient potato; and Siena’s pici, like thickish, irregular, hand-rolled spaghetti. And there is Rome’s tonnarelli, or what I am calling square spaghetti.

Our discovery this past few weeks has been tonnarelli cacio e pepe, which is basically “square spaghetti with cheese and black pepper.” Ginny was the first to discover cacio e pepe at our favorite neighborhood restaurant called Pepe Verde in Via Gorizia. The flavor and fragrance of black pepper are not hot as you might expect, she said.  And the cheese is not cheesy.  Nor is the color of this dish red or green or black; it is the color of the tonnarelli, made from egg and flour. When I tried some strands, upon Ginny’s insistence, I felt only a light peppery sensation on my tongue that quickly gave way to a richness that is smooth not salty, creamy without butter.  The sensation of square spaghetti against the teeth is unusually satisfying.

What Italians tell you but no one believes is that different pasta shapes are not there for visual stimulation.  Each shape is a texture for the tongue; each shape also bears its sauce differently.  Round spaghetti is made without egg and extruded through a die so its surface is smooth; tonnarelli are thin slices of thin flat sheets of pasta made with egg, and its surface is rough.  A flat, rough-cut pasta like tonnarelli allows the cacio e pepe molecules to infuse into the pasta, so that your teeth and tongue can liberate the flavor caught on the surface.

The ingredients for cacio e pepe are freshly grated pecorino (but more on this later), ground pepper, and Italy’s magic ingredient: a cup of hot pasta water.  The best recipe for this unexpectedly wonderful dish is simply this: Move to Italy. Barring that, we have a couple recipes we like. But all recipes are narratives, and all narratives begin with a trip to the marketplace.

Yesterday, in search of the makings for this dish, we set out to the SPQR Mercato, a covered market at the intersection of Via Cremona and Via Catania just southeast of Piazza Bologna.  Like most markets, this one (built in the fascist era) is filled with produce stands, macellerie for meats, fresh bread and dolci shops, and vino. The venders are instantly friendly, know little English but help you with your Italian, and insist on giving you samples.  One fruttivendolo popped delicious strawberries from southern Italy into our mouths.  We got some oil; we got our pecorino; we got some wine, but no tonnarelli, and only a packaged substitute, called stringozzi, which looks more like thin fettucine on steroids.

We had to look elsewhere for fresh tonnarelli, and, by luck, found Pasta all’uovo in Via Padova, a block or so from the mercato. It’s a small shop with a display case in front and an open door to the tables and machines that are used in turning flour, eggs, and water into innumerable shapes.  There were no tonnarelli on display, and we seem to have caught the proprietor, Francesco Franco, a man in his later thirties or so, as he was preparing to close down.  What did he know about tonnarelli.  “How much do you want?” And he opened a refrigerator in the back room.  Our hearts sank a bit because we assumed he was retrieving a supply of frozen product, imported from who knows where or when, made by who knows whom.  But he was, in fact, pulling out fresh, pliable sheets of pasta that he had rolled out that morning.

I said, Enough for the two of us, and he tore off so many grams of the sheet, set his pasta machine to some magic number, rolled the sheets through the machine, and out came a swirl of perfectly square spaghetti.

Hoping to get some secrets of cooking, we asked Francesco about how he makes cacio e pepe, and he began in earnest to explain.  You take a padella.  Our furrowed brows immediately showed him that we were clueless about that word, and cooking words in Italian are another blog posting altogether. But he swirled around, searched his cabinet, and came out with a skillet.

Here is Francesco’s way:  You heat up some oil in a skillet, and he held up a bottle of olive oil, and we said, yes, yes, we know olio. You add the pepper to the heated oil.  Meanwhile, you have been boiling the tonnarelli for the minute or two it takes to make fresh pasta al dente, but before you drain, you gently ladle out of the pot a cup of the pasta water into the skillet with the heated oil and pepper.  Almost immediately, you add the drained tonnarelli into the skillet and toss the ingredients flipping the skillet (or use a fork to fold the pasta into the sauce).  Then add the grated pecorino, and toss some more.  And fatto; that’s it.

We had been told pretty much the same by my colleague in Rome, Giorgio Mariani, who is an excellent scholar and teacher and the best of friends with an excellent sense of humor to match.  But Giorgio gets a far away look when he talks about cacio e pepe.  Here is Giorgio’s way: Do Nothing.  Or rather, boil the tonnarelli until al dente and drain, reserving some pasta water. Add grated pecorino to the steaming pasta and pasta water a spoonful at a time until the right creamy consistency is achieved, then crack the pepper over the mixture and serve.  This traditionalist approach is simple, and hence somewhat impossible without Giorgio standing by, or better, I should think, his mother.

Both of these approaches have a feel of authenticity. But when we searched the web for online recipes, we found people adding butter or cream to the their cacio e pepe.  Even master chef Mario Batali adds butter.  Granted, the richness of cacio e pepe suggests butter, and the implied heat of the word pepe might urge you to surrender to the presumed cooling agency for butter to cut the heat.  But, in fact, the dish has the richness of butter without butter (or oil, says Giorgio) and the flavor of pepper without the heat.

Even so, doubt is such a modern sin. And seeking assurance rather than an alternative recipe, we asked Francesco, there’s no burro? He turned a bit pale, seemed slightly confused, and looked vaguely disappointed not in us for asking but in a world that would imagine such a thing. We spied some pesto in his display, and bought some, which reassured him, I think, in our value system, and we shook hands upon departure.

That night we made cacio e pepe. It was rich and flavorful.  We might have overdone the pepe, though not by much, and that’s our excuse for doing this recipe again, and again, even without Francesco’s oil, to get it right.

Coda: the following day we read that one recipe adds something called “cacio di roma,” which means Roman cheese, to the pecorino. No such specialty exists, unless (as another colleague Sara Antonelli says) the recipe means “caciato di roma,” which is a mild soft cheese.  And now we have a new excuse to discover more of Rome.  Where do you find caciato di roma? To the right at the piazza, and down the street, then ask at the next piazza; you can’t miss it.

Melville in Rome—Day 3: Memoria è nel cuore

DSC_0374Rome had been insane with Redbud in the last few days of March, 2014. It was everywhere. I remember seeing my first Redbud tree in college: its black, leafless branches were lined with bright little flowers, points of red, like Italian lights. Unlike the cherry trees also in bloom at this time of year, whose broader pink blossoms cluster at the ends of branches, Redbud’s flowering rides along each crooked black branch, making streaks of color in a dismal forest or set against the gray of urban Chicago.  Melville

Back in 1968, when I first saw this tree, its pinprick lines of color were all the more distinctive because the stonefaced neo-Gothic buildings of the quadrangle of the University of Chicago provided a gloomy backdrop for the campus’s single, lyrically thin but explosively red Redbud that had emerged that baleful year just when I, a Californian, thought winter would never end and spring brought only murder and riot. “That’s Redbud,” I learned when I tried to describe the tree and its location to a professor of mine, Norman Maclean: he knew the woods, and urban trees as well. He taught me to read poems by line, to track deer prints in muddy trails, and how to track facts.

So decades later when I bought a house in New York and found myself nettled and vexed by a scraggly Hawthorn crowding a side-path near the garage, I had it removed. Surely, the Hawthorn is an admirable tree whose thin tracings of white blossoms are a delight to discover at a distance in the woods, but this Hawthorn would poke my head with its thorns whenever I passed under its low branches.  So I replaced it with a Redbud. Its trunk and branches now reside on the dark side of our house, but as a first sign of spring, its bright blossoms draw out that dark corner but only so as to gives its darkness definition.  I have this failing for Redbud.

In Rome, I have never seen so much Redbud.  It is, of course, an ornamental tree. (Though in its defense I do not feel that this label should deny us its deeper substance: it is a weighty shrub.)  You rarely see it grow to great stature.  But in Rome the Redbud are sequoias compared to what sits beside my house, or in my memory of 1968.  These trees are not an ornament but a presence. And they seemed to follow us on our day’s journey.

Ginny and I set out to trace Melville’s third day in Rome. He had started early from his hotel in Piazza della Minerva and made the long trek to the Baths of Caracalla, this time in a carriage with a local cicerone to guide him.  To get to this famous sight, he could have gone easterly through the Roman forum and beneath Constantine’s arch to the Colosseum, then on to the Circus Maximus, tucked between the Palatine and Aventine Hills, and finally halfway up a lesser hill, known as piccolo Aventino, to the nearby Baths, perched on leveled ground carved out of the little Aventine and facing one of the city’s other hills, called Celio.  We, however, started out much later in the morning, just before noon, from Piazza Bologna where we would took the Metro B line to the Circo Massimo stop.  But we were further delayed.

DSC_0301As we were hurrying up Via Torlonia to reach Piazza Bologna and our subway, I stumbled upon the paving stones of a driveway to an apartment building facing the massive Villa Torlonia wall across the street.  Among the black stones, I saw flashes of yellow brown and what appeared to be square, brass metallic caps embedded in the driveway.  I had glimpsed them before on an earlier, more hurried trek to catch the metro, and assumed they were some sort of utility marker topping off a shaft connecting to a gas main, but, despite my Melville schedule, I was not in such a hurry this time, and we stopped to take a look.  What we saw hit hard.

The cluster of “caps” that I had glimpsed were five four-inch square plaques commemorating the slaughter of a family who once lived no more than 50 meters from our own apartment, just across the street. One of them read:

NATO 1878
ARRESTATO 16.10.1943
ASSASSINATO 23.10.1943

A second plaque written in the same devastating capitals related the fate of Carlo’s wife Fortunata Coen in Finzi (born 1888), who was arrested and deported the same day, October 16, 1943, the day of the infamous razzia or roundup of 1000 people, mostly women and children, mostly from Rome’s ghetto.  That number represents about one-seventh of Rome’s Jewish population in 1943.  Only fifteen of the thousand survived.  Fortunata’s plaque does not indicate where and when she was murdered, only that these facts are unknown.  Beneath the wife and husband are plaques for their three children: Adriana (age 23), Enrico (21), and Luciana (19).  Like their mother, their place of death and date of death are ignoto.

Ginny and I are the children of parents who served in WWII, and we grew up under the postwar specters of Bomb and Holocaust.  Our best friend Linda Spungen had been the only surviving child of Russian Jewish immigrants, first to England and then the US, who had personally escaped the holocaust, though, of course, many of Linda’s relatives did not.  At fifty, Linda had adopted a child from China, Liana; and when Linda died young after only 3 years of adoptive motherhood, we became Liana’s second adoptive parents.  She is now a bright, smiling college graduate about the age of Adriana Finzi.

The Finzis perished, but some Finzis survived the camps; and they endure one kind of grief. And there are Finzis who escaped Europe and endure another. There are those, like Liana, who have lost a mother once, then twice before the age of five.  Our lives are pricked by horrors and traumas, and no holocaust is not personal.  We have visited holocaust and war memorials in New York, Washington DC, Paris, and Berlin.  But no deeper moment of sudden anguish has come to me so unexpectedly as when I looked down at my feet, expecting nothing more than a routine “SPQR” engraved on a Roman gas main cap, and found in fact the hard capitals of these five bronze plaques, recalling the gassing of millions.  By week’s end, we would learn more about these plaques.

We moved on to Piazza Bologna, made our Metro B, and rose up out of the ground across the wide and busy roadway of Viale Aventino, which stretches south down to Porta San Paolo and the Pyramid of Cestius, with the Parco della Resistenza along the way.  The park is dedicated to the Italians who resisted the Nazi occupation of Italy that began with the announcement on September 8, 1943, of Italy’s surrender, five weeks before the German occupation of Italy and their razzia of Italian Jews on October 16. But Melville, whose personal holocaust had been the death of his father, had known his own versions of horror.  He had yet to witness Civil War and the suicide of his son, and he would be spared the twentieth century, so no such park existed in his day, only farmland. Instead, he was in search of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet hero of his who had died twenty-five years earlier.


We think of Rome as timeless and eternal, but nothing human is timeless or eternal.  We think of Rome as ancient and a progression of civilizations, but nothing out of the past is a progression, unless our narratives, histories, and biographies make it so.  I think of Rome as a place where remnants of time are layered like bricks in a tumbled wall or displaced paving stones, and to experience Rome means opening ourselves to the fragments of memory its walls and roads reveal and conceal.  We had a plan, a schedule, a narrative to follow and had set out to follow Melville following Shelley at the ruins of Caracalla, but tripped upon the holocaust.  Back on track, we headed in Melville’s direction east, up the lesser Roman hill, and followed him to the Baths.

Up until the time I made this tour, I had not been aware just how much in search of Shelley Melville had been that day.  It was not clear to me, at first, why he had chosen to visit the Baths on this day, or why he then visited the subsequent sites on the day’s itinerary, or, for that matter, how he planned any of his daily tours, but as I was coming to see, Melville’s journal entries of a day, upon close inspection, betray conceal lines of connection from one sight to the next.  His daily tours did not announce their themes or problems.  And if his Day Two had been an “Antinous Day” in search of beauty, his Day Three was in one way or another about Shelley, defiance, personal horrors, and getting lost.

The Terme di Caracalla were commissioned by Septimus Severus and completed by his successor Emperor Caracalla in the early 3rd century CE. Its grounds are extensive, the ruins tall and massive, and it is easily one of the most impressive of the lesser visited sites in Rome.  Located a fifteen-minute walk from the Circo Massimo, it sits remote on a slightly elevated plateau just within the city’s Aurelian walls, and yet inside the site you see or hear little urban traffic. In Melville’s day, this rural area surrounded by vineyards and orchards was also used by city folk for pasturage.  Today, its most memorable function is as a stage for summer concerts conducted by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.  Those who recall the PBS broadcast of the Three Tenors have seen Caracalla’s high arched brick walls as a backdrop.

The Baths of Caracalla were more than baths.  We think of Roman emperors cynically providing “bread and circuses” for the populace to prevent insurrection, and to these venerable sops, we can also add “baths,” which included a public swimming pool, gymnasium, library, and shopping mall.  The ground floor natatio was surrounded by walls, but had an open ceilingDSC_0321 DSC_0303fixed with polished brass mirrors to reflect sunlight onto swimmers.  Furnaces below ground warmed the water supplied by its own aqueduct.  Separate rooms provided the usual sequence of “baths,” for hot, tepid, and cold water dipping.  In second-story rooms was a library and a gym for wrestling and boxing. On the perimeter were stalls for shops. The floors on all levels were decorated with abstract waves DSC_0324and mosaic depictions of boys, dolphins, and other marine creatures, real and fabulous.The Baths of Caracalla operated until the sack of Rome three hundred years later.

  DSC_0326What we see now—and what Melville saw in 1857—is only the brickwork structure of the Baths: the even layers of flat Roman brick piled thick and high that upward swerve into arches or sideways morph into broad tall niches.  But all of these surfaces were originally clad with marble, chiseled with sinuous designs, and the tall niches contained massive bronze and marble statues.  For centuries, the marble facing and statues had been snatched to decorate the interior and exterior of other structures and palazzi in Rome and throughout Italy.  Most famous of removals was that of the monumental marble Hercules (an ancient Roman copy of an even earlier Greek bronze) found in a sixteenth-century excavation and claimed by Alessandro Farnese for his collection, housed in his grand palazzo close by Campo De’ Fiori. Melville had seen the Farnese Hercules, a week or so earlier, in Naples, where it still resides.

The Baths were required viewing in the 18th and 19th-century Grand Tour. Though smaller in acreage than Pompeii, it is slightly larger than Herculaneum, south and east of Naples, and several stories taller.  Tourists then and today stand mouth agape admiring the “vastness and magnificence of the design” (305). These words are from Melville’s 1856 travel guide, A Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy, published by John Murray in multiple, increasingly larger editions throughout the mid-nineteenth century. The Handbook also mentions Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most famous visitors to the Baths, and recounts the somewhat exaggerated notion that the English poet composed all of his Prometheus Unbound (1819) “upon the mountainous ruins” of the Baths amidst “oderiferous blossoming trees.” The Handbook quotes from Shelley’s preface to this closet drama about man’s refusal to reconcile with God: “The bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening spring in the divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of the drama” (306). Perhaps Shelley saw Redbud blooming during the “vigorous awakening spring” of his dark, god-defiant imagination.

At the Baths of Caracalla, Melville could not avoid the connection to Shelley, which was not only prompted by the Murray handbook he had in hand but also triggered by his own recollection of the “mountainous” Colosseum, which he had visited the day before. For him, the ruins are not a mass of civilization’s rubble but rather an instance of nature reclaiming the brickwork as something always having belonged to it.  “Wonderful. Massive,” he wrote of the ruins later in his journal or even perhaps Shelley-like as he stood before them. “Ruins form, as it were, natural bridges of thousands of arches. There are glades, & thickets among the ruins—high up.” Just as he had  transformed the Colosseum into a mountain “hollow” in his write-up of the day before, so, too, did the Baths have its centuries of overgrowth hanging from the tops of its unadorned, impossibly tall arches. Just as Shelley had imagined them, so, too, did Melville.  The embodiment before him of nature reclaiming the ruins of human endeavor had become a standard trope of the picturesque since the sixteenth century, a light-and-dark way of seeing and thinking that Melville would explore in his later poetry and prose.  In his 1850 review essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” he had already begun to explore the psychological dimensions of the picturesque in the interminglings of darkness within our bright lives in Hawthorne’s “moral chiaroscuro.” Now this new version of the sublime stood before him and around him at the Baths of Caracalla.

Melville, who continued to collect editions of Shelley in the decades after his trip to Rome, admired Shelley’s defiance and daring atheism.  Imagining Shelley writing among the ruins brought Caracalla into focus as a source of mutual inspiration.  He wrote:  “Thought of Shelley. Truly, he got his inspiration here. Corresponds with his drama & mind. Still magestic, & desolate grandeur.”  It is not clear whether “Still” is an adverb of time modifying  “magestic” or an adjective of motion for “grandeur.”  Shelley conceived of his god-defying Prometheus as a modern advance upon Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.  And, a year before, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had subtitled Frankenstein as “The Modern Prometheus.”  Ahab, who calls himself “darkness leaping out of light,” is Melville’s own inventive inversion of the light-bearing modern Prometheus of both Shelleys.  Now six years after having published Moby-Dick, and exhausted by writing for magazines, Melville rediscovered in Shelley at the Baths a kindred spirit whose “still grandeur” of mind is “still magestic.”  Caracalla brought him this perhaps hoped-for, perhaps unexpected jolt of artistic re-invigoration through Shelley. But on February 27, 1857 the climate of Rome had not yet achieved its “vigorous reawakening spring”: its “oderiferous blossoming trees” and ubiquitous red poppies had not yet budded for Melville; it would have been, in fact, too early for Redbud.


Ginny and I made our way to Melville’s next stop, the Protestant Burial Ground.  Melville does not tell us how he got there, only that he got lost.

The Baths of Caracalla are situated on the northern slope of the piccolo Aventino.  The cemetery is to the south on the other side of that hill.  Melville had various options in reaching his next destination.  He could have returned to the familiar main road, now called Viale Aventino, retracing the last leg of the carriage route that brought him to the Baths and then followed that broad thoroughfare to the Porta San Paolo and the Pyramid of Cestius clustered near the cemetery.  This easy option essentially follows two sides of a right angle triangle.  The more direct option is to climb the little Aventine hill and descend its other side in a straight line to the pyramid.  Melville, it appears, took this hypotenuse and somehow got lost.  We, however, did not have time to get lost.  We avoided the hill, retraced our steps to the Circo Massimo metro stop, and took the underground to Piramide station, one stop south. As things transpired for Melville, his shorter, more direct route to the cemetery was accompanied by “much trouble & sore travel.”  In short, he got lost.  So I knew that I would have to return to Carcalla, better equipped, to explore Melville’s shorter but troublesome hypotenuse option.  But, then again, our longer route got me lost, as well, in quite a different way.

Here’s how I was lost in Rome.  Upon reaching the Circo Massimo metro stop on the Viale Aventino, I had mistakenly led us to the uptown entrance across this wide and heavily trafficked boulevard, thinking (oddly enough) that we were done with our day and were ready to return home, somehow forgetting that our day had just begun and that we wanted to head downtown to Piramide station and the Protestant Burial Ground.  And in wrongly crossing the busy street, I told Ginny not to run, which she often does when crossing traffic, and my cautioning her always annoys her.  So we had words about stumbling on uneven paving stones and mortality: about my fear of death and that she will fall and hurt herself.  And “that would be it,” I said too strongly. And she felt my fear fully and was hurt just as much as if she had fallen.  So we fumed.

And then I discovered my error: we had needlessly crossed to the wrong metro entrance. Humiliated, I fumed even more as we crossed back over Aventino to the proper downtown metro entrance, only to be reminded that the downtown train was in fact across the street where I had been heading in the first place but thought I was wrong.  I had been doubly mistaken, utterly inverted, and had only myself (and not Italy) to blame.  I was lost in some sort of Rome of my own making.  We re-crossed again to the proper downtown metro entrance, both of us feeling old and muddled and humbled by our different but shared anxieties.    One stop later we exited at Piramide (annoyingly pronounced peh-RAH-meh-deh), I still fuming. And we continued to exasperate ourselves even more by trying to find the famous Protestant Burial Ground, which is actually called Cimitero Acattolico, or the Non-Catholic Cemetery, a wording that wants to sound more inclusive but does not.

DSC_0334photo(4)The dominant view once you emerge from the Piramide Metro station is the sleek pyramid itself, and across the piazza is the muscular medieval gate of Porta San Paolo.  Built around 12 BCE in the Egyptian style that had been adopted during the period of the Roman conquest of the Ptolemies, the pyramid is the tomb of a wealthy but otherwise forgotten civic leader Gaius Cestius.  In the third century CE, it was incorporated as a bastion into the Aurelian wall extending southward from Porta San Paolo so that the sleek tall pyramid seems to be pierced  by a massive brick wall abutting two of its opposing sides.  To us, in our vexed mood, the clustering of these impressive edifices—pyramid, wall, and gate, all laced with traffic from all sides—were maddening obstructions.  Somewhere beyond them was the cemetery we sought.  Partially covered in scaffolding and sheathed for restoration and repair [which was completed in 2015], the pyramid itself seemed vexed and belittled by its dressings.  Nor are there anywhere in this busy area any signs for the cimitero acattolico, and our map (and my iPhone map app) only showed where the cemetery was but gave no indication of which side of the pyramid the cemetery entrance is on. With unfailing luck, I chose the wrong side of the pyramid to look for the entrance, and once giving up on that side, we had to walk around to the right of the pyramid to explore options on its other side.  Now too thoroughly edified in the fact that the base of a pyramid is quite large, and feeling the exhaustion of biographical research too quickly on this day, I succumbed to a startling lack of interest in pyramids.

My only consolation for our disastrous transit from Caracalla to Piramide, via Metro, is that Melville had his own aggravations in making his more direct transit. “After much trouble & sore travel without a guide,” he wrote in his Journal, he “managed to get to Protestant Burial Ground & Pyramid of Cestus under walls.” By “under walls,” he means the Aurelian wall that abuts the pyramid.  But this geometric obstruction was not the source of Melville’s aggravation, as it had proved to be for us.  He had had trouble of another sort.  Melville, it seems, had made a classic touristic error: he had dismissed the carriage that had brought him to Caracalla, and he had dismissed his guide. A devoted walker, he had convinced himself that he could make his way from Caracalla to the Protestant Burial Ground, unassisted and on foot, or as he put it “by natural process.” He thought he knew himself well enough to go alone.  Worse, he thought he knew Rome.

But what route, exactly, did Melville take in his “sore travel” between these two points? In 2014 I was not yet ready to address this question, or see its importance for my biography of Melville, or biography in general.  It took me two years, off and on, to equip myself, in theory and practice, for how to map Melville’s getting lost.

In 2014, when I had planned our day of following Melville’s third day in Rome, I was just beginning to confront a biographical dilemma.  While Melville’s journal tells us the sights he saw, it does not tell us the routes he took from one site to the next.  A biographer can take the journal as a prompt to visit, by whatever means, the sights Melville lists and be satisfied with stitching those sights into a coherent whole: call it Shelley.  And that might be all that the evidence allows.  But the hidden life in the journal is the untold transit from site to site.  A historical map of Rome will show you all the possible street combinations that connect these dots—the direct option, let’s say, of taking the noisy Corso or one of several zig-zag options down one quiet vicolo to another to avoid crowds—but which of these options did Melville actually take?  More importantly, what else could he have seen taking each option but left unreported in his journal?  These matters require speculation and debate.  We can choose to ignore the debate in order to achieve more swiftly one’s coherent whole and thereby risk flattening the narrative arc.  The reader is not likely to know the arc is flattened, or for that matter that all arcs are necessarily false, so the risk may seem inconsequential.  Even so, a more honest arc can be inscribed if you invite readers to discover the hidden life in a text, provided both biographer and reader recognize the value of speculation and debate, and have, as Ishmael puts it, “Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience.”

Especially intriguing is that Melville freely admits getting lost more than once, a pattern well-known to tourists in Rome.  How, then, can a biographer ignore those moments in which a writer effectively admits, I was lost, and maybe enjoys it?  How might this condition of losing one’s way, in Rome, speak to Melville’s condition, later on, in his writing?  How might the physical experience of getting lost resonate for this writer—emotionally, philosophically, psychologically—in the necessary experience of allowing himself to get lost while laboring to transform ideas into words.  Melville’s process of ceaseless revision seems a version of getting lost, as though being lost is a prerequisite of creativity.  Melville drew upon one such resonant urban metaphor for describing his writing process, at the end of his life, while composing Billy Budd: “In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood” (Leaf 58).  These by-paths entice the writer, make him shun the main road, and give him joy.  In Melville’s manuscript for Billy Budd, you can see how his revisions—his deletions, additions, deleted additions, substitutions, and oscillations between this word and that, even to the very sentence quoted above— embody Melville’s attempts to try out different linguistics path-way to reach his thoughts.  In each sequence of revisions, the writer is like a tourist looking down an enticing alley and thinking “dare I take it.”  But with every enticement, there are risks.  Just as there are panics and affrights in wandering map-less, guide-less, lost in a city, there are the risks of getting lost in words, in revising a novel, or a biography.  As it happened, I had gotten lost on one of the straightest, easiest to manage streets in Rome.  As it happens, I have rewritten this paragraph endlessly.

A second biographical dilemma is the trap of thinking that my experience of getting lost in Rome will somehow inform my understanding of Melville’s getting lost, or his creative process, or his writings.  This romantic assumption must be resisted.  I am not Melville, nor want to be, no matter how much I follow his daily tours, no matter how much I study his revisions.  But my investigations into Melville’s Rome are an opening for me as a biographer.  They place my movements in relation to those of another whose absence is ungraspable. They force me to see the different shapings of our respective experiences of time and place and permit me a more deliberate receptivity to Melville’s different place and time.  By inhabiting this difference between Melville and me, I am better equipped to situate Melville’s half-known life in relation to my half-known life.  Biography requires this double plunging into incomplete selves.

Back at our apartment some days later, I got some sense of what Melville’s “sore travel” must have been like.  Inspecting an online version of a historical map of Rome, I got a rough idea that Melville’s hypotenuse could not have been straight and direct.  The intervening terrain stretching from Carcalla to Piramide was a patchwork of vineyards and orchards, and the farm lanes bordering these properties did not lead directly to the pyramid.  To reach his destination, Melville would have had to tack left and then right repeatedly through this maze of lanes.  All the more astonishing about this revealing map, created in 1748 by Giambattista Nolli, is that it was still accurate for Rome in 1857.  The terrain Nolli depicted had not changed in over a hundred years.

With my zoomable version of the Nolli map, I could see a representation of Melville’s options.  I could imagine him dismissing his Italian guide at Caracalla and setting out from the highest perch of the grounds on the site’s western corner, overlooking the Baths of Caracalla.  Taking his last look of the ruins, thinking of Shelley, he turned south to descend the hill in the opposite direction, perhaps even with the top of the pyramid or Porta San Paolo in view. Walking less than a hundred meters, he would have come to the tall massive, fully intact Aurelian wall on his left and a street, now called Viale Giotto paralleling it, as the two descend the hill in a gentle curve that easily places the walker at Porta San Paolo and the pyramid.  To his right was the patchwork of orchards and vineyards that any wise traveler would want to avoid.  Melville did not.

Why did he not follow the easy Aurelian wall?  The best explanation is that Melville was never one to pass up a church.  And nestled in the patchwork of vineyards and orchards, on a more direct path toward the pyramid, and clearly in Melville’s view from the wall, was a church.

Only one month earlier, in his tour of Palestine, Melville had visited the Christian monastery of Mar Saba.  In 645, Mar Saba’s monks fled Muslim attackers and had settled on this hill in Rome, establishing this church, Chiesa San Saba, the sister of the very monastery he had previously visited.  The coincidence is remarkable, and all the more remarkable is that Melville makes no mention of San Saba in his journal.  Quite possibly, Melville got lost in a different way and did not visit San Saba, though its campanile would have been visible over the fields he was navigating.  Our only hint that he did visit San Saba is that almost twenty years later, Melville would set the crucial Book III of his 1876 epic Clarel at the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine.  One other detail establishes the link between his massive poem and his third day of “sore travel” in Rome:  the namesake for Clarel‘s Celio—the lost character, wandering in Jerusalem,  who opens Book I of the epic—is Monte Celio, the hill just on the other side of Caracalla.  Perhaps, when composing Clarel, in the 1870s, Melville found in his memories of Caracalla and Shelley both inspiration and direction in creating an epic of the dynamic of faith and doubt, that would be as powerfully defiant as atheist Shelley’s play.

But, in 2014, I did not return to Carcalla to test the likelihood of Melville’s stumbling upon the church of San Saba because I did not have the tools I needed to “map” the wanderings of someone who is lost.  I needed a more concrete sense of the terrain than Nolli’s very concrete map could provide.  The best I could do then to understand the terrain of 1857 was to walk and rewalk the modified terrain of today, but, not surprisingly, the vineyards and orchards of 1857 had long ago been removed through waves of land developments in the 1890s and 1920s.  Some country lanes were preserved as streets in the district surrounding San Saba, between Caracalla and the wide Viale Aventino.  Other such lanes had been obliterated by five story apartment buildings, little piazzas, small parks, and walled villas.  What I needed was a way to layer my 1748  Nolli map, still accurate for 1857, over my map of today, so that all identifiable points, then and now, could be matched precisely or, as digital humanists say “geo-referenced.” And in 2014, I did not possess the technology do that.  Two years later, in June of 2016, I returned to Rome better equipped to retrace how Melville got lost.

With the help of programmers for Hofstra’s Digital Research Center (of which I am director), we were able to build a mapping and timeline tool called Itinerary that would allow me to lay the Nolli map on top of a Google map of Rome and to draw optional route lines directly on the Nolli image.  Flipping to the Google map, I could also see which of today’s Roman streets matched the farm lanes that Melville could have taken in 1857.  On June 16, 2016, I gathered with four good friends in tow—three former PhD students of mine and a post-doc, all at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”—for a Melville walk.  We assembled at the uptown entrance of the Metro at Circo Massimo, scene of my confusion and despair of crossing and recrossing the Viale Aventino two years earlier.  I was no longer lost, knew who I was, was ready now to find out how Melville spent his morning being lost: I was in control.  My friends—Pilar, Marco, Nicola, Paolo—who had much on their minds regarding their future as Italians, nevertheless wanted to accompany me and endured my five-minute (perhaps longer) explanation of what had happened on Melville’s third day in Rome, and despite my arrogance in lecturing to Romans about Rome, they seemed enlivened by the biographical and creative implications of a tracing how a writer got lost.

We ascended up to the Baths of Caracalla.  Steering clear of the steeply-inclined, official entrance into the ruins, we continued outside the site, up its equally steep northwestern border to its high, western corner at the intersection of Viale Giotto and Viale Guido Baccelli.  I had come this far not knowing for sure if Melville would have actually sought out this perch before leaving the ruins.  Given the site’s topography, the location of its exit, and Melville’s destination over the hill behind the ruins, this steep ascent seems the only possible route to Porta San Paolo, the pyramid, and Protestant Burial Ground.  It would be easy to presume that because Melville had been a sailor and was still in good physical condition, the thirty-seven-year-old traveler would have had some sort of nautical ambition to climb this height, but that reasoning is tiresome.  However, when I reached the high western corner outside the ruins, an unanticipated discovery awaited and another more compelling logic of art and place came to mind.  Looking down at the Baths of Caracalla from this vantage point, one sees, rising three stories to the level of the high western corner, the ruins of a series of arches ranging along the fenced northwestern border we had just walked and facing another, conserved edifice with a single high arch.  On the horizon to the northeast is a mountain peak in the so-called Roman alps, visible between a tree and ruins to the right in the photo.  In the middle distance, just above the ruins, you can make out the distinctive roof of the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, with its monumental statues.

The view seemed familiar, and later I was able to confirm my suspicion.  This western corner view looking down on the Baths of Caracalla is the precise setting that Joseph Severn had adopted as the background for his famous 1845 painting of Shelley, perched on the range of ruined arches as he writes Prometheus Unbound at the Baths of Caracalla.  Severn moves the scenery around to suit his composition, giving the mountain more prominence and making the basilica barely visible, as if to put nature and religion in their proper places.  Instead of the high single-arched edifice facing Shelley’s perch, Severn depicts three high arches to the right in his picture, mimicking edifices seen elsewhere at Caracalla.

Severn had been a good and loyal friend of the so-called second generation of romantics.  He had nursed Keats while the poet’s spent his last year in rooms on the Spanish Steps, dying of tuberculosis, and had arranged for Keats’s burial in the Protestant cemetery.  Over twenty years after Shelley’s drowning—his ashes are also interred in the cemetery—his survivors commissioned Severn to paint the depiction of a pensive Shelley perched from one of the high-vaulted ruins at Caracalla.  With quill in hand, a notebook on his right lap, and a leg dangling from the ledge, he seems a modern-day Prometheus, lounging on humanity’s ruin not lashed in punishment to a mountainous cliff. The family displayed the painting in England, and a copy was made, which now hangs in the Keats-Shelley House, where Keats died.  Engravings made the image even more popular, and, like other knowing tourists prompted by Murray’s Handbook to reflect on Shelley, Melville could climb to the western corner vantage point overlooking the Baths of Caracalla to see the view that Severn had painted.  It was there that he “thought of Shelley.”

Of course, it is possible that Melville was not aware of Severn’s famous painting, or knowing it, did not recall the famous vantage point; or that he thought of Shelley somewhere else in his tour of the ruins.  My placing Melville at the western corner is the kind of deduction that biographers are often forced to make.  I place him there because he tells us his walk, without a guide, to the Protestant Burial Ground caused him “much trouble & sore travel” and because of all the routes he could have taken to negotiate the topography between Caracalla and cemetery, only the direct hypotenuse route would have caused any kind of difficulty.  The safe and easy route was to return the way he came back to Viale Aventino and down the boulevard to gate, pyramid, and cemetery.

At least that is my construction of the events of the day, one made all the more likely because, whether Melville was aware of the Severn painting or not, and whether or not he turned to view the ruins from Severn’s vantage point, he had to have walked by the western corner in order to head along his chosen hypotenuse route to the cemetery.  But at the Severn vantage point, he had one other easy option, perhaps the easiest route of all.  He could follow the Aurelian wall, which since the third century CE swerves away from Caracalla’s upper boundary and in a gentle curve makes its way down the hill to gate, pyramid, and cemetery.  Then as well as now, a curving pathway parallels the wall, and while this route is not a bee-line to Melville’s destination, it is one of a couple clear and reliable ways of getting anywhere in Rome: follow the wall, any wall.  Surely, Melville started doing just this, but something had to interrupt his progress down the hill; otherwise, there would have been no “sore travel” in this descent.  Had happened to get him lost?

Soon after coming upon the Aurelian wall, only about 75 meters from the Severn vantage point, Melville could have looked to his right and seen above a church-owned vineyard the low-lying Romanesque edifice of Chiesa San Saba.  Situated on the crest of the piccolo Aventine hill, it overlooked, in Melville’s day, a patchwork of vineyards and orchards radiating from it and spreading downhill, with the Aurelian wall in view as it swerves down to Porta San Paolo and the pyramid beyond it.  Today, four-story apartment buildings erected in the 1920s have replaced the fields and obstruct our view over the fields.  We cannot see San Saba church from the Aurelian wall, but Melville could have.  Today, the streets in the San Saba environs mostly match the straight but angled property lines and country lanes that made the patchwork of fields. Oddly evocative of Melville’s love of Italian art is that the names given these streets honor famous artists and aestheticians—Alberti, Bernini, Salvator Rosa (whose tomb Melville would later view).  No such streets existed when Melville first saw San Saba church, but the pathway now called Via Bramante, which closely follows what was once a country lane, would have given Melville a direct view of the church as he stood at the Aurelian wall, wondering which way to go.



But upon his arrival at Porta SaDSC_0335n Paolo, Melville quickly found the Protestant Burial Ground, located Keats’s grave right by the old corner entrance in the oldest section of the cemetery, with the Pyramid peering over the walls, and read the famous epitaph on Keats’s otherwise nameless gravestone, which ends, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” As Melville well knew—for who did not—Shelley wrote his Spenserian elegy Adonais, in memory of Keats.  He and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had also laid their young boy William to rest not far from Keats.  Shelley, himself, is buried there, but farther away in the now more crowded “new” section of the burial ground. He had drowned when his boat capsized in a storm off Leghorn (Livorno).  When his body was recovered near Viareggio, it was cremated on the beach and his ashes brought to Rome. His heart, however, was not allowed to burn and was buried separately in England.

DSC_0331The Pyramid of Cestius, which looms above the old section of the Protestant Cemetery, was built in the first century BC to commemorate an otherwise forgotten Roman dignitary who helped govern Egypt. Although now, the pyramid is a marginal tourist attraction that visitors to Rome might get around to seeing, though perhaps not, it was in earlier centuries a picturesque attraction. When land near the western base of the pyramid was permitted by the papacy in the 18th century for Protestant burials, just inside the city wall,  officials worried about encroachments on the tourist site.  According to Nicholas Stanley-Price in The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome (2014), they regulated the planting of cypresses in the burial grounds so that the trees would not obscure the view of the Pyramid, and a walled trench was built to separate the cemetery from the pyramid.  In addition, when a new plot of land was created next to the old cemetery, a walled path was built between old and new grounds to provide tourist access to the entrance of the pyramid.  For most of the 19th century, tourists like Melville visited Keats in the old cemetery, exited those grounds, and entered the new grounds to visit Shelley.  In the early 20th century, the obstructive access lane, which Melville mentions in his journal, was filled in so that the old and new cemeteries are now conjoined.

DSC_0346Melville’s only remark concerning Shelley’s grave site in his journal is that the marker is a “Plain stone” (as opposed to the more elaborately decorated markers surrounding it).  Apart from its quotation from The Tempest, his epitaph reads simply “Percy Bysshe Shelley /  Cor Cordium.”   Heart of hearts.  Shelley who shook his fist at God and was blasted for his blasphemy had been a model for Melville as one who put writing in the service of resistant, revolutionary, and deep-plunging thought.  Unlike Shelley, Melville had survived the sea; his heart of hearts was still beating; he was alive, or at least living.  Maybe his “sore travel” to find Shelley’s grave was not just one poet paying his respects to another. Maybe he was looking in the cemetery for the kind of inspiration that Shelley had found at Caracalla.

If the confusions and con-fuming that Ginny and I had experienced still lingered, they quickly dissolved when we entered the gates of the Cimitero Acattolico.  The grounds are simply breathtaking.  Murray’s Handbook told tourists like Melville to expect an “air of romantic beauty” (464) in this place, but when he visited on Feb. 27, Spring had not yet awakened, and he saw only wearied evergreens. Entering the cemetery a month later in the year and a week into the season, on a warmer day in March, we could forget about our quarrelDSC_0345 and the pyramid that had been such an obstruction to us moments before. The interposing cypresses that now framed its impenetrability were offset by chattering irises, aromatic wisteria, and redbud.  We were surrounded by death and could not have been happier; our friendship had survived and we were among the living.  We paid our respects to Keats and Shelley and left.

Like expert Romans, we scurried together across Via Marmorata to catch Bus 23, and to catch up with Melville’s itinerary, which next took us to his third Shelley site, the Cenci Palace.  Shelley’s 1819 lyric drama of incest and revenge The Cenci was not publicly staged until 1922, yet it enjoyed a good deal of notoriety throughout the 18th century and was enough in demand to be printed in a second edition. Based on actual events of late-16th-century Rome involving Beatrice Cenci’s execution for the murder of her incestuous father Francesco Cenci, the play puts no stops on the horrors of the abusive nobleman, who celebrates the death of his sons, abuses both wife and daughter, and is in turn bludgeoned by Beatrice. Despite popular outcry in 1599 for the exoneration of Beatrice, she and her co-conspirators were beheaded at Castel Sant’Angelo.  Guido Reni’s 1600 portrait of the innocent with her over-the-shoulder glance, delicate not-yet-severed neck, and sad, averted eyes was reproduced in countless etchings, and her tale of outrage, incest, and parricide became legendary as a statement against aristocracy.  Cenci was also a source for Melville in Pierre and later Hawthorne in The Marble Faun. Melville owned a Cenci etching, probably acquired well before coming to Rome, but in his visit two days earlier to Piazza di Spagna, he priced a copy that he had found in one of the stalls.

The Cenci Palace still stands on the northern edge of the community still called the Ghetto, which was and remains a Jewish neighborhood.  In 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered the small community on the banks of the Tiber, to be walled up. Jews living inside the gates were not permitted to exit after sunset.  The walls did not come down until after the establishment of the kingdom of Italy in 1870.  To visit the Ghetto on his day’s journey, Melville had to pass through one gate and out another, as if he were entering a cage. There he could see families living in squalor, including relatives and descendents of the fifteen survivors out of the thousand victims of the razzia of October 10, 1943.

To get from Shelley’s grave to the scene of Shelley’s most famous play, Melville walked north on Via Marmorata, which borders the cemetery, to the Tiber. He would have then followed the road as it bends north to parallel the river. Today, a more modern roadway called Lungotevere stretches up and down both sides of the Tiber.  But for most of this part of Melville’s trek, his view of the river was obstructed by buildings clinging to the river’s banks.  However, coming to the bracingly-named Piazza della Bocca della Verità (which honors a drain hole not truth), he suddenly had the Tiber in view and saw crossing over it, incongruously, a “Suspension Bridge.”  According to Allan Ceen of Studium Urbis, whoPonte Rotto suspension supplied the period image below, this span connecting the left bank (on your right) to the three-arched remains of the Ponte Rotto, or Broken Bridge, had been recently built in 1853, making the old ruined bridge once again a viable road.  The new pathway across the river was an odd touch of modernism in the eternally ancient city—metal towers and sleek cables attached to ponderous medieval arches—and Melville could not resist going out of his way to join them, if only perhaps to experience the blending of steel and stone roadways.  He crossed the hermaphroditic bridge to the district known then and now as Trastevere.  Walking a couple of blocks, he turned right down a street that led him to another bridge, the Ponte Cestio, which in turn brought him back across the river by way of  the “Isle of Tiber” (Isola di Tevere) and then the Ponte Fabricio that returned him to the left bank and squarely in the Ghetto.

Directly across the bridge are the Portico d’Ottavia, a huge arch used for centuries by fishmongers, and, to the right of it, the remarkable Teatro Marcello.  Completed in 12 BCE, the theater’s three curved levels of arches upon arches were originally designed so that the bottom level consisted of Doric columns, with Ionic columns ranging the level above them, and then Corinthian at the top.  On the lowest level, Melville saw blacksmiths occupying the intervening archways, now “black with centuries grime & soot.”  But in place of the Corinthian level is the brickwork of the “Orsini Palace,” an extensive set of “inhabited” rooms atop the monumental Teatro.  The Palazzo Orsini is still inhabited and, as Ginny reports, it was up for sale in 2012  (its three parking spaces included) for only 32 million euros.  Melville, who was not looking for any more real estate in his life, may have made special mention of this palazzo because “Orsini” is an aristocrat in Shelley’s The Cenci.

The Cenci’s had their palazzo only a few short blocks away just outside the Ghetto walls. Murray’s Handbook describes the building, which overlooks a little piazzetta, as an “immense, gloomy, and deserted pile” and paraphrases Shelley, who noted its “gates, of immense stones, and leading through a dark passage opening into gloomy subterranean passages” (442).  Melville seemed in tune with the scene of Shelley’s drama.  He noted it was a “Tragic looking place enough. Big sloping arch.— Part of it inhabited, part desolate.”  We might want more reflection from Melville upon Cenci: something more about its tragic look, more about death, inspiration, Shelley, anything.  But Melville’s journal is exasperatingly mute on the Topics of Great Moment that we might want him to enlarge upon. And the words he does jot down to reflect moments of inspiration—beauty and mountains and the river, for instance—come at unexpected moments.

The Ghetto was a place Ginny and I have visited many times before, as far back as 1977 when we first visited Rome, and we have made repeated trips there always cognizant of the horrors of its ancient and recent history, always enjoying its shops and food, always moved by its resistance to death.  Now I could not help imagining the place through the more personalized lenses of the Finzi family, who, grabbed from life, and swiftly deported and transported from Rome, were horrifically robbed of their freedom to act out their quotidian joys and fumings, their outings in the city and arguments—robbed of their daily being—and were now nothing but a stumbling block represented by five four-inch brass plaques underfoot. How many other such plaques might I see in the Ghetto and throughout Rome? And I thought of the congruence of Beatrice Cenci, a woman betrayed, battered, abused, beyond understanding, driven to parricide, herself grabbed, mutilated, and murdered for her own crime, the victim not of laws justly administered but of politics, history, and a pope’s fear that the killing of an aristocrat no matter how obscene might incite popular revolt against all aristocracy, so the girl must die.  Was there not a little family holocaust among the Cenci, one of terror if not horror?  Politics then differ from politics now, but the horrors that humans can perform and do perform are always with us, and their victims—Cenci and Finzi—must remain a part of us or we surrender to the death of forgetting.

But we saw and felt none of this.  We were on Bus 23, riding along Lungotevere, looking for Melville’s Suspension Bridge, and we did not stop at the Teatro Marcello, or Ghetto, or Cenci Palace, because we had already re-visited them less than a week before.  Instead we kept to bus route 23 along the river to reach Melville’s final stop for the day: Castel Sant’Angelo where Beatrice had been executed. Spared of all twentieth-century thoughts of holocaust, he was still—cor cordiam, heart of hearts—on Shelley’s trail, drawn I think by Cenci.

From the tragic looking Palazzo Cenci, Melville made his way along Strada della Regola  DSC_0352and Vicolo de’ Venti to Palazzo Farnese.  The 16th-century palace, built by Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul 111, had housed a remarkable art collection, featuring objects lifted from the Baths of Caracalla.  Chief among them, Melville noted in his journal, was the monumental statue of Hercules leaning on his club (already mentioned) and an equally monumental sculpture depicting a minor domestic dispute involving a queen, two boys, and a bull.  But both the Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull had been a part of an 1826 wedding dowry, and, as Melville also noted in his journal, they had been moved to Naples.  Melville had marveled at both sculptures in the Museum Borbonico only the week before, noting the “gravely benevolent face” of Hercules. For almost a century, the Palazzo Farnese has served as the French Embassy and makes its still remarkable art collection open to visitors by appointment.

Two other remnants from the Baths of Caracalla that Melville surely saw are located in the piazza in front of the Palazzo Farnese.  They are two granite tanks, like huge bathtubs, that had been transformed into twin public fountains. Simple in its rational design, the palace itself DSC_0350struck Melville as exhibiting the “finest architecture of all the palaces (private)” in Rome, but he did not enter.  On this exhausting and wide-ranging day of “sore travel,” Melville, in late afternoon, decided to press his tour one stop further on to a final Shelley and Cenci related site. He was now just west and within easy reach of his hotel.  He could have called it quits. Instead, he continued north to Castel Sant’Angelo.  He had already seen this sight two days earlier on his first visit to St. Peter’s, and, of course, he could have wanted, simply enough, to see it again, despite his exhaustion.  But taking this route away from his hotel led him to the site of the execution of Beatrice Cenci and justified an extra excursion that more than doubled the length of his return home from Palazzo Farnese.  He sauntered down the narrow, medieval, and busy thoroughfare of Strada di Monserrato and arrived at the magnificent Ponte St. Angelo, which, lined with monumental statues of angels, takes you across the Tiber to the castle.

DSC_0365Originally built in the 2nd century CE to house Hadrian’s ashes, the massive drum was converted into a fortress two centuries later.  Atop the castle is a statue of the militant archangel Michael sheathing his sword, presumably symbolizing the defeat of a sixth-century plague. In ancient Jewish tradition, Michael defeats Satan and fights for the creation of Israel. Melville would draw upon Michael’s symbolic militancy in his Civil War poems, titled Battle-Pieces. But the most immediate association of Castel Sant’Angelo, for Melville on this day, was the death of Beatrice, the severing of that lithesome neck figured in Guido Reni’s famous portrait.  And mid-crossing, peeking over obscuring buildings along the river was St. Peter’s dome.  Whether he walked, again, the extra half mile to St. Peter’s square is not recorded.

DSC_0372Melville does not write about the dome, nor, for that matter, does he record any reference to Cenci. Instead, he was drawn that moment, unexpectedly, back in time to 1840 when he and a friend had gone west from New York overland to Galena, Illinois, and then back home, down the Mississippi and up the Ohio Rivers. He stood now on Sant’Angelo bridge gazing at the sandy banks of the Tiber below thinking, strangely enough, of his adolescent past and of how one river recalls another.  Today, the Tiber’s banks are walled.  After the ominous flood of 1870, only months after Rome was made capital of the new and unified nation of Italy, a commission—Allan Ceen tells us—set about redesigning the river.  The masonry embankments were not completed until 1910. Only one or two sandy beaches, silt deposits actually, remain to remind us of the Tiber’s former banks.

What Melville saw in 1857 was quite a different, uncontrolled, and unforgiving river with stone buildings and docks  planted defiantly on its edge.  That night he wrote: “Remarked the banks of Tiber near St: Angelo—fresh, alluvial look near masonry—primeval as Ohio in the midst of all these monuments of the centuries.” What drew Melville out of himself, out of the horrors of Cenci, and toward the kind of inspiration that had ignited Shelley’s foreshortened career was that in Rome he found nature not so much outlasting man—as in Shelley’s sharply ironic paean to human presumption “Ozymandias”—but indifferently enduring our precarious and presumptuous palazzi, bridges, and wharves. The river is ever “fresh” and “alluvial.” The river ignores our horrors; it needs no Michael, no resurrection or rebirth or inspiration; it simply flows.

DSC_0366That evening Melville re-crossed the bridge and walked back to the Hotel de Minerva for “dinner & bed.” But Ginny and I stayed up.  As evening fell, we ran again for Bus 23, this time going south down the right bank of the Tiber back to Trastevere, across the river from the Ghetto, across from Palazzo Cenci.  As we ran, against all caution and my principles, I glimpsed a massive redbud, the biggest yet, its blossoms ignited in the growing darkness, and stopped to take its picture.  Bus 23 led us to joyous newly-wed friends—a fellow Fulbrighter and a journalist—for a meal on the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the four of us made our way to Caffé Lettere where an American singer sang her songs: “let your caged words fly,” she sang.  And we hurried home ready for sleep.

Coda: The next day we learned about German artist Gunter Demnig’s project, begun in 1992, to place among the cobblestones of streets throughout Europe simple four-inch square plaques commemorating in brass the arrest, deportation, and death of individual Jews and other victims of Nazi terrorism.  We learned how the project began in Germany and how in the past two decades other countries have allowed Demnig to add the plaques in neighborhoods like ours here in Rome.  In German the plaques are called stopelsteine.  In Italian, pietre d’inciampo. Stumbling blocks.  We walk Rome’s streets differently now, with newer searching eyes.

Melville in Rome—Day 2: Colosseum and Beauty


Melville had gotten to bed early at Hotel de Minerva on his first day.  He had performed the centuries old touristic ritual of sighting St. Peter’s upon first entering Rome and experienced the equally ritualistic disappointment many others before him and since had recorded upon reaching the basilica.

Now, on Thursday, February 26, 1857, he was up and refreshed, and he set off for “Torloni’s, the banker,” to get news of Samuel Shaw, his wife’s younger half brother, who was touring northern Europe at the time but would not reach Rome until soon after Melville’s departure. By “Torloni’s,” Melville meant the bank run by the “Torlonia” family, located (according to his Murray’s Handbook) in Via Condotti, just off Piazza di Spagna.The first (papal) Prince Torlonia had achieved its great “nouveau” wealth in the early part of the century.  Now Alessandro Torlonia, the second prince of that name, was the firm’s present “banker,” who would later distinguish himself in his opposition to the financial indiscretions of the Papacy and in funding the draining of the Lake Fucino swamp that had plagued Romans with malaria for millennia (“History of the Torlonia Fortune,” NYTimes, March 1, 1886). Later on, Melville would also visit the Villa Albani, which the Torlonia family would purchase in 1866, just outside the city walls, for its art treasures. But he found no news of Sam Shaw at “Torloni’s” bank.

I picked up Melville’s trail for Day 2, at his next stop that morning, the Colosseum.  He was hitting Rome’s principal sights immediately.  And who would not?  You come to Rome; you see St. Peter’s and the Colosseum, and maybe a few other things.  It is a cultural obligation, and having paid their respects to these two monumental musts, many visitors simply move on, assuming they have “done” Rome. (Just like those who read Moby-Dick and say, “I have read Melville,” neglecting his nine other novels, numerous short stories, and four books of poetry.  Melville and Rome seem prey to a certain kind of synecdochal fallacy wherein we confuse the part for the whole.)

But let’s be fair: people cannot afford to “do” the whole of Rome, especially if they—Melville included—have Napoli, Firenze, Venezia, Padova, Genova, and the many other different città d’Italia on their itineraries, and all worth seeing. So we settle for seeing a part of Rome and call it quits. Ginny and I have been lucky to have been to Rome three times before coming here for our present and longest stay of five months, and we are still discovering parts of Rome we had never known existed.  Yes, they are all somewhere in a guidebook, but we like to experience Rome on our own, accidentally; well, with Melville as our “guide.”  And I was lucky on my Melville Day Two to have Ginny accompany me on the itinerary.  I warned her it would be mostly on foot.

Which is to say we arrived at the Colosseum by bus.  From our apartment in the neighborhood of Trieste, just off Via Nomentana, we took our favorite Bus 62 to Piazza Venezia, where at least a dozen lines intersect, with thrumming buses corralled on the outer edges of the piazza.  To conserve our energy and avoid the crowds of pedestrians meandering along the Via Fiori Imperiale, an unpleasant drag that connects the piazza to the Colosseum, we thought we would take instead a short hop on Bus 117, which we knew only as a number on that day.  As it happens, the 117 is not a short hop to the Colosseum, but it is a short bus.  Shorter  and narrower by half than regular city buses, and powered by battery, the 117 (and its twins the 116 and 119) is designed for maneuvering through Rome’s narrower medieval streets. Although it travels the main roads, it also wends its way through the warren of side-streets that make Rome a never-exhausted source of viewing pleasure.  But “short” bus also means crammed bus, and bus 117 also takes people to the offices, shops, and homes they need to get to.  It is often comically stuffed with Romans and Tourists alike. It’s as if you can see elbows sticking out the windows, if only you could open a window.

So, rather than taking a short cut to the Colosseum that we had expected in planning our route, the short bus 117 headed up Quirinale Hill, past Trajan’s Column, and onto Via Nazionale going in precisely the opposite direction from the Colosseum.  But it quickly turned back east on the ominously named Via dei Serpenti and other side streets no wider than 2.5 Fiats. DSC_0027An amused Roman business man in suit and running shoes sensed our concern and said, Don’t worry; this goes to the Colosseum. And it did.

Back down off the Quirinal, bus 117 dropped us plump in front of Rome’s most recognizable structure. And plump in the middle of the very hoard of tourists we had left in Piazza Venezia and had hoped to avoid by taking bus 117. “Someone” on the “Internet” says—I’m sorry; as a biographer I should be able to give you a more reliable source, but this will have to do—that the Colosseum gets 10,000 visitors a day, and though it was late February and early for the tourist season, I believe those 10,000 were there to greet us the day we attempted Melville Day Two.

Melville’s experience would have been significantly less crowded. The Grand Tour brought Europeans to Rome and then Americans, but not in great numbers.  Moreover, the city then had a population of only 200,000 compared to today’s almost 3 million, and Rome was only one-fourth the size of New York City’s population in 1860. Today, tourists are from all over the world, including Italy, including every Italian student beginning at age 12 come to the Colosseum.  But, so vacant was this urban edifice on that uncrowded day of Melville’s visit that he could compare the Colosseum to the lonely deserted Mt. Greylock, a wilderness sight that he witnessed daily out his window, at his farmhouse in Pittsfield.  This high peak lies low on the horizon to the north of Melville’s family home.  Situated between the Taconic range and the Berkshires, it is easy to get to and easy enough to climb. Melville famously watched it as he wrote Moby-Dick, and compared the saddle-back mountain to a whale. His next novel, Pierre, is dedicated to Mt. Greylock. Melville had climbed this mountain just as he climbed inside the Colosseum. So it was no disparagement of this famous Roman sight that Melville wrote later that night in his journal that the Colosseum seemed to him like a “great hollow among hills. Hopper of Greylock. Slope of concentric ruins overgrown. mountainous.”

interior-view-of-the-flavian-amphitheatre-called-the-colosseumWhy Melville compared the Colosseum to a mountain hollow, with rocky cliffs overgrown with verdure, is evident in Piranesi’s late-18th-century etching.  Today, because of restorations (still going on), the Colosseum’s interior is considerably spruced up, or rather de-spruced, as the shrubbery is now gone.  But much of the Piranesan plant-life remained when Melville and other 19th-century tourists paid their respects, as you can see if you look closely at the “notch” area to the left in the 1860 photo of the Colosseum below.  JAndersonColosseumArchofConst.c1860For Melville, the mountainous Colosseum’s overgrown and collapsing circles upon circles of arches reminded him of Greylock’s “Hopper,” a hollow scooped out of the western side of the mountain by glaciers, eons ago.

But the journal entry is not just an observation.  In its wording, Melville paces his hastily jotted words rhythmically—hollow among hills, ruins overgrown, [then boom] mountainous—as though the primal utterings of a poem might be lurking in this experience. But, though Melville would later publish poems drawing upon moments like this in his travels to Jerusalem, DSC_0041Greece, Egypt, and Italy, he did not write about the Colosseum, as far as we know. Even so, his complaint about Rome the day before had been that its landscape  held no meaning for him apart from its historical associations.  Now, after a night’s sleep and a day’s reflection, he was beginning to find landscape associations, beyond Roman history.  In fact, he was reshaping the Colosseum into a landscape of its own, a thing of nature.  He was warming up to Rome, and finding in it a kind of beauty.

The 1860 photo also features, to the right, the Arch of Constantine, just out of view in my photo directly above it.  The arch marked the beginning of an imperial route that skirted the Palatine Hill, also to the right and out of view, and continued on to the Circus Maximus, but in the older photo, you also see that the dusty roadway that comes from behind the Colosseum on the left bypasses the arch and comes toward the camera.  This is the road Melville took from Porta San Giovanni when he entered the city the day before.  Behind the camera stretched the Roman Forum, which (again according to Murray’s Handbook) was  “little better than a desert … covered with vineyards or the gardens of uninhabited villas … [and] no signs of human habitations but a few scattered and solitary convents.”  “Disabitato” is the word for it.  Much of Rome, within the city walls, during the first half and more of the 19th century wasDSC_0037 open fields among the ruins. The bulk of its popular of roughly 150,000 lived in and around the triangle of Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Piazza di Spagna.  Today, the segment of dusty roadway featured in the 1860 photo is a playground for tourists waiting to enter the Colosseum, and its extension (visible in my photos above and to the right), represents the tree-lined but disabitato route through the Roman Forum that Melville took, a roadway that has now been partially restored as an entrance into the forum, situated along the intersecting slopes of the Palatine and Capitoline Hills.  Over Ginny’s shoulder, in the distance, is the Arch of Titus, a gateway into the forum.

From the Colosseum, Melville strode directly, perhaps through the forum (though he does not mention it) to the Capitoline Museum, atop the Campidoglio Hill, where the day before he had had his disappointment regarding the view of St. Peter’s.  On this day’s visit, he rushed through the halls to touch base with the museum’s most famous sculptures, still on display today: imperial busts, the Dying Gladiator, and Antinous.

Entering the Palazzo Nuovo, the building to the left as you climb up to the piazza, Melville came to the Hall of Emperors and its collection of busts of Roman rulers and selected family members. What is astonishing, to me, about these marble figures is the sculptor’s apparent attempt to capture the peculiarities of the individual faces—Vespasian’s square jaw and sunny smile; Livia’s sad, down turned eyes—so that you have the impression of looking at snapshots of people from two millennia ago.  The illusion is impressive, but of course an illusion.  Other features are smoothed out through a process of idealization—a rounded chin, a perfect brow, tightly rippling hair—that was the ancient equivalent of today’s photographic techniques that can “airbrush” away blemishes and still get the effect of a “true to life” representation.

24108463.fc0f948b.240On a shelf above eye-level and tucked in a corner is a bust of Tiberius. This reluctant and then reclusive emperor who succeeded Augustus and reigned at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion governed ambivalently until sedition inspired him to murder countless suspected enemies.  Tacitus, whom Melville had read and upon whose annals much subsequent Roman history was based, defamed Tiberius, for his self-indulgences, political negligence, crimes, and debaucheries.  But the youthful and seemingly benign image of Tiberius in the Hall of Emperors challenges the impressions of historians, if you expect an evil man’s face to appear evil.  An English-speaking tourist—apparently American—within earshot of Melville exclaimed, “That Tiberius? he dont look so bad at all.” Later, Melville answered the lady tartly in the privacy of his journal: “It was he. [I imagine the emphasis on “was.”]  A look of sickly evel,—intellect without manliness & sadness without goodness. Great brain overrefinements. Solitude.”

Melville’s response is complicated.  Is he reacting to the bust, Tacitus, or the seemingly obtuse tourist? To Art, History, or Audience? These inextricable elements seem vying for dominance as the principal conveyance of Truth.  Is the artist’s illusion of benign features a cover-up of the “evel” man?  Or does the bust present something true that gives the lie to the historian’s tendentious perhaps politically shaped defamation of Tiberius?  Or are we meant in some way to see through the lies of art and history to the true character concealed somehow in the features of the bust?  If so, Melville’s deep reading surely contradicts the tourist’s surface reading, who seems to see beyond Tacitus and yet not more deeply into the face of evil. Melville sees evil in the man, but not the villainy of Tacitus.  Whereas Melville’s Tiberius has the intellect and sadness of a fully aware human being; he lacks the manliness and goodness to put them to good use.  He is not in touch with the heart; he is all brain.  He is, therefore, fundamentally deformed by his “solitude”; his loneliness is his flaw.

Two years later when he composed his “Statues in Rome” lecture, Melville recounted this incident for his audience, giving them a lesson in how to “read” a work of art, or rather how to read character hidden in art, hidden behind the masks of men.  Having just completed what would be his last novel, The Confidence-Man, about a series of “diddlers” intent upon bilking the passengers of a Mississippi steamboat, Melville had exhausted himself writing about the impossibility of ascertaining the truth of human character.  Tiberius was another such con man; and the tourist, with her naive “he dont look so bad”:  she was his dupe.  “Madam, thought I, if he had looked bad, he could not have been Tiberius.”  That is, the very genius of such a dissembler is to mask his evil: to be Tiberius means you will smile, and smile, and be a villain all the same, as Hamlet puts it.  But, as in his journal, Melville marks in his lecture a deeper sympathy for this man, as he did for his various fictional confidence men:  Tiberius seems “a man broken by great afflictions, of so pathetic a cast is it. … For Tiberius was melancholy without pity, and sensitive without affection.  He was perhaps, the most wicked of men.”  With pain, we are human, but without love, we are nothing.

Further down a hall of large rooms, past the famous Faun, which inspired Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun and which Melville seems to have ignored are, in a separate room, “The Dying Gaul”—known to Melville and most viewers up until the turn of the century  as “The Dying Gladiator”—and the Capitoline Antinous.  These are different sculptures altogether, from Tiberius and from each each other.  The down-turned face of the Gladiator, his twisting posture of defeat, the bruised marbling of the battered legs—is he falling back or trying to get up?—gave Melville proof in marble that “humanity existed amid the barbarousness of the Roman time, as it [does] now among Christian barbarousness.”  The comment, scrawled later that night in his journal, imagines the gladiator submitting to humiliation but not surrendering to an agony that robs him of dignity.  The truth in this statue lies on the surface because the sculptor put it there not to conceal but to engage us in a deeper human condition. Despite being “broken by great afflictions” like Tiberius, the dying man’s outward features retain the capacity for pity and affection.  But Melville’s last, elliptical remark unexpectedly modernizes this famous work of antiquity. Melville finds a deeper connection unimagined by the ancient sculptor: he concludes that Christian hypocrisies of today are no different from the Roman barbarity of the Colosseum.382px-0_Antinoüs_capitolin_(1)_

Viewing the bust of Tiberius and the Dying Gladiator in close proximity as you walk through the Capitoline Museum, you can see the varying uses of art.  The imperial bust conceals; the representation of the dying warrior contemporizes pain and loss.  But the statue of Antinous involves a whole other order of engagement. At least in Melville’s vision. The challenge for us is how to read these objects in the different ways that they beckon us to read them.  Here, Melville seems to find some thing that exists beyond human character.

The full-length statue of Antinous (pronounced An-TIN-o-us) was the object most visitors, Melville included, came to see.  He was Hadrian’s young lover who drowned at age 19 in the Nile, either accidentally or by his own doing. The aggrieved Hadrian made the boy a god, and a cult around him generated monuments to him and sculptures representing astonishing male beauty for centuries.  An ancient precursor of Michelangelo’s David, the Capitoline Antinous and other similar images of the dead boy with downcast pose was the epitome of a lost moment of innocence—he was usually portrayed with flowers—yet sexual power, of a male longing for beauty.  Melville knew it well enough that all he wrote in his journal was “Antinous, beautiful.”

This sculpture is  entirely different from the Tiberius bust or Dying Gladiator. Despite Antinous’s implication in imperial history, his representation in marble seems to exist independent of social associations. Melville was so taken with the image and impact of Antinous that he kept a bust of the young man in his home throughout his life.  Hawthorne, too, had such a bust. The image demands our gaze.  And in gazing, we are taken out of self, and somehow elsewhere.  No longer are we thinking of the divisions of human character: between emperor and gladiator, between villain and victim.  As Melville would put it later in his lecture: statues like Antinous “do not present the startling features and attitudes of men, but are rather of a tranquil, subdued air such as men have when under the influence of no passion.” From within the stone comes something not fully graspable: it is the transformation of pain and longing into the passionate no-passion of beauty. And what is this kind of beauty that is only evoked not seen? It is not some Emersonian or Platonic essence that transcends all beautiful things, not purity or ideality, but rather the enactment of an idea that simply forgets politics, class, and the need for surface, character, and deception.

But more: The maleness of this beautiful object is unmistakable, and inseparable from the kind of beauty I want to articulate on Melville’s behalf.  It involves the male gaze of the male.  In his book Men Beyond Desire, David Greven speaks of the myth of the “inviolable male” in American culture: the notion that the masculine must not submit either to other-sex or to same-sex desire. Greven invokes Freud’s notion that desire, itself, has no object.  It is simply desire.  But, of course, we seek objects for our love: male, female, both. Our present culture—whose sexual repressions stemming from before Victoria still persist—denies us license, even a vocabulary, for speaking of the kind of desire—some call it the love that cannot speak its name; others call it beauty—that I feel Melville felt.  It is too easy to call Melville gay; too easy to call him straight.  “Antinous, beautiful,” is all he wrote.

Melville was done with the museum, for now.  He dashed down to Capitoline steps, crossed Piazza Venezia, and “walked to the Pincian Hill.”  Melville gives no hint in his journal whether he knew that an ancient Egyptian obelisk, first erected along the Nile and dedicated to its victim Antinous, stood upon that hill. But it is certain that he had Antinous on his mind as he made a quick trip of it up the Corso, which connects Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo.

DSC_0045Then as today, the Via del Corso is one of Rome’s main drags, with palazzi, government buildings, churches, shops, trattorie, and all manner of people in its streets and side streets. It takes you to Piazza del Popolo, a capacious circular space, with its huge obelisk, which, gnomon-like, on sunny days casts its shadow along the square, as if marking off the hours.  Snatched by Augustus Caesar in

DSC_005210 BCE for display at the Circus Maximus, it was moved to this site in the late 16th-century at the beginning of the papacy’s efforts to re-construct Rome. But this Flaminio Obelisk—only one of Rome’s thirteen ancient obelisks—is not the nearby Pincian Obelisk, which Hadrian had placed in his Tivoli garden but which had been moved around Rome several times over the centuries, ending up at its present location in 1822 atop Pincian Hill.  To reach this obelisk, dedicated to Antinous, you must climb Pincio, the hill that abuts the eastern half of the Piazza del Popolo.  No doubt Melville climbed the steep stairs off the piazza with alacrity.  No doubt he serpentined his way up the steep winding trail to yet more stairs. No doubt he made it to the terrace overlooking the piazza and the city in no time.  Ginny and I, however, took our time, pausing to take in the view in ever higher stages of elevation, strictly, of course, for the experiment in perspective, and not as you might think because we are old and easily winded.

DSC_0061Melville does not mention the Pincian obelisk, only the “gardens & statuary” around it.  In fact, he may not have known of its association with Antinous.  But his mind was on the boy, or on his desire beyond object, or what I am inadequately calling “beauty,” all that day.  The pretensions of the crowd strolling the Corso, piazza, and lofty Pincian terrace simply turned him off: he was back in his mood again.  “Fashion & Rank,” he fumes in his journal. “Preposterous posing within stone’s throw of Antinous.  How little influence has truth on the world!—Fashion everywhere ridiculous, but most so in Rome.” But suddenly out of this easy social critique emerges one of the journal’s most revealing lines: “No place where lonely man will feel more lonely than in Rome. (or Jerusalem).”

On the Corso, Melville had made his way between two versions of Antinous:  the utterly nude, anatomically correct statue of a perfectly formed young man and the odd, austere (surely phallic) obelisk—though sometimes an obelisk is just an obelisk—with its inscrutable cyphers running up its four sides.  And everywhere jostling him were overly clothed Romans and tourists obsessed with their plumage and  status.  None would or could understand his need to attach himself through art—his writing—not to this lively social scene but to something stranger and different, something he could grasp more fully while standing watch up a mast, hiking Mt. Greylock, or imagining himself atop that obelisk.  Melville had been homesick before on his travels: he was, paradoxically, a home-boy. But this was not heimweg—the standard malaise of the Grand Tour traveler—this was a loneliness a person feels when in the crowd, when caught between life and art, when paralyzed by the challenge of what next to write.  Could he write as well as the unknown artist who sculpted Antinous could sculpt, and could he reach these people—these readers—who in their outrageous outfits and obsession for money and rank had yet to feel the wonder and gaze at the beauty that had stood for centuries back down the Via del Corso and up in the Capitoline Museum?

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No more touching moment occurs in Melville than this oblique admission that he was a “lonely man.” But, Ishmael-like, somehow he “grew merry again,” or at least he did not lapse into depression.  A band was playing as it did every Thursday.  Standing at the marble railing of the Pincian terrace, called Piazzale Napoleone, he could look down at the ant-size people criss-crossing the piazza, and he could see the Flaminio Obelisk casting its long February afternoon shadow on the square.  But then past the obelisk and in the distance was the dome of St. Peter’s, now much larger and dominating the horizon than it had appeared to him the day before from the clock tower on the Capitoline.  No longer disappointed, it was for him, he wrote, “A fine view.”

It was getting dark.  From the terrace you can make your way back down the hill, back in the direction of the Capitoline, to the top of Spanish Steps.  Melville made his way down the stagings of marble staircases to Piazza di Spagna below Spanish Steps

and found there a more compatible citizenry—artists, sculptors, writers, and bohemians—milling about. Just to the north of the steps is Babbington’s Tea Room, established in 1893, which Melville did not see, but “lounges” (as Melville called them) like it lined the square.  At the foot of the steps is the elegant, boat-like Fontana della Barccacia, by Bernini (and his less famous father), and, like today, “picture & curiosity dealers” set up their stands.  Just a few meters off the piazza, down Via Condotti, with its art shops and studios, Melville found the Caffè Greco.

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This venerable establishment still exists, though the studios that once surrounded it now sell Dolce & Gabbana, jewels, shoes with jewels, and Gucci suits. Ginny and I entered and made our way through a small mob at the coffee bar to the right and past the dolci case to the left into a series of rooms separated by pillars and half-walls, and lined with banquettes and elegant round tables.  The clientele are now well-healed tourists and Italians with shopping bags, who DSC_0081are willing to pay 5 euros for an espresso and ten for a sweet without batting an eye.  These were not the “‘English sculptor’ with dirty hands &c” or the “Rowdy looking chaps. &c” that Melville witnessed.  Nor was the place filled with “Dense smoke,” as Italians (even Italian bohemians) now, astonishingly enough, take their smokes outside.  The quotes Melville puts around “English sculptor” suggest that the person he saw might have been a character he thought he wanted to remember to write up in some way later on.  He liked the detail of the dirty hands.  An artist at work and too involved to clean up just for uno caffè.

I asked a tuxedoed waiter if the Caffè Greco had kept its floor-plan the same since the mid-nineteenth century.  He affirmed that only the dolci case was “new,” but the rooms, which stretch back to another entrance on the next street over, were the same.  Photos from the turn of the century, which include the more bohemian clientele Melville witnessed (though seemingly not so rowdy-looking), confirm his remark.  And he moved on to take a photo of two elderly Italians in town on holiday.

Melville’s second day was complete; he went back to the Hotel de Minerva and to bed.

Melvillesco: Travel and Bellezza

Melville’s first day in Rome seemed simple enough: he arrived, visited two sites, and went to bed. But in tracking that day and writing it up, I found myself taking far more time than I had imagined, and ended up writing two postings for that one day.  Apparently, living life through someone else is not as efficient a way of getting through a day as you might think. Better to live your own life.

We are always told, in America at any rate, that “imitation is suicide” (thank you, Emerson) and that true “manhood” (I think today Emerson would say “personhood”) means living in such a way so that you may find our “aboriginal self.”  I say “our” because for Emerson this “Self”—this “essential man” (there he goes again)—is the shared substratum of a universalized identity.  This “oversoul” is not “above” us; it is deeply embedded. Transcendence is not rising up; it is going inward to where all humanity is. Very Platonic. This “aboriginal” Self, so says Emerson, is the thing we must rely upon and trust.  If we can only find it.  Finding this Self means peeling away the social life that distracts and confines you.  Better, then, to live “essentially,” without society. And to do this, you do not need to travel; you do not need Rome or Naples, Emerson said. Just stay put and stay within in order to focus your energy on finding this Self. A very appealing anti-materialism for a materialist democracy.

Emerson and I may not see eye to eye on all these matters of self and life and travel and imitation.  I am imitating Melville’s itinerary in Rome in order to write something that passes for a biography, and I can only do this through a form of research that involves reading Melville’s words and devising ways of placing myself, self-consciously, in the critical role of re-enacting certain moments of Melville’s creativity.  So if he travels, I travel, too.  But travel was also his way of getting away from family, which he loved and needed and wanted, but which distracted from his own desire to grasp at the Essential, or what he and Emerson would have called “Beauty,” and Melville’s search for beauty seems to have culminated in Rome. But Melville took transcendentalism and platonism as desire rather than reality, and  what exactly Melville meant by beauty is not entirely clear.  It is what I hope to discover. Perhaps, too, my re-enactment of Melville’s itinerary is my way of finding something essential in me, though I also find it hard to see beauty as an essence, or if it is an essence, hard to grasp in me.

Passeggio e Viaggio

DSC_0223Last week marked only our third week in Rome. Because we have just embarked on a five-month stay, we know that we still have plenty of what is often referred to as “time” ahead of us.  We immediately panicked.  Tempus was fugiting all around us, almost a month was gone, twenty percent of our Roman journey would be done in a week.  Ars may be longa, and Rome eternal, but vita breva, baby, so let’s get on the road.

I had taught my first class—a PhD seminar on the American Renaissance—and the anxiety of meeting new students and getting a feel for who they are, where they are, what they need, and how we all would mesh—I an American; they Italian (but also Spanish, Russian, Iranian, Argentine, and Chinese)—all that anticipatory anxiety had evaporated. The following evening we spent at the opera, two rows from the orchestra pit, awash in Muti’s orchestration, Anna Netrebko’s warm soprano, and the low tenor of Yusif Eyvazov, a brilliant young voice from Azerbaijan. But the following morning, the only music we heard was the rattling of our one suitcase as it rolled unsteadily over cobblestones to make a bus to Termini—Rome’s sweeping, monumental train station—and then the whir and whoosh of the high speed Frecciarossa to Firenze.  A few days later, we were on a slower train to Siena, and then an even slower train back to Rome.

So in a furious long weekend—from Friday to Tuesday—we were tourists, and the experience is something both Ginny and I will no doubt recount in further separate but intertwined postings to come. We had been in Florence decades and decades ago—not long after that unpleasantness with Savonarola—with Emma (then one or so) on my back—and today I have only vague recollections of visiting the endless halls of the Uffizi, but that is about it.  So I was eager to return to Florence for a fuller engagement. I don’t recall there being back then in 1978 quite the mobs of tourists already assembling on this weekend in early March 2014. Granted, the crowds were mostly Italian school groups, or other Italians touring Italy, plenty from Asia (China, Japan, Korea), and only the occasional bewildered American or Brit.  We had a room “with a view,” as the Soggiorno Battistero B&B put it in their ad, and their ad was not false: our third story windows looked directly onto Florence’s multicolored Duomo and Baptistry.  We could watch the tides of visitors wash over the square, pause, look up, pose, click, and move on.

Each night after our day of relentless touring—Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio, the Accademia, the Medici Chapels, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a bracing exhibit of books from Boccaccio’s library, with his inscriptions, and more—we rested by taking a leisurely stroll around 6 or 7 pm, which is the time of day that Italians take their traditional passeggio or passeggiata.

My recollection again goes back decades and decades ago when we spent a year in Genova, and lived in a garden apartment in a small coastal town called Nervi just east of Genova.  And by “coastal town” I mean to say, without guilt or embarrassment, that we were living on the Italian Riviera.  Less than a block from our apartment in Nervi, and through the sottopassagio that takes you under the train tracks, we would arrive on a spring or summer and even fall or winter day onto Nervi’s passagiata, the town’s walk-way along the rocks and tiny beaches of the Mediterranean.  We would stroll along with Emma in her stroller, sit and watch the sun set, or look further to the east past the fishing village of Camoglie to the looming peninsular Portofino mountain jutting into the sea.  It was pure hell.

Passing us or approaching us would be tight joyous intense knots of Italian raggazi and raggaze, more cautious Italian families with their bambini, either held in arms, or guided along off a finger, or in strollers, and elderly couples bundled up against the occasional breeze even on the hottest days: they well-dressed regardless of economic status; we looking like Americans. We passing people would greet each other with buona sera and stroll along. I have the fondest memories of passegio.

Return with me, if you will, to Florence, March 8, 2014, a Saturday at 6pm, along the Via Calimala that takes you from Piazza della Repubblica to the Ponte Vecchio. These end points are only two of the many hang-outs for Italians and tourists alike, and the strada that connects them is so filled with humanity that the occasional taxi must simply take its time trying to head down the roadway.  All of Florence is a pedestrian mall, it seems; and has been since before Savonarola. That night, Florence was taking its passegio with a vengence.

DSC_0148As we walked, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the street; sometimes one in front the other, other times arm in arm, phalanxes of teens wove effortlessly beside us and each other, advancing side by side, some falling back, each heading relentlessly forward until suddenly pausing, lighting up, yelling out a witticism or banality, laughing, catching up, making no eye contact either with those they love or simply bump into, full of life, utterly oblivious of a past or future: they move in step with the exhilaration of their momentary bonding. Without a buona sera or a mi scusi, they seem racing one way or another, toward the carnival of the Piazza with its carousel and vendors, or to the shimmering lights along the Arno, which bring them, for a brief instant to a moment of silence and longing.

I know these raggazi who have left us in their dust.  They are my clients, my children, my students: I am blessed that I love this form of humanity, because so many in my profession disdain their ignorance, narcissism, arrogance, and seeming disregard. Their hair is tufted and shaven on the sides, their piercings and tattoos carefully placed, their presence is imposing, adult, muscular, and curved: so much beauty and self loathing. But their skin has a translucence that betrays an underlying layer of baby fat.  So I love them: I know their fear, respect their drive to escape self-knowledge, and admire their eventual emergence into a deeper awareness of darkness within light. Somehow, despite their utter obliviousness regarding my presence, I wait and watch them because they seem the epitome of humanity becoming humanity.

DSC_0143Occasionally, we saw an elderly man or woman, separately walking, eying the crowd and store fronts, or an older couple, such as ourselves, walking together, watching their step, lingering beside a gelateria that displays their flavors in peaks, like a range of Alps. But each of us pensioners were like dislocated shells tumbling along with the waves of raggazi heading this way or that, striding not strolling, care less of others.

I could see Buster Keaton doing this scene very well: exiting his house on a quiet vicolo, adjusting his hat and vest primly, taking his girl in his arm, and walking down the side street, the two merge onto Via Calimalo in anticipation of a pleasant, lovey stroll and are swept into a river of people that swirls Buster around in bewilderment, hat and girl flying off in undisclosed directions.  He catches his hat, is bumped again by this striding pedestrian and that, swirls again as he tries to keep pace, grabs for his girl’s hand, only to find a scowling man in a bowler.  Cut to lonely bedroom.DSC_0144

I refuse to make generalizations about today’s frantic passegio as compared to what I experienced or remember experiencing decades and decades ago.  And I refuse to condemn a generation of young Florentines for failing, in their justified panic over the flight of time, to slow down, to say good evening, to acknowledge the life around them instead of the panic within. But I worry, too, about the passing of passegio.

Siena was different perhaps only because its crowds are smaller.  Even so, the pace along Via Banchi di Sopra, which bends back along Siena’s hill becoming Via Banchi di Sotto, the city’s two main streets, seems slower. People actually saunter.  A well-dressed gentleman smokes his blunt Italian cigar; an elderly woman escorts her ancient mother, in matching scarves; and of course raggazi, raggaze, raggazi.  The city’s proudest gelateria, named Grom, has a glassed in area with banquets allowing you to sit, enjoy a coppetta with invert plastic spoon, and watch the procession. Out on the street, we managed a buona sera and got a response.  It seemed closer to what I want passegio to be, and to what I wish Italians would always be in retaining this tradition, whose ideal of movement and community is so inexplicably dear to me.

Back on the train out of Siena, heading to Rome.  Our car is one of those older types with a long windowed corridor and 8 or so compartments seating six people, three facing three.  The train is crowded with high-schoolers at one end and their teachers at a compartment at the other end.  Occasionally, when the ruckus reaches the level of riot, a teacher strides down the corridor, making the familiar fingertips touching thumb tip gesture saying “Daniele, ma cosa fai?!” and the noise subsides, temporarily.  Our compartment is all adults; we have reservations for the window seats.  As we pull out of Siena station, the train winds through hilly farm land, sheep in pastures, bare orchards waiting for spring buds.  Occasionally, I see a hawthorne’s white blossom flash by, then the rarer cherry pink, and down in the brush a pheasant is flushed out by the train’s clatter.  Then higher hills are sectioned off with vineyards, also bare.  We stop at the delicious station called Montepulciano. We come next to hill towns; first in the distance, they look like trees on top of slopes, but they are peopled.  Closer and overlooking us and a river is Orvieto, which seems like a collage of cubes piled upon each other; a painting by Corot.  I want to return there soon.  But once or twice on this voyage, I see a bush with big bright red blossoms, which flashes by so fast I cannot alert Ginny in time to see them.  I do not recognize this flower; maybe it is some kind of hibiscus, though brighter than any I have seen.  I cannot name it, but will: rose of passing.