Melville Enters Rome—Day 1

MelvilleMy first confession: what follows did not happen on February 25, the 157th anniversary of Melville’s arrival in Rome. Ginny and I had an appointment for lunch with my colleagues Giorgio Mariani and Ugo Rubeo at Sapienza.  So I planned ahead and did my first Melville day on February 24. My second confession: I didn’t stay strictly to his probable itinerary for the first day.  But let’s be fair: Melville covered a good deal of territory on his first day in Rome, much of it in a coupé, or a kind of two person carriage with the driver seated on top. Moreover, Melville was thirty-eight in 1857. Did I mention that I am sixty-four, and this is 2014?  So instead of a coupé, I took the Rome Metro to reach Melville’s point of entry—Porta San Giovanni—and the beginning of the first leg of this day’s journey.

Previous to his arrival from Naples, Melville had been galloping along in the coupé, stopping every 8 miles or so for a fresh team of horses. He and one other rider had been at it for twenty-four hours when they reached Rome’s wall.  Starting out fresh at 8 am on February 24 in Naples, the postillion and his two riders would have taken city streets from the Naples Post Office and then country roads to a point inland and well north of the city where the carriage then joined the Appian Way.  At nightfall, they reached the hills around Fondi and  headed to Terracina back on the coast.  Rattling along until sunrise on February 25, at the Alban Hills just southeast of Rome, they joined the Via Appia Nuova, which was built in 1784 and runs parallel to the Via Appia.  They arrived at the Porta San Giovanni about two or three hours later.  Melville had gotten no sleep and was exhausted by the ordeal.  Today’s alta velocità train from Naples to Rome takes an hour and ten minutes.

I had had a sleepless night as well, the night before my retracing of Melville’s first day.  I had been up past two am, still a little bit jet-lagged from our flight over from New York, and I was still adjusting to daily espressos, which add more caffeine to my system than I am used to. And I had been excitedly planning my itinerary for the next day. My options were to get up at sunrise and see the day as Melville would have seen it or to sleep in a bit and do my best to get to Porta San Giovanni around 9 am, about the time that Melville had reached the gate. Reader, I arrived at the gate at noon.

I was also delighted to find out that Porta San Giovanni is a fermata on the Metro A line, which crosses the Metro B that I had taken to see Dr. Bacci.  I made my way over to Piazza Bologna, caught the B and got off three fermate later at Termini, Rome’s magnificent train station.  I followed the well-marked signs on walls, ceiling, and floors through various underground pedestrian routes to make the transfer to the Metro A, and three stops later I escalated back above ground into floods of blue sky and sunshine: I was just outside the massive city wall, looking directly at Porta San Giovanni.

DSC_1188I had two photos I wanted to take: one would be something close to what I thought Melville was likely to have seen (that is, a picture taken at such an angle so as to strip away as many modern trappings—traffic signs, lights, ads, and cars—as possible), and the other would be full of today’s traffic. But that plan seemed more of a challenge to the photographer in me than the biographer.  If I wanted to approach the problem of “then and now” in biography—the Melville and the me—or rather PortaSanGiovanniCa1930the distance between these two, I needed a more authentic contrast.  So I searched for old photographs of Porta San Giovanni and found one that dates from 1930 but could just as easily have been from 1857—and I paired it with my own.

As you can see, while the seventeenth-century stone gateway remains the same, the brickwork of today’s Porta San Giovanni wall has been spruced up considerably: six new arches (five visible in my photo above) have been added to accommodate modern traffic. But you can also tell from the mid-eighteenth-Vasi08century etching by Giuseppe Vasi (below) that the squared off passage way was itself a later addition, to accommodate the modern traffic of the nineteenth century.  How many piercings into this wall did Melville see?  Obviously, I need to find an etching or photo that comes closer to 1857.

Regardless of which passageway Melville’s coupé took, he made it through Porta San Giovanni.  To his right, he might have seen the row of stone pines similar to the ones along the wall photographed below.  But, of course, the real attraction was the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano to his left.


Later during his stay, he returned to view the basilica more closely, and after his return home and when he composed his first lecture called “Statues in Rome,” Melville gave a succinct rendering of his early impressions of the church.

As you pass through the gate of St. John, on the approach to Rome from Naples, the first object of attraction is the group of colossal figures in stone surmounting, like storks, the lofty pediment of the church of St. John Lateran.  [These statues, like others in Rome, are] the true and undying population of Rome.

He called these statues “mute citizens” of Rome, suggesting that their form and presence spoke more truthfully about human character and beauty than any histories he had read.  Excited by entering the Eternal City for the first time, Melville wanted to stop, to tour, to absorb, but the postillion had seen it all before, and had his riders and the mail to deposit in the center of town.

I can only speculate on which of the myriad possible routes Melville’s post coach might have taken. I am still looking for a reliable, viewable map of Rome ca. 1857.  However, what I have found so far may be the best of finds, online, even if it is one hundred years off the mark.  It is the 1748 map created by Giambattista Nolli, which has been digitized in an exquisite, interactive site titled Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi’s Grand Tour of Rome (, created by Jim Tice and Erik Steiner of the University of Oregon. The site layers modern maps over Nolli’s map and uses Vasi’s engravings (also layered with modern photographs) to show scores of “views” (veduti) of the town.  Tice and Steiner also provide on their layered map the various “historic pathways” through Rome.

One such pathway shows a direct route from the basilica along Via San Giovanni, around the Colosseum, directly through the Roman Forum to the city’s center,DSC_0038 2DSC_0041

then further on and across the river at Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican.  This “papal procession” route connected the Pope’s two major “homes.” Melville’s postillion, I imagine, took these stone streets to Piazza Venezia; however, he would not have to have endured the pretentious Monument to Vittorio Emmanuelle II that now dominates the square.

DSC_0043 2DSC_0045

Turning right onto Via del Corso, Rome’s major north-south avenue, Melville passed by the power and wealth of many palazzi and on to his destination: the post office.

In his journal entry for this day in Rome, Melville writes that he got his “first letter from home” once he entered Rome, and this little notation, combined with the fact that he had begun his trip at the Naples Post Office and was surely riding along with the day’s mail, suggests to me that his first stopping point in Rome would have been Rome’s central Post DSC_0016Office.  But this is just a guess.  According to the travel guide Melville had with him—The Handbook for Travellers to Central Italy, prepared by Melville’s British publisher John Murray—Rome’s central Post Office was located, then as it is today, on Piazza San Silvestro. And to get there and catch up with Melville, I returned to Metro A and rode the distance to Piazza Barberini, the stop closest to the Post Office.

If this is indeed the building Melville entered to see if any mail was waiting for him, he could have looked up inside the entryway and seen two frescoed lunettes above him, one over each shoulder.  Up in the left lunette is a reclining oriental empress asking to be fanned by an elegantly attired African servant.  Up to the right, appears to be Queen Isabella of Spain in casual conversation with a native American. Today, these same images of empire and femininity watch patrons as they come through DSC_0017the door, seeking not so much their mail any more as various official, governmental, and financial transactions. (See Ginny’s post “Moduli.”)


From the Post Office, Melville probably walked to his lodgings at the Hotel de Minerva. Throughout his life, Melville was a great walker, mostly by inclination but often he had no choice in the matter.  Throughout his journals, he makes a point to indicate when he was forced, for reasons of practicality or exhaustion, to take a cab. But walking was his default mode, and because he does not mention taking a cab from the Post Office, I see him with suitcase in hand walking down the streets of Rome, at 10 am, presumably with some kind of map, trying to find the Minerva Hotel.  Or perhaps, this is how I see myself.

Chances are Melville went back down Via del Corso past Piazza Colonna, named not—Ginny tells me—for its towering column but for the powerful Colonna family that owned much of the surrounding district of Rome. The column is dedicated to Marcus Aurelius, and like Trajan’s column near the Roman Forum (which he would have seen from the coupé), it is bedecked with a single marble ribbon of figures spiraling upward, depicting the history and accomplishments of the two emperors, both of the Roman ruling family called the Antonines.

DSC_0020Thirty years later, at the end of his life, Melville had witnessed the growth of his nation into an imperial power.  And after twenty years as a customs officer in New York City, he had seen palm-greasing corruption all around him. In 1891, his last year, he published a perhaps bitter, perhaps hopeful poem titled “The Age of the Antonines,” in his travel-inspired, Italy-suffused collection Timoleon, which concludes:

Ah, might we read in America’s signs
The Age restored of the Antonines.

With Trajan’s and Marcus Aurelius’s columns punctuating his trip through Rome, Melville had to marvel, as any of us does today, at the spectacle and ruin of Rome. But as a nineteenth-century reader of Roman history, its rise and fall, he saw America, perhaps more acutely than we, as a republic similar to Rome coming perilously close to similar ruination. More likely, though, Melville had other thoughts on his mind than the fall of America or the ribbon of Roman signs spiraling up the virtuous Antonine column as he crossed Piazza Colonna. For once he left the Corso, he was into the maze of Rome’s historic center and finding his way would have meant following his nose, or asking for direction; the map is not always so helpful.

DSC_0031The side streets crowding about Piazza Colonna lead to remarkably incongruous piazzale, one with the tallest of obelisks seized millennia ago in the conquest of Egypt, another with boys kicking a ball in the dust.  Each bending alley way connects to another, but never with a straight view to an end, but each leading him, somehow, soon enough and subito, just around the next corner, signore, to the utterly unexpected magnificence of the Pantheon.


I imagine Melville at this point so completely battered by all these monuments and bustle leaping at him from every turn of a corner that the very second wind that was keeping him awake was beginning to leave him breathless.

Moving forward to the left and just behind the Pantheon, on the Piazza della Minerva, DSC_0036Melville saw Bernini’s ridiculous little monument, an elephant with yet another obelisk on his back.  On the south side of the square, with the Pantheon still in view, was Melville’s immediate objective, the Hotel de Minerva, now a Grand Hotel with ever fresh bouquets of flowers but then a much more modest albergo, catering to travelers desperately inclined to speaking English or French.


Melville wasted no time.  He unpacked, washed his face but probably no more, read his letter from home, and in less than an hour, was out again on the streets.  Despite all that he had seen, he had not seen what he had wanted most to see. But, while Melville at 38 could go on touring, or roving, after twenty-four hours of no sleep, I cannot, at 64, go on writing.  He has kept me up until 2 am on successive nights, preparing for and writing this post, and I shall have to save the rest of his day for another posting.  Good night.


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