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?

DSC_0065 2

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.

photo 2

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.


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