A couple days ago, I posted my first in a series of bloggings that follow Melville’s steps during the month he stayed in Rome, in 1857. The writing up of only the first half of his first day was so exhausting for me that I had to stop writing at 2 am to get some rest. Now some days later, after tinkering with my previous posting, I am ready to finish day one.
Melville had reached the Hotel de Minerva at 10 am his time, which was a somewhat embarrassing 3 pm my time. I was in good shape having stopped for a meal—big flat square Roman ravioli and a side dish of puntarelle all’acciughe, curly crunchy, early shoots of the chicory (soaked to remove the bitterness) and served chilled with a light and flavorful sauce of pulverized anchovy and olive oil, a mid-winter Roman treat—and so I had perhaps more energy in the afternoon than Melville had had during his first Roman morning.
Once Melville had registered and unpacked at the hotel, he set out on tour, with what seems to have been a clear objective: to see St. Peter’s Cathedral. But rather than head west to Piazza San Pietro, he went south and east to the Capitoline Hill, the highest point nearby to look for the familiar dome, like a seaman climbing a mast to spot a whale.
His most likely and most direct route to the Campidoglio, which sits atop the Capitoline Hill, is an easy walk. I headed down Via dei Cestari to what is now Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, an 1880s era avenue that follows the much older roadway of the papal procession, a route that connected the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano to the Basilica San Pietro, the pope’s two official homes. Directly across this busy road would have been several undistinguished palazzi surrounding a small piazza. These were later torn down and excavated in the 1920s in an effort by Italy’s fascist government to add luster to its crimes by unearthing and restoring areas of ancient Rome previously buried underground. The project proved far more fruitful than anticipated: what emerged was a “sacred area” consisting of the ruins of four temples and of Pompey’s Theater (used two millennia ago as a Roman Senate building), on whose steps Julius Caesar was assassinated. The excavation in the area now known as Largo di Torre Argentina (one of my favorite places anywhere) is sunk more than twenty feet below the surface of modern Rome, and Melville would have had no inkling of its existence.
Moving east along the roadway, Melville would have come directly to Piazza Venezia, Rome’s central hub, at the foot of the Capitoline hill.
Atop the hill is Piazza del Campidoglio and its three buildings: one a government building with its bell tower and two museums. One of Michelangelo’s last projects was to redesign this square, including the Cordonata, its gentle sloping staircase (with several footsteps per riser) flanked at the top by monumental statues of Rome’s legendary founders Castor and Pollux.
Melville went still higher than the piazza and, like visitors of the day, climbed the bell tower to take the panoramic view of the city and to scout for St. Peter’s. But his exhaustion finally caught up with him. Or, was it the kind of malaise that grabs a traveller when he or she can no longer contain the disappointment that comes with the sullen contrast between our anticipation of a storied place and what lies beneath our feet. Melville himself was not quite sure:
Whether it is having come from the East, or chafed mood, or what, but Rome fell flat on me. Oppressively flat.—Did’nt sleep any last night, though . . . The whole landscape nothing independent of associations. St: Peters looks small from Tower of Capitol.
These observations were written in his journal later that evening, back at the hotel, before his early dinner and collapse into bed, so that he carried this disappointment with him throughout the rest of his first day. Even though he is looking for St. Peter’s, his mind is on the landscape, which in itself is not as dramatic as what he experienced in Naples, or had experienced in January and early February while visiting Jerusalem, the Pyramids, and Greece. For him at this moment, Rome’s urban terrain had nothing on the stark and picturesque landscapes of “the East.” All that was pressing upon him, that day, were the historical associations he knew to expect from his reading. Nature’s landscape seemed defeated by Rome’s sprawl, its ruins, and relentless history. He wanted something unexpected.
Perhaps, though, it was just his “chafed mood, or what” that was influencing his impressions and flattening out Rome’s seven hills. Tourists do not allow themselves, or have time for, their moods. The point of touring is to leave one’s mood behind, to escape for two weeks or even more, in order to “vacate” one’s self and fill it, temporarily, with the otherness of a foreign land. One has not the time while touring to feel a mood; the itinerary, the next stop, prevents the dwelling upon a mood. Melville had left home to go “on tour,” which was a different proposition. Perhaps, he would return a different man, perhaps he would not return. He was roving for his mental health, for new ideas. Unlike the tourist, the rover packs his moods and brings them along: they never leave you, and that’s the point; they are the unbidden thing by which landscape, history, art, and associations are colored, measured, even judged.
I wanted to climb the bell tower to take Melville’s stance and try (midst my excitement) to find the disappointment he had felt. But contra Melville, I liked Rome’s landscape, if by landscape you mean its hills, which are admittedly flattened by the city’s many buildings (though not, thankfully, a single skyscraper). Still, you feel the landscape the moment you walk the streets. Seeking higher ground, Melville wanted the bird’s view, not the pedestrian’s. And perhaps to catch his chafed mood, I wanted to climb as well. But the Palazzo Senatorio remains a government building, and the guard wearily cooling his heels at the entrance, wishing he were a bird, or at home, or at least inside a museum not patroling outside, maintained a practiced indifference despite my asking the generally never-asked question of why the bell tower was closed to me. It’s ufficiale, non é museo.
I wandered about the Campidoglio square somehow knowing that if I could get behind the buildings blocking my view and up to higher ground, closer to the edge of the hilltop, I might glimps St. Peter’s dome, though of course at a lower level than atop the bell tower. I walked up a staircase to the left of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, then down to an open service area, and around the building to the right where I found a railing that I was sure would lead me to the view I wanted. Following the railing and a little alleyway that inclined up the other side of the building, my mood lifted as my prospects seemed increasingly to improve. Initially, the tops of trees from down below rose up to obstruct my view, but as I walked on, I could begin to see, down toward the traffic below, the Teatro Marcello and the Ghetto’s Synagogue (which had not been built in Melville’s day). Walking still further up, I came to the level of Rome’s red tile rooftops stretching out before me. And as I continued along this railed terrace, called Piazzale Caffarelli, I saw on the horizon, distantly placed amidst closer spires, domes, and tv antennas the dome of St. Peter’s, diminished in size by its distance and the least imposing of structures in this cityscape. Two young girls were engaged in conversation on a park bench, an elderly man with his miniature dog was watching the horizon, and I snapped photos. That’s St. Peter’s, I asked the man, for confirmation of what I knew was true. We both wanted to admire it together: É bella, I said; bellissima, he added. I felt we all, the two ragazze included, had found this private spot, and yet we were sharing our privacies on this terrace. And I felt, too, that I was never farther from Melville’s aggravated, longely, chafed mood than in this moment of sharing.
In my wandering, I had made a full circle; the top of the Cordonata was only a hundred or so feet down a little paved path from the piazzale, and there I joined the rest of Rome’s tourists two-stepping their way down Michelangelo’s platform steps to the street below. From his bell tower perch, Melville had sighted St. Peter’s, not at roof level but significantly higher up, and the domed edifice he looked for might therefore have seemed all the smaller. Having sighted it, though, he wanted to grasp it, so descending the tower denied to me, he walked the mile and a half to reach it. I, however, took a bus.
His most direct route was to retrace the short section of the papal roadway he had already taken. Continuing on that narrow, bustling thoroughfare, and almost immediately after crossing the Tiber, he took a left turn and walked the final quarter mile to Piazza San Pietro. But thinking Melville might have wanted to avoid such streets and ones he had already traveled and thinking that, in fact, he seemed to want to see more in the way of “landscape,” I played with the idea that he might have taken a no less indirect option on roadways along the Tiber.
More than one time, though not as many as three, I have taken one of those open-air tour buses that circle a city, and I sincerely feel that this somewhat embarrassing option—nothing says I’m a tourist like a tour bus—is nevertheless a good way, early on, to get the lay of a city. But in Rome, if you take regular city buses, you also get a sense of the numerous piazze and the radiating, name-changing vie that connect them; you can surf the odd irregular netting of Roman life. But the Tiber, which seems not so wide that you can’t pitch a ball over it but is indeed much wider than you think, is an exception to the city’s netting. Flowing south, it cuts a swathe of open land, water, and sky that serpentines its way through town, dividing Rome unevenly, with most of the ancient city to the east of its left bank and with the Vatican, Borgo, and Trastevere to the west, lining its right bank. Centuries ago these banks were reinforced with concrete and stone; bridges were made to spring from one side to the other, and roadways were paved to follow along the banks, all to afford the rider of Bus 271 many unexpected vistas of this picturesque river, that is, if you can get a window seat. Because Melville, on foot, was still feeling his “chafed mood, or what” later that evening, he wrote in his journal somewhat dyspeptically: “Tiber a ditch,” adding as most tourists before him had noted that its color is “yellow as saffron.”
As for the basilica across the Tiber, Melville was as unimpressed with regard to St. Peter’s as he was with Rome’s landscape. He wrote: “Front view disappointing. But grand approach.” The “approach” to St. Peter’s that one sees today is Via della Conciliazione, a wide boulevard, built during the fascist era, that replaced buildings and consolidated streets to create an unobstructed view of St. Peter’s as one walks toward it. Today’s grand approach is not what Melville would have seen. From the bridge over the Tiber and as turned toward St. Peter’s, the dome was still obstructed by buildings. Instead, he made his way through a warren of palazzi lining the usual vie and piazze along the way, until, suddenly, it all opened up onto Piazza San Pietro. This unexpected square was the “grand approach” he admired.
In fact, Melville had little immediate appreciation for the cathedral’s facade, and he expressed this view a couple years later in his “Statues in Rome” lecture. He called it “the great pile of confused architecture which is the outside of the Vatican.” What, then, was so “grand” about St. Peter’s was Bernini’s double rows of massive Doric columns, curving out from the cathedral as if to embrace the piazza in front of it. Once inside the basilica, Melville became more impressed with the church itself, the “Interior comes up to expectations,” he wrote. ” But dome not so wonderful as St: Sophia’s.” In architecture as in landscape, Rome was, at this point, no match for the “East.”
But coming out of the basilica, Melville began to nurture a fuller perspective on St. Peter’s, and perhaps Rome. He walked a hundred feet into the square, turned back, and, as he recalled in his lecture, looked up: “High, high above are the beetling crags and precipices of masonry, and yet higher still above all this, up against the heaven, like a balloon, is the dome. The mind is carried away with the very vastness.” As he looked up at the dome, the feelings of both awe (associated with what aestheticians called the sublime) and yet mental confusion wrestled within him. Later, he would return to the square, not only for the church and its dome but also for the statues exhibited in the Vatican Museum. And there, amidst the carved marble shapes, he would finally find the different mood in him he had been seeking. “The mind, instead of being bewildered within itself, is drawn out by the symmetry and beauty of the forms it beholds.” No longer “carried away” or “bewildered,” Melville felt that special exhilaration when the mind suddenly grasps the lines, forms, and impact of a work of art in and of itself, as the expression of an otherwise ungraspable ideal. An art-feeling that draws us out of ourselves, for a moment.
But this is what Melville, back home writing up his lecture two years later, came to say. Surely it is not what Melville felt as his first day in Rome ended. His last remark for the day says it all: “Exhausted.” It was 3 pm on a late February afternoon. Already the sun was declining and its refracted beams were moving down the spectrum giving a rosy yellow tint to the buildings surrounding him. At least that is the color I saw, as I approached St. Peter’s a bit later in the afternoon, closer to sunset.
Regardless of the route Melvile had taken to get to St. Peter’s, his return to his hotel was a direct walk back, across the Tiber, along the papal procession roadway, and just a couple blocks to his left up to Piazza della Minerva. I made that trip, too, this time on foot; this time pausing, as Melville most surely must have done, to lean a bit on the wall of the bridge and watch the setting sunlight transform Castel Sant’Angelo into a work of art. Then I ran to catch Bus 62.