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.
The 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.
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 was 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.
Melville’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.
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 http://vasi.uoregon.edu/.] 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.
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).
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 return 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.
The 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, 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 a 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 enter. 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 been 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.