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.








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.

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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.