Rome had been insane with Redbud in the last few days of March, 2014. It was everywhere. I remember seeing my first Redbud tree in college: its black, leafless branches were lined with bright little flowers, points of red, like Italian lights. Unlike the cherry trees also in bloom at this time of year, whose broader pink blossoms cluster at the ends of branches, Redbud’s flowering rides along each crooked black branch, making streaks of color in a dismal forest or set against the gray of urban Chicago.
Back in 1968, when I first saw this tree, its pinprick lines of color were all the more distinctive because the stonefaced neo-Gothic buildings of the quadrangle of the University of Chicago provided a gloomy backdrop for the campus’s single, lyrically thin but explosively red Redbud that had emerged that baleful year just when I, a Californian, thought winter would never end and spring brought only murder and riot. “That’s Redbud,” I learned when I tried to describe the tree and its location to a professor of mine, Norman Maclean: he knew the woods, and urban trees as well. He taught me to read poems by line, to track deer prints in muddy trails, and how to track facts.
So decades later when I bought a house in New York and found myself nettled and vexed by a scraggly Hawthorn crowding a side-path near the garage, I had it removed. Surely, the Hawthorn is an admirable tree whose thin tracings of white blossoms are a delight to discover at a distance in the woods, but this Hawthorn would poke my head with its thorns whenever I passed under its low branches. So I replaced it with a Redbud. Its trunk and branches now reside on the dark side of our house, but as a first sign of spring, its bright blossoms draw out that dark corner but only so as to gives its darkness definition. I have this failing for Redbud.
In Rome, I have never seen so much Redbud. It is, of course, an ornamental tree. (Though in its defense I do not feel that this label should deny us its deeper substance: it is a weighty shrub.) You rarely see it grow to great stature. But in Rome the Redbud are sequoias compared to what sits beside my house, or in my memory of 1968. These trees are not an ornament but a presence. And they seemed to follow us on our day’s journey.
Ginny and I set out to trace Melville’s third day in Rome. He had started early from his hotel in Piazza della Minerva and made the long trek to the Baths of Caracalla, this time in a carriage with a local cicerone to guide him. To get to this famous sight, he could have gone easterly through the Roman forum and beneath Constantine’s arch to the Colosseum, then on to the Circus Maximus, tucked between the Palatine and Aventine Hills, and finally halfway up a lesser hill, known as piccolo Aventino, to the nearby Baths, perched on leveled ground carved out of the little Aventine and facing one of the city’s other hills, called Celio. We, however, started out much later in the morning, just before noon, from Piazza Bologna where we would took the Metro B line to the Circo Massimo stop. But we were further delayed.
As we were hurrying up Via Torlonia to reach Piazza Bologna and our subway, I stumbled upon the paving stones of a driveway to an apartment building facing the massive Villa Torlonia wall across the street. Among the black stones, I saw flashes of yellow brown and what appeared to be square, brass metallic caps embedded in the driveway. I had glimpsed them before on an earlier, more hurried trek to catch the metro, and assumed they were some sort of utility marker topping off a shaft connecting to a gas main, but, despite my Melville schedule, I was not in such a hurry this time, and we stopped to take a look. What we saw hit hard.
The cluster of “caps” that I had glimpsed were five four-inch square plaques commemorating the slaughter of a family who once lived no more than 50 meters from our own apartment, just across the street. One of them read:
A second plaque written in the same devastating capitals related the fate of Carlo’s wife Fortunata Coen in Finzi (born 1888), who was arrested and deported the same day, October 16, 1943, the day of the infamous razzia or roundup of 1000 people, mostly women and children, mostly from Rome’s ghetto. That number represents about one-seventh of Rome’s Jewish population in 1943. Only fifteen of the thousand survived. Fortunata’s plaque does not indicate where and when she was murdered, only that these facts are unknown. Beneath the wife and husband are plaques for their three children: Adriana (age 23), Enrico (21), and Luciana (19). Like their mother, their place of death and date of death are ignoto.
Ginny and I are the children of parents who served in WWII, and we grew up under the postwar specters of Bomb and Holocaust. Our best friend Linda Spungen had been the only surviving child of Russian Jewish immigrants, first to England and then the US, who had personally escaped the holocaust, though, of course, many of Linda’s relatives did not. At fifty, Linda had adopted a child from China, Liana; and when Linda died young after only 3 years of adoptive motherhood, we became Liana’s second adoptive parents. She is now a bright, smiling college graduate about the age of Adriana Finzi.
The Finzis perished, but some Finzis survived the camps; and they endure one kind of grief. And there are Finzis who escaped Europe and endure another. There are those, like Liana, who have lost a mother once, then twice before the age of five. Our lives are pricked by horrors and traumas, and no holocaust is not personal. We have visited holocaust and war memorials in New York, Washington DC, Paris, and Berlin. But no deeper moment of sudden anguish has come to me so unexpectedly as when I looked down at my feet, expecting nothing more than a routine “SPQR” engraved on a Roman gas main cap, and found in fact the hard capitals of these five bronze plaques, recalling the gassing of millions. By week’s end, we would learn more about these plaques.
We moved on to Piazza Bologna, made our Metro B, and rose up out of the ground across the wide and busy roadway of Viale Aventino, which stretches south down to Porta San Paolo and the Pyramid of Cestius, with the Parco della Resistenza along the way. The park is dedicated to the Italians who resisted the Nazi occupation of Italy that began with the announcement on September 8, 1943, of Italy’s surrender, five weeks before the German occupation of Italy and their razzia of Italian Jews on October 16. But Melville, whose personal holocaust had been the death of his father, had known his own versions of horror. He had yet to witness Civil War and the suicide of his son, and he would be spared the twentieth century, so no such park existed in his day, only farmland. Instead, he was in search of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet hero of his who had died twenty-five years earlier.
We think of Rome as timeless and eternal, but nothing human is timeless or eternal. We think of Rome as ancient and a progression of civilizations, but nothing out of the past is a progression, unless our narratives, histories, and biographies make it so. I think of Rome as a place where remnants of time are layered like bricks in a tumbled wall or displaced paving stones, and to experience Rome means opening ourselves to the fragments of memory its walls and roads reveal and conceal. We had a plan, a schedule, a narrative to follow and had set out to follow Melville following Shelley at the ruins of Caracalla, but tripped upon the holocaust. Back on track, we headed in Melville’s direction east, up the lesser Roman hill, and followed him to the Baths.
Up until the time I made this tour, I had not been aware just how much in search of Shelley Melville had been that day. It was not clear to me, at first, why he had chosen to visit the Baths on this day, or why he then visited the subsequent sites on the day’s itinerary, or, for that matter, how he planned any of his daily tours, but as I was coming to see, Melville’s journal entries of a day, upon close inspection, betray conceal lines of connection from one sight to the next. His daily tours did not announce their themes or problems. And if his Day Two had been an “Antinous Day” in search of beauty, his Day Three was in one way or another about Shelley, defiance, personal horrors, and getting lost.
The Terme di Caracalla were commissioned by Septimus Severus and completed by his successor Emperor Caracalla in the early 3rd century CE. Its grounds are extensive, the ruins tall and massive, and it is easily one of the most impressive of the lesser visited sites in Rome. Located a fifteen-minute walk from the Circo Massimo, it sits remote on a slightly elevated plateau just within the city’s Aurelian walls, and yet inside the site you see or hear little urban traffic. In Melville’s day, this rural area surrounded by vineyards and orchards was also used by city folk for pasturage. Today, its most memorable function is as a stage for summer concerts conducted by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Those who recall the PBS broadcast of the Three Tenors have seen Caracalla’s high arched brick walls as a backdrop.
The Baths of Caracalla were more than baths. We think of Roman emperors cynically providing “bread and circuses” for the populace to prevent insurrection, and to these venerable sops, we can also add “baths,” which included a public swimming pool, gymnasium, library, and shopping mall. The ground floor natatio was surrounded by walls, but had an open ceiling fixed with polished brass mirrors to reflect sunlight onto swimmers. Furnaces below ground warmed the water supplied by its own aqueduct. Separate rooms provided the usual sequence of “baths,” for hot, tepid, and cold water dipping. In second-story rooms was a library and a gym for wrestling and boxing. On the perimeter were stalls for shops. The floors on all levels were decorated with abstract waves and mosaic depictions of boys, dolphins, and other marine creatures, real and fabulous.The Baths of Caracalla operated until the sack of Rome three hundred years later.
What we see now—and what Melville saw in 1857—is only the brickwork structure of the Baths: the even layers of flat Roman brick piled thick and high that upward swerve into arches or sideways morph into broad tall niches. But all of these surfaces were originally clad with marble, chiseled with sinuous designs, and the tall niches contained massive bronze and marble statues. For centuries, the marble facing and statues had been snatched to decorate the interior and exterior of other structures and palazzi in Rome and throughout Italy. Most famous of removals was that of the monumental marble Hercules (an ancient Roman copy of an even earlier Greek bronze) found in a sixteenth-century excavation and claimed by Alessandro Farnese for his collection, housed in his grand palazzo close by Campo De’ Fiori. Melville had seen the Farnese Hercules, a week or so earlier, in Naples, where it still resides.
The Baths were required viewing in the 18th and 19th-century Grand Tour. Though smaller in acreage than Pompeii, it is slightly larger than Herculaneum, south and east of Naples, and several stories taller. Tourists then and today stand mouth agape admiring the “vastness and magnificence of the design” (305). These words are from Melville’s 1856 travel guide, A Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy, published by John Murray in multiple, increasingly larger editions throughout the mid-nineteenth century. The Handbook also mentions Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most famous visitors to the Baths, and recounts the somewhat exaggerated notion that the English poet composed all of his Prometheus Unbound (1819) “upon the mountainous ruins” of the Baths amidst “oderiferous blossoming trees.” The Handbook quotes from Shelley’s preface to this closet drama about man’s refusal to reconcile with God: “The bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening spring in the divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of the drama” (306). Perhaps Shelley saw Redbud blooming during the “vigorous awakening spring” of his dark, god-defiant imagination.
At the Baths of Caracalla, Melville could not avoid the connection to Shelley, which was not only prompted by the Murray handbook he had in hand but also triggered by his own recollection of the “mountainous” Colosseum, which he had visited the day before. For him, the ruins are not a mass of civilization’s rubble but rather an instance of nature reclaiming the brickwork as something always having belonged to it. “Wonderful. Massive,” he wrote of the ruins later in his journal or even perhaps Shelley-like as he stood before them. “Ruins form, as it were, natural bridges of thousands of arches. There are glades, & thickets among the ruins—high up.” Just as he had transformed the Colosseum into a mountain “hollow” in his write-up of the day before, so, too, did the Baths have its centuries of overgrowth hanging from the tops of its unadorned, impossibly tall arches. Just as Shelley had imagined them, so, too, did Melville. The embodiment before him of nature reclaiming the ruins of human endeavor had become a standard trope of the picturesque since the sixteenth century, a light-and-dark way of seeing and thinking that Melville would explore in his later poetry and prose. In his 1850 review essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” he had already begun to explore the psychological dimensions of the picturesque in the interminglings of darkness within our bright lives in Hawthorne’s “moral chiaroscuro.” Now this new version of the sublime stood before him and around him at the Baths of Caracalla.
Melville, who continued to collect editions of Shelley in the decades after his trip to Rome, admired Shelley’s defiance and daring atheism. Imagining Shelley writing among the ruins brought Caracalla into focus as a source of mutual inspiration. He wrote: “Thought of Shelley. Truly, he got his inspiration here. Corresponds with his drama & mind. Still magestic, & desolate grandeur.” It is not clear whether “Still” is an adverb of time modifying “magestic” or an adjective of motion for “grandeur.” Shelley conceived of his god-defying Prometheus as a modern advance upon Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. And, a year before, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had subtitled Frankenstein as “The Modern Prometheus.” Ahab, who calls himself “darkness leaping out of light,” is Melville’s own inventive inversion of the light-bearing modern Prometheus of both Shelleys. Now six years after having published Moby-Dick, and exhausted by writing for magazines, Melville rediscovered in Shelley at the Baths a kindred spirit whose “still grandeur” of mind is “still magestic.” Caracalla brought him this perhaps hoped-for, perhaps unexpected jolt of artistic re-invigoration through Shelley. But on February 27, 1857 the climate of Rome had not yet achieved its “vigorous reawakening spring”: its “oderiferous blossoming trees” and ubiquitous red poppies had not yet budded for Melville; it would have been, in fact, too early for Redbud.
Ginny and I made our way to Melville’s next stop, the Protestant Burial Ground. Melville does not tell us how he got there, only that he got lost.
The Baths of Caracalla are situated on the northern slope of the piccolo Aventino. The cemetery is to the south on the other side of that hill. Melville had various options in reaching his next destination. He could have returned to the familiar main road, now called Viale Aventino, retracing the last leg of the carriage route that brought him to the Baths and then followed that broad thoroughfare to the Porta San Paolo and the Pyramid of Cestius clustered near the cemetery. This easy option essentially follows two sides of a right angle triangle. The more direct option is to climb the little Aventine hill and descend its other side in a straight line to the pyramid. Melville, it appears, took this hypotenuse and somehow got lost. We, however, did not have time to get lost. We avoided the hill, retraced our steps to the Circo Massimo metro stop, and took the underground to Piramide station, one stop south. As things transpired for Melville, his shorter, more direct route to the cemetery was accompanied by “much trouble & sore travel.” In short, he got lost. So I knew that I would have to return to Carcalla, better equipped, to explore Melville’s shorter but troublesome hypotenuse option. But, then again, our longer route got me lost, as well, in quite a different way.
Here’s how I was lost in Rome. Upon reaching the Circo Massimo metro stop on the Viale Aventino, I had mistakenly led us to the uptown entrance across this wide and heavily trafficked boulevard, thinking (oddly enough) that we were done with our day and were ready to return home, somehow forgetting that our day had just begun and that we wanted to head downtown to Piramide station and the Protestant Burial Ground. And in wrongly crossing the busy street, I told Ginny not to run, which she often does when crossing traffic, and my cautioning her always annoys her. So we had words about stumbling on uneven paving stones and mortality: about my fear of death and that she will fall and hurt herself. And “that would be it,” I said too strongly. And she felt my fear fully and was hurt just as much as if she had fallen. So we fumed.
And then I discovered my error: we had needlessly crossed to the wrong metro entrance. Humiliated, I fumed even more as we crossed back over Aventino to the proper downtown metro entrance, only to be reminded that the downtown train was in fact across the street where I had been heading in the first place but thought I was wrong. I had been doubly mistaken, utterly inverted, and had only myself (and not Italy) to blame. I was lost in some sort of Rome of my own making. We re-crossed again to the proper downtown metro entrance, both of us feeling old and muddled and humbled by our different but shared anxieties. One stop later we exited at Piramide (annoyingly pronounced peh-RAH-meh-deh), I still fuming. And we continued to exasperate ourselves even more by trying to find the famous Protestant Burial Ground, which is actually called Cimitero Acattolico, or the Non-Catholic Cemetery, a wording that wants to sound more inclusive but does not.
The dominant view once you emerge from the Piramide Metro station is the sleek pyramid itself, and across the piazza is the muscular medieval gate of Porta San Paolo. Built around 12 BCE in the Egyptian style that had been adopted during the period of the Roman conquest of the Ptolemies, the pyramid is the tomb of a wealthy but otherwise forgotten civic leader Gaius Cestius. In the third century CE, it was incorporated as a bastion into the Aurelian wall extending southward from Porta San Paolo so that the sleek tall pyramid seems to be pierced by a massive brick wall abutting two of its opposing sides. To us, in our vexed mood, the clustering of these impressive edifices—pyramid, wall, and gate, all laced with traffic from all sides—were maddening obstructions. Somewhere beyond them was the cemetery we sought. Partially covered in scaffolding and sheathed for restoration and repair [which was completed in 2015], the pyramid itself seemed vexed and belittled by its dressings. Nor are there anywhere in this busy area any signs for the cimitero acattolico, and our map (and my iPhone map app) only showed where the cemetery was but gave no indication of which side of the pyramid the cemetery entrance is on. With unfailing luck, I chose the wrong side of the pyramid to look for the entrance, and once giving up on that side, we had to walk around to the right of the pyramid to explore options on its other side. Now too thoroughly edified in the fact that the base of a pyramid is quite large, and feeling the exhaustion of biographical research too quickly on this day, I succumbed to a startling lack of interest in pyramids.
My only consolation for our disastrous transit from Caracalla to Piramide, via Metro, is that Melville had his own aggravations in making his more direct transit. “After much trouble & sore travel without a guide,” he wrote in his Journal, he “managed to get to Protestant Burial Ground & Pyramid of Cestus under walls.” By “under walls,” he means the Aurelian wall that abuts the pyramid. But this geometric obstruction was not the source of Melville’s aggravation, as it had proved to be for us. He had had trouble of another sort. Melville, it seems, had made a classic touristic error: he had dismissed the carriage that had brought him to Caracalla, and he had dismissed his guide. A devoted walker, he had convinced himself that he could make his way from Caracalla to the Protestant Burial Ground, unassisted and on foot, or as he put it “by natural process.” He thought he knew himself well enough to go alone. Worse, he thought he knew Rome.
But what route, exactly, did Melville take in his “sore travel” between these two points? In 2014 I was not yet ready to address this question, or see its importance for my biography of Melville, or biography in general. It took me two years, off and on, to equip myself, in theory and practice, for how to map Melville’s getting lost.
In 2014, when I had planned our day of following Melville’s third day in Rome, I was just beginning to confront a biographical dilemma. While Melville’s journal tells us the sights he saw, it does not tell us the routes he took from one site to the next. A biographer can take the journal as a prompt to visit, by whatever means, the sights Melville lists and be satisfied with stitching those sights into a coherent whole: call it Shelley. And that might be all that the evidence allows. But the hidden life in the journal is the untold transit from site to site. A historical map of Rome will show you all the possible street combinations that connect these dots—the direct option, let’s say, of taking the noisy Corso or one of several zig-zag options down one quiet vicolo to another to avoid crowds—but which of these options did Melville actually take? More importantly, what else could he have seen taking each option but left unreported in his journal? These matters require speculation and debate. We can choose to ignore the debate in order to achieve more swiftly one’s coherent whole and thereby risk flattening the narrative arc. The reader is not likely to know the arc is flattened, or for that matter that all arcs are necessarily false, so the risk may seem inconsequential. Even so, a more honest arc can be inscribed if you invite readers to discover the hidden life in a text, provided both biographer and reader recognize the value of speculation and debate, and have, as Ishmael puts it, “Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience.”
Especially intriguing is that Melville freely admits getting lost more than once, a pattern well-known to tourists in Rome. How, then, can a biographer ignore those moments in which a writer effectively admits, I was lost, and maybe enjoys it? How might this condition of losing one’s way, in Rome, speak to Melville’s condition, later on, in his writing? How might the physical experience of getting lost resonate for this writer—emotionally, philosophically, psychologically—in the necessary experience of allowing himself to get lost while laboring to transform ideas into words. Melville’s process of ceaseless revision seems a version of getting lost, as though being lost is a prerequisite of creativity. Melville drew upon one such resonant urban metaphor for describing his writing process, at the end of his life, while composing Billy Budd: “In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood” (Leaf 58). These by-paths entice the writer, make him shun the main road, and give him joy. In Melville’s manuscript for Billy Budd, you can see how his revisions—his deletions, additions, deleted additions, substitutions, and oscillations between this word and that, even to the very sentence quoted above— embody Melville’s attempts to try out different linguistics path-way to reach his thoughts. In each sequence of revisions, the writer is like a tourist looking down an enticing alley and thinking “dare I take it.” But with every enticement, there are risks. Just as there are panics and affrights in wandering map-less, guide-less, lost in a city, there are the risks of getting lost in words, in revising a novel, or a biography. As it happened, I had gotten lost on one of the straightest, easiest to manage streets in Rome. As it happens, I have rewritten this paragraph endlessly.
A second biographical dilemma is the trap of thinking that my experience of getting lost in Rome will somehow inform my understanding of Melville’s getting lost, or his creative process, or his writings. This romantic assumption must be resisted. I am not Melville, nor want to be, no matter how much I follow his daily tours, no matter how much I study his revisions. But my investigations into Melville’s Rome are an opening for me as a biographer. They place my movements in relation to those of another whose absence is ungraspable. They force me to see the different shapings of our respective experiences of time and place and permit me a more deliberate receptivity to Melville’s different place and time. By inhabiting this difference between Melville and me, I am better equipped to situate Melville’s half-known life in relation to my half-known life. Biography requires this double plunging into incomplete selves.
Back at our apartment some days later, I got some sense of what Melville’s “sore travel” must have been like. Inspecting an online version of a historical map of Rome, I got a rough idea that Melville’s hypotenuse could not have been straight and direct. The intervening terrain stretching from Carcalla to Piramide was a patchwork of vineyards and orchards, and the farm lanes bordering these properties did not lead directly to the pyramid. To reach his destination, Melville would have had to tack left and then right repeatedly through this maze of lanes. All the more astonishing about this revealing map, created in 1748 by Giambattista Nolli, is that it was still accurate for Rome in 1857. The terrain Nolli depicted had not changed in over a hundred years.
With my zoomable version of the Nolli map, I could see a representation of Melville’s options. I could imagine him dismissing his Italian guide at Caracalla and setting out from the highest perch of the grounds on the site’s western corner, overlooking the Baths of Caracalla. Taking his last look of the ruins, thinking of Shelley, he turned south to descend the hill in the opposite direction, perhaps even with the top of the pyramid or Porta San Paolo in view. Walking less than a hundred meters, he would have come to the tall massive, fully intact Aurelian wall on his left and a street, now called Viale Giotto paralleling it, as the two descend the hill in a gentle curve that easily places the walker at Porta San Paolo and the pyramid. To his right was the patchwork of orchards and vineyards that any wise traveler would want to avoid. Melville did not.
Why did he not follow the easy Aurelian wall? The best explanation is that Melville was never one to pass up a church. And nestled in the patchwork of vineyards and orchards, on a more direct path toward the pyramid, and clearly in Melville’s view from the wall, was a church.
Only one month earlier, in his tour of Palestine, Melville had visited the Christian monastery of Mar Saba. In 645, Mar Saba’s monks fled Muslim attackers and had settled on this hill in Rome, establishing this church, Chiesa San Saba, the sister of the very monastery he had previously visited. The coincidence is remarkable, and all the more remarkable is that Melville makes no mention of San Saba in his journal. Quite possibly, Melville got lost in a different way and did not visit San Saba, though its campanile would have been visible over the fields he was navigating. Our only hint that he did visit San Saba is that almost twenty years later, Melville would set the crucial Book III of his 1876 epic Clarel at the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine. One other detail establishes the link between his massive poem and his third day of “sore travel” in Rome: the namesake for Clarel‘s Celio—the lost character, wandering in Jerusalem, who opens Book I of the epic—is Monte Celio, the hill just on the other side of Caracalla. Perhaps, when composing Clarel, in the 1870s, Melville found in his memories of Caracalla and Shelley both inspiration and direction in creating an epic of the dynamic of faith and doubt, that would be as powerfully defiant as atheist Shelley’s play.
But, in 2014, I did not return to Carcalla to test the likelihood of Melville’s stumbling upon the church of San Saba because I did not have the tools I needed to “map” the wanderings of someone who is lost. I needed a more concrete sense of the terrain than Nolli’s very concrete map could provide. The best I could do then to understand the terrain of 1857 was to walk and rewalk the modified terrain of today, but, not surprisingly, the vineyards and orchards of 1857 had long ago been removed through waves of land developments in the 1890s and 1920s. Some country lanes were preserved as streets in the district surrounding San Saba, between Caracalla and the wide Viale Aventino. Other such lanes had been obliterated by five story apartment buildings, little piazzas, small parks, and walled villas. What I needed was a way to layer my 1748 Nolli map, still accurate for 1857, over my map of today, so that all identifiable points, then and now, could be matched precisely or, as digital humanists say “geo-referenced.” And in 2014, I did not possess the technology do that. Two years later, in June of 2016, I returned to Rome better equipped to retrace how Melville got lost.
With the help of programmers for Hofstra’s Digital Research Center (of which I am director), we were able to build a mapping and timeline tool called Itinerary that would allow me to lay the Nolli map on top of a Google map of Rome and to draw optional route lines directly on the Nolli image. Flipping to the Google map, I could also see which of today’s Roman streets matched the farm lanes that Melville could have taken in 1857. On June 16, 2016, I gathered with four good friends in tow—three former PhD students of mine and a post-doc, all at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”—for a Melville walk. We assembled at the uptown entrance of the Metro at Circo Massimo, scene of my confusion and despair of crossing and recrossing the Viale Aventino two years earlier. I was no longer lost, knew who I was, was ready now to find out how Melville spent his morning being lost: I was in control. My friends—Pilar, Marco, Nicola, Paolo—who had much on their minds regarding their future as Italians, nevertheless wanted to accompany me and endured my five-minute (perhaps longer) explanation of what had happened on Melville’s third day in Rome, and despite my arrogance in lecturing to Romans about Rome, they seemed enlivened by the biographical and creative implications of a tracing how a writer got lost.
We ascended up to the Baths of Caracalla. Steering clear of the steeply-inclined, official entrance into the ruins, we continued outside the site, up its equally steep northwestern border to its high, western corner at the intersection of Viale Giotto and Viale Guido Baccelli. I had come this far not knowing for sure if Melville would have actually sought out this perch before leaving the ruins. Given the site’s topography, the location of its exit, and Melville’s destination over the hill behind the ruins, this steep ascent seems the only possible route to Porta San Paolo, the pyramid, and Protestant Burial Ground. It would be easy to presume that because Melville had been a sailor and was still in good physical condition, the thirty-seven-year-old traveler would have had some sort of nautical ambition to climb this height, but that reasoning is tiresome. However, when I reached the high western corner outside the ruins, an unanticipated discovery awaited and another more compelling logic of art and place came to mind. Looking down at the Baths of Caracalla from this vantage point, one sees, rising three stories to the level of the high western corner, the ruins of a series of arches ranging along the fenced northwestern border we had just walked and facing another, conserved edifice with a single high arch. On the horizon to the northeast is a mountain peak in the so-called Roman alps, visible between a tree and ruins to the right in the photo. In the middle distance, just above the ruins, you can make out the distinctive roof of the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, with its monumental statues.
The view seemed familiar, and later I was able to confirm my suspicion. This western corner view looking down on the Baths of Caracalla is the precise setting that Joseph Severn had adopted as the background for his famous 1845 painting of Shelley, perched on the range of ruined arches as he writes Prometheus Unbound at the Baths of Caracalla. Severn moves the scenery around to suit his composition, giving the mountain more prominence and making the basilica barely visible, as if to put nature and religion in their proper places. Instead of the high single-arched edifice facing Shelley’s perch, Severn depicts three high arches to the right in his picture, mimicking edifices seen elsewhere at Caracalla.
Severn had been a good and loyal friend of the so-called second generation of romantics. He had nursed Keats while the poet’s spent his last year in rooms on the Spanish Steps, dying of tuberculosis, and had arranged for Keats’s burial in the Protestant cemetery. Over twenty years after Shelley’s drowning—his ashes are also interred in the cemetery—his survivors commissioned Severn to paint the depiction of a pensive Shelley perched from one of the high-vaulted ruins at Caracalla. With quill in hand, a notebook on his right lap, and a leg dangling from the ledge, he seems a modern-day Prometheus, lounging on humanity’s ruin not lashed in punishment to a mountainous cliff. The family displayed the painting in England, and a copy was made, which now hangs in the Keats-Shelley House, where Keats died. Engravings made the image even more popular, and, like other knowing tourists prompted by Murray’s Handbook to reflect on Shelley, Melville could climb to the western corner vantage point overlooking the Baths of Caracalla to see the view that Severn had painted. It was there that he “thought of Shelley.”
Of course, it is possible that Melville was not aware of Severn’s famous painting, or knowing it, did not recall the famous vantage point; or that he thought of Shelley somewhere else in his tour of the ruins. My placing Melville at the western corner is the kind of deduction that biographers are often forced to make. I place him there because he tells us his walk, without a guide, to the Protestant Burial Ground caused him “much trouble & sore travel” and because of all the routes he could have taken to negotiate the topography between Caracalla and cemetery, only the direct hypotenuse route would have caused any kind of difficulty. The safe and easy route was to return the way he came back to Viale Aventino and down the boulevard to gate, pyramid, and cemetery.
At least that is my construction of the events of the day, one made all the more likely because, whether Melville was aware of the Severn painting or not, and whether or not he turned to view the ruins from Severn’s vantage point, he had to have walked by the western corner in order to head along his chosen hypotenuse route to the cemetery. But at the Severn vantage point, he had one other easy option, perhaps the easiest route of all. He could follow the Aurelian wall, which since the third century CE swerves away from Caracalla’s upper boundary and in a gentle curve makes its way down the hill to gate, pyramid, and cemetery. Then as well as now, a curving pathway parallels the wall, and while this route is not a bee-line to Melville’s destination, it is one of a couple clear and reliable ways of getting anywhere in Rome: follow the wall, any wall. Surely, Melville started doing just this, but something had to interrupt his progress down the hill; otherwise, there would have been no “sore travel” in this descent. Had happened to get him lost?
Soon after coming upon the Aurelian wall, only about 75 meters from the Severn vantage point, Melville could have looked to his right and seen above a church-owned vineyard the low-lying Romanesque edifice of Chiesa San Saba. Situated on the crest of the piccolo Aventine hill, it overlooked, in Melville’s day, a patchwork of vineyards and orchards radiating from it and spreading downhill, with the Aurelian wall in view as it swerves down to Porta San Paolo and the pyramid beyond it. Today, four-story apartment buildings erected in the 1920s have replaced the fields and obstruct our view over the fields. We cannot see San Saba church from the Aurelian wall, but Melville could have. Today, the streets in the San Saba environs mostly match the straight but angled property lines and country lanes that made the patchwork of fields. Oddly evocative of Melville’s love of Italian art is that the names given these streets honor famous artists and aestheticians—Alberti, Bernini, Salvator Rosa (whose tomb Melville would later view). No such streets existed when Melville first saw San Saba church, but the pathway now called Via Bramante, which closely follows what was once a country lane, would have given Melville a direct view of the church as he stood at the Aurelian wall, wondering which way to go.
DESCRIBE SAN SABA
But upon his arrival at Porta San Paolo, Melville quickly found the Protestant Burial Ground, located Keats’s grave right by the old corner entrance in the oldest section of the cemetery, with the Pyramid peering over the walls, and read the famous epitaph on Keats’s otherwise nameless gravestone, which ends, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” As Melville well knew—for who did not—Shelley wrote his Spenserian elegy Adonais, in memory of Keats. He and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had also laid their young boy William to rest not far from Keats. Shelley, himself, is buried there, but farther away in the now more crowded “new” section of the burial ground. He had drowned when his boat capsized in a storm off Leghorn (Livorno). When his body was recovered near Viareggio, it was cremated on the beach and his ashes brought to Rome. His heart, however, was not allowed to burn and was buried separately in England.
The Pyramid of Cestius, which looms above the old section of the Protestant Cemetery, was built in the first century BC to commemorate an otherwise forgotten Roman dignitary who helped govern Egypt. Although now, the pyramid is a marginal tourist attraction that visitors to Rome might get around to seeing, though perhaps not, it was in earlier centuries a picturesque attraction. When land near the western base of the pyramid was permitted by the papacy in the 18th century for Protestant burials, just inside the city wall, officials worried about encroachments on the tourist site. According to Nicholas Stanley-Price in The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome (2014), they regulated the planting of cypresses in the burial grounds so that the trees would not obscure the view of the Pyramid, and a walled trench was built to separate the cemetery from the pyramid. In addition, when a new plot of land was created next to the old cemetery, a walled path was built between old and new grounds to provide tourist access to the entrance of the pyramid. For most of the 19th century, tourists like Melville visited Keats in the old cemetery, exited those grounds, and entered the new grounds to visit Shelley. In the early 20th century, the obstructive access lane, which Melville mentions in his journal, was filled in so that the old and new cemeteries are now conjoined.
Melville’s only remark concerning Shelley’s grave site in his journal is that the marker is a “Plain stone” (as opposed to the more elaborately decorated markers surrounding it). Apart from its quotation from The Tempest, his epitaph reads simply “Percy Bysshe Shelley / Cor Cordium.” Heart of hearts. Shelley who shook his fist at God and was blasted for his blasphemy had been a model for Melville as one who put writing in the service of resistant, revolutionary, and deep-plunging thought. Unlike Shelley, Melville had survived the sea; his heart of hearts was still beating; he was alive, or at least living. Maybe his “sore travel” to find Shelley’s grave was not just one poet paying his respects to another. Maybe he was looking in the cemetery for the kind of inspiration that Shelley had found at Caracalla.
If the confusions and con-fuming that Ginny and I had experienced still lingered, they quickly dissolved when we entered the gates of the Cimitero Acattolico. The grounds are simply breathtaking. Murray’s Handbook told tourists like Melville to expect an “air of romantic beauty” (464) in this place, but when he visited on Feb. 27, Spring had not yet awakened, and he saw only wearied evergreens. Entering the cemetery a month later in the year and a week into the season, on a warmer day in March, we could forget about our quarrel and the pyramid that had been such an obstruction to us moments before. The interposing cypresses that now framed its impenetrability were offset by chattering irises, aromatic wisteria, and redbud. We were surrounded by death and could not have been happier; our friendship had survived and we were among the living. We paid our respects to Keats and Shelley and left.
Like expert Romans, we scurried together across Via Marmorata to catch Bus 23, and to catch up with Melville’s itinerary, which next took us to his third Shelley site, the Cenci Palace. Shelley’s 1819 lyric drama of incest and revenge The Cenci was not publicly staged until 1922, yet it enjoyed a good deal of notoriety throughout the 18th century and was enough in demand to be printed in a second edition. Based on actual events of late-16th-century Rome involving Beatrice Cenci’s execution for the murder of her incestuous father Francesco Cenci, the play puts no stops on the horrors of the abusive nobleman, who celebrates the death of his sons, abuses both wife and daughter, and is in turn bludgeoned by Beatrice. Despite popular outcry in 1599 for the exoneration of Beatrice, she and her co-conspirators were beheaded at Castel Sant’Angelo. Guido Reni’s 1600 portrait of the innocent with her over-the-shoulder glance, delicate not-yet-severed neck, and sad, averted eyes was reproduced in countless etchings, and her tale of outrage, incest, and parricide became legendary as a statement against aristocracy. Cenci was also a source for Melville in Pierre and later Hawthorne in The Marble Faun. Melville owned a Cenci etching, probably acquired well before coming to Rome, but in his visit two days earlier to Piazza di Spagna, he priced a copy that he had found in one of the stalls.
The Cenci Palace still stands on the northern edge of the community still called the Ghetto, which was and remains a Jewish neighborhood. In 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered the small community on the banks of the Tiber, to be walled up. Jews living inside the gates were not permitted to exit after sunset. The walls did not come down until after the establishment of the kingdom of Italy in 1870. To visit the Ghetto on his day’s journey, Melville had to pass through one gate and out another, as if he were entering a cage. There he could see families living in squalor, including relatives and descendents of the fifteen survivors out of the thousand victims of the razzia of October 10, 1943.
To get from Shelley’s grave to the scene of Shelley’s most famous play, Melville walked north on Via Marmorata, which borders the cemetery, to the Tiber. He would have then followed the road as it bends north to parallel the river. Today, a more modern roadway called Lungotevere stretches up and down both sides of the Tiber. But for most of this part of Melville’s trek, his view of the river was obstructed by buildings clinging to the river’s banks. However, coming to the bracingly-named Piazza della Bocca della Verità (which honors a drain hole not truth), he suddenly had the Tiber in view and saw crossing over it, incongruously, a “Suspension Bridge.” According to Allan Ceen of Studium Urbis, who supplied the period image below, this span connecting the left bank (on your right) to the three-arched remains of the Ponte Rotto, or Broken Bridge, had been recently built in 1853, making the old ruined bridge once again a viable road. The new pathway across the river was an odd touch of modernism in the eternally ancient city—metal towers and sleek cables attached to ponderous medieval arches—and Melville could not resist going out of his way to join them, if only perhaps to experience the blending of steel and stone roadways. He crossed the hermaphroditic bridge to the district known then and now as Trastevere. Walking a couple of blocks, he turned right down a street that led him to another bridge, the Ponte Cestio, which in turn brought him back across the river by way of the “Isle of Tiber” (Isola di Tevere) and then the Ponte Fabricio that returned him to the left bank and squarely in the Ghetto.
Directly across the bridge are the Portico d’Ottavia, a huge arch used for centuries by fishmongers, and, to the right of it, the remarkable Teatro Marcello. Completed in 12 BCE, the theater’s three curved levels of arches upon arches were originally designed so that the bottom level consisted of Doric columns, with Ionic columns ranging the level above them, and then Corinthian at the top. On the lowest level, Melville saw blacksmiths occupying the intervening archways, now “black with centuries grime & soot.” But in place of the Corinthian level is the brickwork of the “Orsini Palace,” an extensive set of “inhabited” rooms atop the monumental Teatro. The Palazzo Orsini is still inhabited and, as Ginny reports, it was up for sale in 2012 (its three parking spaces included) for only 32 million euros. Melville, who was not looking for any more real estate in his life, may have made special mention of this palazzo because “Orsini” is an aristocrat in Shelley’s The Cenci.
The Cenci’s had their palazzo only a few short blocks away just outside the Ghetto walls. Murray’s Handbook describes the building, which overlooks a little piazzetta, as an “immense, gloomy, and deserted pile” and paraphrases Shelley, who noted its “gates, of immense stones, and leading through a dark passage opening into gloomy subterranean passages” (442). Melville seemed in tune with the scene of Shelley’s drama. He noted it was a “Tragic looking place enough. Big sloping arch.— Part of it inhabited, part desolate.” We might want more reflection from Melville upon Cenci: something more about its tragic look, more about death, inspiration, Shelley, anything. But Melville’s journal is exasperatingly mute on the Topics of Great Moment that we might want him to enlarge upon. And the words he does jot down to reflect moments of inspiration—beauty and mountains and the river, for instance—come at unexpected moments.
The Ghetto was a place Ginny and I have visited many times before, as far back as 1977 when we first visited Rome, and we have made repeated trips there always cognizant of the horrors of its ancient and recent history, always enjoying its shops and food, always moved by its resistance to death. Now I could not help imagining the place through the more personalized lenses of the Finzi family, who, grabbed from life, and swiftly deported and transported from Rome, were horrifically robbed of their freedom to act out their quotidian joys and fumings, their outings in the city and arguments—robbed of their daily being—and were now nothing but a stumbling block represented by five four-inch brass plaques underfoot. How many other such plaques might I see in the Ghetto and throughout Rome? And I thought of the congruence of Beatrice Cenci, a woman betrayed, battered, abused, beyond understanding, driven to parricide, herself grabbed, mutilated, and murdered for her own crime, the victim not of laws justly administered but of politics, history, and a pope’s fear that the killing of an aristocrat no matter how obscene might incite popular revolt against all aristocracy, so the girl must die. Was there not a little family holocaust among the Cenci, one of terror if not horror? Politics then differ from politics now, but the horrors that humans can perform and do perform are always with us, and their victims—Cenci and Finzi—must remain a part of us or we surrender to the death of forgetting.
But we saw and felt none of this. We were on Bus 23, riding along Lungotevere, looking for Melville’s Suspension Bridge, and we did not stop at the Teatro Marcello, or Ghetto, or Cenci Palace, because we had already re-visited them less than a week before. Instead we kept to bus route 23 along the river to reach Melville’s final stop for the day: Castel Sant’Angelo where Beatrice had been executed. Spared of all twentieth-century thoughts of holocaust, he was still—cor cordiam, heart of hearts—on Shelley’s trail, drawn I think by Cenci.
From the tragic looking Palazzo Cenci, Melville made his way along Strada della Regola and Vicolo de’ Venti to Palazzo Farnese. The 16th-century palace, built by Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul 111, had housed a remarkable art collection, featuring objects lifted from the Baths of Caracalla. Chief among them, Melville noted in his journal, was the monumental statue of Hercules leaning on his club (already mentioned) and an equally monumental sculpture depicting a minor domestic dispute involving a queen, two boys, and a bull. But both the Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull had been a part of an 1826 wedding dowry, and, as Melville also noted in his journal, they had been moved to Naples. Melville had marveled at both sculptures in the Museum Borbonico only the week before, noting the “gravely benevolent face” of Hercules. For almost a century, the Palazzo Farnese has served as the French Embassy and makes its still remarkable art collection open to visitors by appointment.
Two other remnants from the Baths of Caracalla that Melville surely saw are located in the piazza in front of the Palazzo Farnese. They are two granite tanks, like huge bathtubs, that had been transformed into twin public fountains. Simple in its rational design, the palace itself struck Melville as exhibiting the “finest architecture of all the palaces (private)” in Rome, but he did not enter. On this exhausting and wide-ranging day of “sore travel,” Melville, in late afternoon, decided to press his tour one stop further on to a final Shelley and Cenci related site. He was now just west and within easy reach of his hotel. He could have called it quits. Instead, he continued north to Castel Sant’Angelo. He had already seen this sight two days earlier on his first visit to St. Peter’s, and, of course, he could have wanted, simply enough, to see it again, despite his exhaustion. But taking this route away from his hotel led him to the site of the execution of Beatrice Cenci and justified an extra excursion that more than doubled the length of his return home from Palazzo Farnese. He sauntered down the narrow, medieval, and busy thoroughfare of Strada di Monserrato and arrived at the magnificent Ponte St. Angelo, which, lined with monumental statues of angels, takes you across the Tiber to the castle.
Originally built in the 2nd century CE to house Hadrian’s ashes, the massive drum was converted into a fortress two centuries later. Atop the castle is a statue of the militant archangel Michael sheathing his sword, presumably symbolizing the defeat of a sixth-century plague. In ancient Jewish tradition, Michael defeats Satan and fights for the creation of Israel. Melville would draw upon Michael’s symbolic militancy in his Civil War poems, titled Battle-Pieces. But the most immediate association of Castel Sant’Angelo, for Melville on this day, was the death of Beatrice, the severing of that lithesome neck figured in Guido Reni’s famous portrait. And mid-crossing, peeking over obscuring buildings along the river was St. Peter’s dome. Whether he walked, again, the extra half mile to St. Peter’s square is not recorded.
Melville does not write about the dome, nor, for that matter, does he record any reference to Cenci. Instead, he was drawn that moment, unexpectedly, back in time to 1840 when he and a friend had gone west from New York overland to Galena, Illinois, and then back home, down the Mississippi and up the Ohio Rivers. He stood now on Sant’Angelo bridge gazing at the sandy banks of the Tiber below thinking, strangely enough, of his adolescent past and of how one river recalls another. Today, the Tiber’s banks are walled. After the ominous flood of 1870, only months after Rome was made capital of the new and unified nation of Italy, a commission—Allan Ceen tells us—set about redesigning the river. The masonry embankments were not completed until 1910. Only one or two sandy beaches, silt deposits actually, remain to remind us of the Tiber’s former banks.
What Melville saw in 1857 was quite a different, uncontrolled, and unforgiving river with stone buildings and docks planted defiantly on its edge. That night he wrote: “Remarked the banks of Tiber near St: Angelo—fresh, alluvial look near masonry—primeval as Ohio in the midst of all these monuments of the centuries.” What drew Melville out of himself, out of the horrors of Cenci, and toward the kind of inspiration that had ignited Shelley’s foreshortened career was that in Rome he found nature not so much outlasting man—as in Shelley’s sharply ironic paean to human presumption “Ozymandias”—but indifferently enduring our precarious and presumptuous palazzi, bridges, and wharves. The river is ever “fresh” and “alluvial.” The river ignores our horrors; it needs no Michael, no resurrection or rebirth or inspiration; it simply flows.
That evening Melville re-crossed the bridge and walked back to the Hotel de Minerva for “dinner & bed.” But Ginny and I stayed up. As evening fell, we ran again for Bus 23, this time going south down the right bank of the Tiber back to Trastevere, across the river from the Ghetto, across from Palazzo Cenci. As we ran, against all caution and my principles, I glimpsed a massive redbud, the biggest yet, its blossoms ignited in the growing darkness, and stopped to take its picture. Bus 23 led us to joyous newly-wed friends—a fellow Fulbrighter and a journalist—for a meal on the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the four of us made our way to Caffé Lettere where an American singer sang her songs: “let your caged words fly,” she sang. And we hurried home ready for sleep.
Coda: The next day we learned about German artist Gunter Demnig’s project, begun in 1992, to place among the cobblestones of streets throughout Europe simple four-inch square plaques commemorating in brass the arrest, deportation, and death of individual Jews and other victims of Nazi terrorism. We learned how the project began in Germany and how in the past two decades other countries have allowed Demnig to add the plaques in neighborhoods like ours here in Rome. In German the plaques are called stopelsteine. In Italian, pietre d’inciampo. Stumbling blocks. We walk Rome’s streets differently now, with newer searching eyes.