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Parting Thought on Ancient Greece and Near East

Although the prints discussed in this chapter constitute the most intense and concentrated convergence of Melville’s pictorial interest in Ancient Greece, the Near East, and the Judeo-Christian Bible, all of these subjects are also to be found in subsequent chapters of this online site. Likewise, the book boxes associated with this chapter (MBB 1.1-1.4) give only a small indication of the extent to which the culture, artifacts, and landscapes of these intersecting locales and traditions were represented in the hundreds of engraved illustrations within the hundreds of books Melville collected.

The family home on East 26th Street also housed a number of three-dimensional art objects that supplemented and enriched the pictorial images in the print collection. One such object was the plaster model of The Temple of Sirius on Malta that Eleanor Melville Metcalf donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum along with the prints from Melville’s collection in 1952 (fig. 1). On the back of a postal card identifying the sculptor as A. Penza that Melville preserved from his visit to Malta in 1857, he wrote “’Tempel of Sirius” and “Malta Stone Works” before recording very meticulous measurements:

7 1/2 inches long at bottom
7 1/8 inches long at top
3 7/8 inches wide at bottom
3 1/2 inches wide at top
4 inches high throughout.

This sculpture is currently displayed in the Melville Memorial Room at the Berkshire Athenaeum, with a sticker indicating that “This belonged to HM—EMM.”

WAO 1.1. A. Penza. Model of the Temple Sirius on Malta. BA. Photo Dick Degenhardt..jpg

Fig. 1. A. Penza, sculptor. Model of Temple Sirius on Malta. Malta Stone Works. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Another of the family “treasures” related closely to Melville’s engravings of Ancient Greek busts. This was the “more than life size bust of Antinous” that his granddaughter Frances Cuthbert Thomas (Osborne) described as having “stood on a tall white pedestal in the corner of the front parlor” of the house on East 26th Street, “draped with a long white net to keep the city dust from settling on the beautiful features and curly hair of the young Roman.” Mrs. Osborne noted at the time of her remembrance in 1965 that “this bust and two vases were given to the South Orange (New Jersey) Public Library but their present location is unknown.” I mention this object even though its location remains unknown because of the great importance of the figure of Antinous in Melville’s travels (NN J 106, 107) as well as his writing (see Coffler on Billy Budd in Sten, Savage Eye, figs. 1-3). Other classical sculptures he is known to have owned include copies of “the celebrated statue of Ariadne sleeping” from the Vatican and either the Fighting Gladiator at the Louvre or the Dying Gladiator in Rome (Sealts, Early Lives, 175). Melville had a handy guide to multiple statues and busts of Antinous as well as to Adriadne sleeping and the Dying Gladiator in his copy of Emil Braun, Handbook of the Ruins and Museums of Rome, 1856 (Sealts no. 86.1).

Herman and Elizabeth Melville both enjoyed showing the above sculptures of ancient Mediterranean subjects to family and friends. Herman had a more intimate relationship with the Turkish Slippers he had brought back from the Near East in 1857 (fig. 2). Tim Marr begins his essay “Circassian Longings” by noting that Melville had “dressed up as the Turk” at a masquerade party in Pittsfield in August 1850, six years before he left on his first voyage to the Mediterranean. After returning from that voyage he could use his own Turkish slippers as part of any such costume. Melville had already shown the symbolic value of these slippers by mounting them (along with a tomahawk pipe) alongside his beloved chimney at the Arrowhead home in Pittsfield. After the move to New York City, one of his granddaughters had “disapprovingly recalled his wearing loose ‘Constantinople’ slippers around the house, even when the family was receiving company” (Marr 229-30). Today these slippers, too, are on display in the Melville Memorial Room at the Berkshire Athenaeum. The photo below shows how much wear he had given them.

WAO 1.3. Turkish slippers from Melville's 1857 visit to the Near East.  BA. Photo RKW..jpg

Fig. 2. Turkish slippers Melville brought back from his 1857 visit to the Near East. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Wearing these Turkish slippers with their curled toes may have made Herman feel a little closer to the Hermes clad in Asiatic costume engraved in copper by Salandri for the Handbook of Engraved Gems he had given to Elizabeth as a Christmas present in 1874. See figure 2 in Melville Book Box 1 for Silandri’s engraving of an Asiatic image of Hermes facing a Roman image of Marcus Aurlieus.

Parting Thought on Ancient Greece and Near East