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Ancient Sculpture and Holy Sites

Melville was interested in archaeological sites around the world throughout his career as an author—from the “Remarkable Monumental Remains” in Typee, to “the great Temple of Denderah in Moby-Dick, to “the rifled Sepulcher of Kings” in Clarel, to “The Disinterment of the Hermes” in Timoleon (NN PP 154-5, NN MD 457, NN C 1.28.21-51, NN PP 312). Melville came of age when Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta stone was still a fresh, miraculous achievement. He wrote much of his early fiction in the spirit of translating the eternal and unknown, as indicated in this passage from “Time and Temples” in Mardi: “Thus deeper and deeper into Time’s endless tunnel, does the winged soul, like a night-hawk, wend her wild way; and finds eternities before and behind; and her last limit is her everlasting beginning” (NN M 230). Soon after arriving in London in 1849, Melville visited the British Museum and took note of the Rosetta stone in the middle of this quick journal entry: “big arm & foot—Rosetta stone—Ninevah sculptures--&c.” As the editors of his Journals note, the “&c.” in this entry “embraces a multitude of treasures, including the famous Elgin Marbles”; the latter had been removed by Lord Elgin from the ruins of the Parthenon in 1801-03, whereas the Rosetta Stone had arrived in England in 1802 after being discovered by the French in Egypt in 1799 (NN J 19, 294-5). When Melville visited the Mediterranean and Near East in 1856-57, he was able to examine original archeological sites in Egypt, the Holy Land, and Greece from which such treasures had been taken.

The prints in this section are themselves artifacts of Europe’s archaeological interest in the Near East. Melville’s engravings of the Ruins of the Monastery of Cazzafani (Cyprus) and the Sepulcher of Kings of Judah (Palestine) derive from what is itself a monument of French archeological research: Louis-François Cassas’s three-volume Voyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoenicie, de la Palestine et de la Basse-Egypte, published in Paris in 1798-99. Cassas was a “French draughtsman, engraver, sculptor, and archaeologist” who explored and recorded Near Eastern sites after moving to Constantinople in 1784; many of the hundreds of drawings in his three-volume compilation “were of hitherto unrecorded sites” (Drapkin, below, 921). Cassas in his Voyage pittoresque, like Melville in Typee, recorded direct impressions of distant cultures largely unknown to contemporary Western ones during the period of early encounters.

Melville’s prints of The Monastery of Santa Saba, The Garden of Gethsemene, and Bethlehem preserve the work of two British artists who took on-site impressions of Near Eastern sites during the second quarter of the nineteenth century: Thomas Allom and W. H. Bartlett. Allom’s remarkable depiction of The Monastery of Santa Saba appeared in the three-volume edition of Fisher’s Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, &c., Illustrated, published in London and Paris in 1836-38. Many of Allom’s illustrations, accompanied by John Carne’s letterpress descriptions, brought his subject to an English public for the first time. W. H. Bartlett was a “prolific artist and intrepid traveler” who contributed many illustrations to Fisher’s three-volume compilation (Llewellyn). In 1842 he made an extended visit to the Holy Land in preparation for the first book that he illustrated and wrote himself, Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem (1844). Walks is one of three books by Bartlett that Melville added to his own library; The Nile-Boat and Forty Days in the Desert are the others (Sealts nos. 48-50). Bartlett’s Walks included the steel-plate engraving of The Garden of Gethsemane that Melville also acquired as a free-standing print, allowing him to compare the two reproductions in the same way that Wordsworth’s Greece made possible for the Fielding's Temple of Minerva in Ægina.

James David Smillie was an American artist and engraver who recorded pioneering images of the American West in the 1870s. His undated Pool of Siloam comes from an earlier stage of his career—probably when as a teenager in the late 1840s he was learning to engrave by copying images recently published by Bartlett in his Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem. The Pool of Siloam is one such image, to which young Smillie added his own oval ornament and inset scene.

  • Works Cited in this section
  • Bartlett, W. H. Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem. London: Virtue, 186-? (Sealts no. 50).
  • Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, &c. Illustrated. In a series of views drawn from nature by W. H. Bartlett, &c. with description of the plates by John Carne. 3 vol. in 2. London and Paris: Fisher, Son & Co., 1836-38.
  • Cassas, L. F. Voyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoenicie, de la Palestine et de la Basse-Egypte. 3 vol. Paris: 1798-99.
  • Drapkin, Joshua. “Cassas, Louis-François.” Grove, 5:921.
  • Llewellyn, Briony. “Bartlett, William Henry.” Grove, 3:292.
  • McGregor, Robert B. The Byron Gallery of Highly Finished Engravings. New York: R. Martin, 1849.
  • Murray, John. A Hand-book for Travelers in the Ionian Islands, Greece, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Constantinople. London: John Murray, 1845.
  • Witthoft, Brucia. The Fine-Arts Etchings of James David Smillie, 1833-1909. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellon, 1992.
  • Wright, John. Early Bibles of American. 3d ed., rev. & enlarged. New York: T. Whittaker, 1994.