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Ruines du Monastère de Cazzafani, dans L’Isle de Cypre. Vue d’un Sarcophage antique qui se trouve dans le Cloître.

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CAT 17. Dupréel after Louis-François Cassas. Ruines du Monastère de Cazzafani, dans L’Isle de Cypre. Vue d’un Sarcophage antique qui se trouve dans le Cloître. No. 104 in vol. 3 of Voyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoeniciie, de la Palestine et de la Basse-Egypte. Paris, 1798/9. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

This folio print, whose engraved image ascends nearly fifteen inches on paper nearly twenty-one inches high, creates a massive sense of space within the frame of the arch. The ruins of the monastery itself, with trees growing from the truncated stone, relate well to the prints Melville collected of the ruins of Croyland Abbey and other English ecclesiastical structures (to be seen in chapters 6 and 7 on this site). This print differs from those in featuring a “Sarcophage antique” in the middle of the cloister. This monumental bier dwarfs the living figures posed before it. The human figure sculpted in high relief on the side of the sarcophagus is itself dwarfed by the lion heads and harvest wreath carved above and beside it, along with the bull’s head on the corners of the box.

This Cyprian sarcophagus symbolizes life-in-death as surely as does the Cypriote pilgrim whose carefree singing of the “Hymn to Aristippus” interrupts the mourning for Nehemiah in Clarel. When Rolfe asks the young man “where you got that tune,” he answers, “From Cyprus; I’m a Cypriote, / You see” (NN C 3.4.63-64). He has come from Cyprus on a Christian mission; the spirit in which he performs it shows Rolfe “how under Christian sway / Greeks still retain their primal bent.” This living Cypriote still embodies

That gay Hellene lightheartedness
Which in the pagan years did twine
The funeral urn with fair caress
Of vintage holiday divine. (NN C 3.4.107-13)

Exactly such a “vintage holiday divine” is “twined” in the Sarcophage antique of Melville’s Cyprian print. As the young Cypriote sings his way into the distance, the last phrase that Rolfe and his companions hear is “a wreath on the bier!” (NN C 3.4.138).

The capsule history of Cyprus in John Murray’s 1845 Hand-book emphasizes that this island, the mythic birthplace of Venus, had been ruled by Greece and Rome long before the Christian period beginning with Richard I at the time of the Crusades. Cyprus was “wrested” from the Europeans by Sultan Selim in 1570, initiating the Ottomon period lasting until the battle of 1822 in which “25,000 Greeks were massacred” and “74 villages destroyed, together with monasteries and churches” (Murray 333-37). Sailing near Cyprus in 1857, Melville noted in his journal: “From these waters rose Venus from the foam. Found it as hard to realize such a thing as to realize on Mt Olivet that from there Christ rose” (NN J 95).