Chapter 2

Ancient Rome to Modern Italy

Melville’s lifelong interest in Ancient Rome was an extension of his interest in Ancient Greece and the Near East. On his first trip to England in 1849 he had hoped to travel on to Rome. Although he was not able to do so at that time, he did visit Rome in 1857, when he arrived in Italy mid-February and did not cross over into Switzerland until mid-April. When Melville lectured on the Lyceum circuit soon after returning to America in 1857, his subject was “Statues in Rome.” Ancient Rome remained a constant interest in his book collecting as well as his print collecting for the rest of his life, often by juxtaposition with modern Italy. In his writing, contrasts between Ancient Rome and modern Italy are particularly strong in his 1857 Journal and in such poems “The Age of the Antonines,” “The Ravaged Villa,” and “Pausilippo” in Timoleon. Melville addressed the cultural heritage of the Italian Renaissance period in poems such as “Venice,” “Pisa’s Leaning Tower,” and “Milan Cathedral,” whereas “After the Pleasure Party,” “In a Bye-Canal,” and “Naples in the Time of Bomba” featured more contemporary situations and meditations.

Melville’s book collection included literary works by such Ancient Roman authors as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Pindar, and Seneca (Sealts nos. 147, 457, 458). His reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Sealts no. 223b) directly inspired at least one of his poems. He owned Cary’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Sealts no. 174) and Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories (Sealts no. 340a). His interest in the visual art of Rome and Italy extended from Lanzi’s three-volume History of Painting in Italy and Vasari’s five-volume Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects to Valery’s compendious Historical, Literary, and Architectural Travels in Italy (Sealts nos. 320, 534 and 534a, 533). Melville acquired specialized artistic studies ranging from Nancy Bell’s illustrated biography of Raphael to Lucy Baxter’s extremely informative and well-illustrated Renaissance of Art in Italy (Sealts nos. 55 and 451.1). The prints cataloged in this chapter richly supplement Melville’s travel, writing, and reading as summarized above while also appealing to his eye as a collector of unique and sometimes exceptionally accomplished works of graphic art created through a variety of printmaking techniques.

In designing this chapter, I decided to include Flaxman’s Dante here for its Italian subject matter rather than in chapter 6 for its English artist (as was also done with Flaxman’s Aeschylus in chapter 1). Conversely, many Italian subjects are included in later chapters devoted to French, Dutch, German, and English artists, typical examples including Claude’s Roman Forum, Both’s View in the Vicinity of Naples, Pescheck’s Port of Messina, and Turner’s Ancient Rome (CAT 122, 211, 252, and number not yet assigned).