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Venditore di frutti di mare a S. Lucia

CAT 118 Libotte Venditore St Luicia Naples Reese-MSA.jpg

CAT 119. Lithograph by Libotte. Venditore di frutti di mare a S. Lucia. Naples, c. 1835. William Reese Collection, Melville Society Archive, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

This colored lithograph evokes the sights Melville enjoyed when he rode through the streets of Naples and strolled alongside its quays in 1857, gathering impressions of the tumblers, jugglers, flower sellers, and other street people with whom he was to people his unpublished poem “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba.” Santa Lucia is a street and neighborhood immediately adjacent to the bay in Naples. The operatic gestures of its seafood vendor, the postures of the seated couple on the left, and the ease of the two bystanders on the right (one of whom is barefoot but picturesquely capped) resemble Guiseppe Mitelli’s depictions of street life in Bologna in L’arti per via in 1660. This image appears to date from around 1835, an early stage in the “Time of Bomba” during which Melville’s set his poem. “Bomba” was King Ferdinand II of Spain, who ruled Naples from 1830 until his son was overthrown by Garibaldi in 1860.

Melville’s “An Afternoon in Naples” combines impressions from two excursions he made through the city in February 1857. One was “a promiscuous drive through the older and less elegant part of town. Long narrow lanes. Arches—crowds.” The other was a solitary walk through the “vast crowds” along Strada di Toledo, the “Broadway” of Naples, everywhere punctuated by the “clang of arms” (NN J 103, 101). Neither his journal entries nor his poem mentions the city’s seafood vendors, but each delights in the kind of local color depicted in Libotte’s lithograph. 

In the opening section of the poem, the narrator, Jack Gentian, riding in a “nondescript” hackney-landeau, turns a corner and encounters a Punchinello figure holding forth before a crowd of “tatterdemalions” who “caper” as drolly as he.  Moving on, his carriage is stopped by a tumbler who has commandeered the narrow street with “legs aloft, / And hobbling jigs on hands for heels.” Still upside down, the tumbler “Gazed up with blood-shot brow that told / The tension of that nimble play— / Gazed up as martyred Peter might.” Seeing the narrator in his “landeau seat,” the “posturing mountebank” briskly “somersetted back” and bowed “urbanely,” inviting the narrator to become part of the spectacle himself. This Gentian did by standing upright and “doffing” his beaver hat, evoking a “shower” of “laugh, clap, and flower” from matrons and “rogueish girls alike.” The opening section ends in high humor as Gentian rides

Jolting and jouncing through the waves
Of confluent commoners who in glee
Good natured pass before my prow (NN BBO 177-79)

The mood shifts with alarming speed. In the opening lines of the second section, Gentian has begun to dismiss all those stories told in England about “dire tyranny in Naples.” Then he sees the “surly walls” of a fortress “in the heart of town.” Under its “black-beetling battlements” are cannons whose “tiers of throats” and

enfilating tongues seem trained
Less to beat the alien foeman off
Than awe the town. ‘Rabble,’ they said,
Or in dumb threatening seemed to say,
‘Revolt, and we will rake your lanes.’ (179-80)

Before the narrator can long contemplate the fortress, he hears the “the clamor and clash” of a  thousand solders whose bayonets gleam like lightning as they burst through its “caverened arch.” Their “flaring torches” and “red plumes” remind Gentian of “ejected lava” as one wave after another is “vomited forth / Eruptive from their crater belched!” These soldiers, it turns out, are Sicilian mercenaries hired to “threaten, intimidate, and cow” the people of the city with “insolent march of blustering arms.” But these “swaggering troops and bullying troops” do march by. And Gentian continues to move through the city as the street life reasserts itself. As on the mountainsides surrounding Vesuvius, “If bayonets flash, what vineyards glow!” (180-81).

The rest of the poem includes Melville’s own Neapolitan riff on L’arti per via. A voice emerges from behind a bush singing a “fervent little lyric” about a young woman’s charms. This singer’s “rag-fair raiment” is “patched and darned,” yet his face was like a “Delphic coin’s / New disinterred with clinging soil / Tarnished Apollo!” In front of the troops guarding the Royal Palace, “the titillating fingers of a flying Peri” pins a “red and royal rose” to Gentian’s “lapelle” as she “pirouettes” and “vanishes” (183-84).

After a somber encounter near the shore of Pausilippo with Silvio, who had long been falsely arrested for treason, which extends itself into a meditation on the ashes of Virgil by legend buried there, Gentian comes across “a carpet on the beach / Whereon a juggler in brocade / Made rainbows of his glittering balls.” This dexterous artist accompanies “every lilted motion light” with “a ditty” as “deftly timed” as today’s inner-city rappers (189).

After slipping into a meditation on the fate of two women in Naples long ago, broken momentarily by a “fruit-girl” selling “love apples” and “blood oranges,” Gentian again begins to dwell on the brutal invasions and depredations of centuries past. That meditation is broken by a precocious youngster from the Levant who “roves from quay to quay, / At home with Turban, Fez, or Hat.” With “beauty sensuously serene” and a voice to match, he lives by his mother wits alone as he reads the crowd before him. Holding a conch shell up to his ear, he improvises exactly what he divines the audience would like to hear “anyway touching upon themselves, their town and their period.” When “a second troop a thousand strong” burst out from a “second cannoned den,” the boy is unphased, supported by the crowd in his “sly levity” against “the powers that be” (192-200).

The poem’s alternation between the alacrity of the street performers and the oppressiveness of “the King’s men” could go on forever, so Melville finally freezes the poetic action with a visual tableau such as a fresco painter (or a lithographer) might give us: 

And here this draught at hazard drawn,
Like squares of fresco newly dashed,
Cools, hardens, nor will more receive,
Scarce even the touch that mends a slip:
The plaster sets; quietus—bide” (201-02).

Performance art as fugitive as this invites the freshness of fresco.

Some of Melville's allusions to Italian artists in “An Afternoon in Naples” are generic and self-evident (such as to those Claude Lorrain and Salvatore Rosa in sections 6 and 7). Others are more surprising and carry rich resonances derived from his experience as a print collector and student of art. Consider, for example, the singer of the “lyric ditty” in section 3 whose clothes are “patched and darned,” yet with “face much like Delphic coin’s / New disinterred with clinging soil.” This passage relates in obvious ways to Melville’s copy of fifteen Greek and Persian medals and coins engraved in London in 1816 (CAT 1). It relates more specifically to Melville’s depiction of Claggart's face in Billy Budd, “the features of all except the chin cleanly cut as those in a Greek medallion” (NN BBO 19). And to the visages of those “frolickers, picturesquely odd” he had seen on the island of Syra, “some with features cleanly cut / As Proserpine’s upon the coin” (NN PP 310). In each of those cases, Melville is using a coin from Ancient Greece to more sharply depict a literary character, but the “clinging soil” on the newly “disinterred” Delphic coin transforms the patchwork singer of ditties into something more: a “tarnished Apollo!” Melville has suddenly condensed the essential arc of Gibbon’s six-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire into a two-word phrase for a tattered Neapolitan singer.

The case of the tumbler who “Gazed up as martyred Peter might” while dancing “jigs” upside-down with his “hands for heels” is a bit more complex. Other than both being upside down, what could this Neapolitan street performer have in common with Saint Peter, the revered Christian martyr? How did such a conceit even enter Melville’s mind? Certainly Peter’s legendary upside-down crucifixion is memorable in itself. It became more so when painted by three Italian artists greatly admired by Melville: Titian, Guido, and Domenichino. Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Peter (1528-29) was the most celebrated painting in Venice’s Church of Giovanni e Paoli (John and Paul) when Melville visited on April 3, 1857; considered one Titian’s of absolute masterpieces, it was “destroyed in a fire ten years later” and was replaced in the church by a 1691 copy by Johann Loth (NN J 118, 503). Guido’s dramatic Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1604-05) was one of many treasures taken to France under Napoleon; it was back in Rome, at the Vatican, where Melville would have seen it during his “deliberate walk through the galleries” on March 9, 1857 (NN J 110, 473). Domenichino’s Martyrdom of Saint Peter (1618-20) is one of the many paintings by Domenichino Melville would have seen during his visit to the Bologna Pinacoteca on March 30, 1857 (NN J 116, 499). It was one thing to have seen three unforgettable paintings by three great Italian artists during a one-month period in 1857. But how might any of these three have actually influenced the depiction of the tumbler who “Gazed up as martyred Peter might” in Melville’s unpublished poem 34 years later?

Melville may have begun “An Afternoon in Naples” soon after returning from Italy, in which case his memories of those paintings would have been fresh. And he did have remarkably retentive memory, sometimes decades later, for visual images. Melville also had, in the case of Domenichino, a tactile reminder of his own response to the painting he had seen in Bologna. That came in the form of the check mark Melville had placed alongside Valery’s commentary on Domenichino’s Martyrdom of Saint Peter in the copy of Travels in Italy he had acquired in Florence (see the lower left column of figure 1 in the introduction to the previous section). Valery had written: “The Martyrdom of St. Peter the Dominican, is the same subject as Titian’s painting at Saint John and Paul at Venice; the composition is somewhat similar but the details, expression, and landscape are different; it is another imposing proof of the fact that the same subjects may be indefinitely renewed by talent” (Valery 420). One of the most striking differences between the two paintings is that Domenichino’s “martyred Peter” in Bologna gazes directly at the viewer in the way the tumbler does in Melville’s poem (see fig. 1 below). Titian’s Peter in the copy in Venice, like Guido’s Peter in the painting in Rome, looks directly up at his assailants, their own eyes unseen by the viewer.

Martyrdom of St Peter Bologna 1520 wikiart.jpg

Figure 1. Domenichino. The Martyrdom of St. Peter, 1618-20. Bologna Pinacoteca.

Some might think it odd that Melville would attach such a learned pictorial allusion to a mere tumbler on the streets of Naples. In doing so, however, he offers a performance-art alternative to fine-art concept of the “picturesque” represented by Spagnoletto’s Flaying of Bartholomew (CAT 113, fig. 10) and Guido’s Massacre of the Innocents (CAT 113, fig. 11) in “At the Hostelry.” There was no actual flagellation, crucifixion, or martyrdom in the streets of Naples when the tumbler “Gazed up as martyred Peter might.” There was only the instinctive imitation by a savvy street artist of the kind of paintings and gestures the Roman Catholic Church had commissioned from Renaissance and Baroque artists to elevate the heroism of its saints in response to the challenge of the Protestant reformation.