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Parting Thought on Nineteenth-Century Subjects and Sites

As Melville was collecting prints ranging from Ancient Rome to Modern Italy, he was pondering what historians like Gibbon, art historians like Lucy Baxter, and poets like Byron had written about Italy’s modern decline from its ancient rise. Byron’s Childe Harold was the classic Romantic treatment of the subject in English-language verse as Melville came of age as a young man on the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean. Melville left his own mark on the subject in his 1857 journal, his lecture on “Statues in Rome,” his scattershot allusions to Ancient Rome and modern Italy throughout Clarel, and especially in Timoleon, the slim volume of poetry he published shortly before his death in 1891. 

Some of the Italian poems in the latter volume, especially those gathered under the heading “Fruit of Travel of Long Ago,” are contemporary in a touristic sense and may have been written shortly after his travels in 1857. Poems such as “Venice,” “In a Bye Canal,” “Pisa’s Leaning Tower,” “In a Church in Padua,” and “Milan Cathedral” convey the experience of a nineteenth-century traveler through a land whose monumental past and living inhabitants continue to intrigue and perplex. Other poems in Timoleon such as “Pausilippo,” “In the Age of the Antonines,” “Lone Founts,” “The Ravaged Villa,” and “After the Pleasure Party” explore the relation between the Italian present and its past in a more historically and psychologically complex way. All these poems draw upon the sophisticated consciousness Melville developed as a collector of the Italian prints catalogued in this chapter, further enriched by the many images of Ancient Rome and modern Italy catalogued in our subsequent chapters on the French, Dutch, German, and English schools.

Contrasting sides of Melville’s consciousness of Italy are preserved in “At the Hostelry” and “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba.” By juxtaposing a conversation among resurrected Old Master painters against performances by contemporary Neapolitan street artists, he created another bittersweet contrast between past and present in a land whose “singular melting together of art in ruins and Nature in vigor” continued to allure. The latter phrase was inspired by the “vines overrunning ruins” of “old villas of Romans” Melville saw along the shore of the Bay of Baiae before leaving Naples for Rome (NN J 104).